The Great Compositions of Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt

Has someone ever asked you why you like an image? Beneath the surface of great picture, there is a geometric design in hiding. During World War II, photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt worked for the early version of the Associated Press and went on to become a Life Magazine photographer, taking over fifty cover shots for them. Without getting too deep into Eisenstaedt’s personal story, I will say that he started photography with very little formal training.

Words To Know

• 1:1.5 Ratio: The 35mm negative measures 36mm x 24mm. Mathematically it can be reduced to a 3:2 ratio. Reduced even further it will be referred to as the 1:1.5 Ratio or the 1.5 Rectangle.
• Eyes: The frame of an image is created by two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. The intersection of these lines is called an eye. The four corners of a negative can be called the “eyes.” This is extremely important because the diagonals connecting these lines will form the breakdown of an image.
• Armature: When we use specific rectangles there is a system of connecting and intersecting lines that create a grid, or armature, which will form the composition. They are created by finding specific diagonal lines and their reciprocals.
• Gamut: As we will see there are 360° in the image circle of a lens. This creates more lines in any armature than we would like to use. The limited number of directions we use in a composition is called the Gamut. Good artists rarely use more than 5 or 6 in any one image. As Myron Barnstone taught me, if you use all the lines of the grid your picture will look like the bottom of a bird cage.
• Intervals: These are lines that are repeated throughout that create a rhythm in a picture.
• The Horizontal, Vertical, & Diagonal Lines: Artists have a very limited alphabet. At their disposal they have a point, a vertical, horizontal, diagonal line, and a curve or arabesque. In order to successfully design compositions all good artists and photographers organize schemes with straight lines.
• Major Lines: In an image we are creating a hierarchy. If there is no hierarchy it is very difficult for the viewer to understand what is important in an image. There is usually a single vertical, horizontal and diagonal line that dominates a composition.
• Reciprocal: This is a line that intersects a diagonal at a 90° angle. Introducing the reciprocal will strengthen an image by reinforcing the diagonal. But careful, it should support not compete with the diagonal.
• 1.5 Armature: There are two ways to break down a 1.5 rectangle. The most basic is the 1.5 Armature. It is created by drawing two diagonals from each corner of a negative. Then draw their reciprocals from opposing corners, which intersect the diagonals at 90°. Through the Eyes of the Diagonal and their reciprocals, draw vertical and horizontal lines through their intersections. The 1.5 Armature was a very popular method used by Cartier Bresson early in his career.

Keep these terms somewhere you can easily refer to, since without them it is difficult to navigate a composition.

The Ballerinas

Eisenstaedt has a number of famous images of ballerinas. The two selected here are both arranged on a 1.5 armature. The first image has vertical, horizontal, and diagonal elements which are established as equally important. When all the lines are stressed evenly the composition tends to flatten itself and read as two dimensional. The second image (later in this article) is organized heavily on the diagonal and we will see what happens when a hierarchy is introduced to an image.

By shifting his position while taking the picture, we can see the difference between a photograph which is organized on a horizontal and a photograph organized on a diagonal. Let’s go through the horizontal image first and look at the importance of each line. This will help us understand how Eisenstaedt designed this image. It will reveal what parts of the picture were important to him and more importantly, allow us to take pictures with a more educated eye.

The Sinister Diagonal

Sinister diagonal in bold

In general images are read from left to right. It’s a function of Western Culture. Being a lefty, I probably would have been burned at the stake in an earlier century, but the canon of art understands movement from left to right as “Baroque” and from right to left as “Sinister.” Even in Eastern cultures things on the left or left handedness is still discouraged. By selecting either the Baroque or the Sinister Diagonal, the tone of an image starts to emerge.

Eisenstaedt uses the Sinister Diagonal to draw our attention to the ballerina facing us. She is the subject. How can I tell? Squint your eye while looking at the picture. The ballerina facing us has the highest level of light and dark visible on her body and her silhouette jumps out because of the position of her legs. The other girls are shown in profile and one from the back.

The Sinister Diagonal, which runs from the bottom right to the upper left hand portion of the image lands right on the ballerina’s face. It is also the intersection of the reciprocal. You can see that the reciprocal starts at the lower left hand corner, runs through her face and intersects the sinister diagonal at a 90° angle.

The Vertical & Horizontal

The dominant vertical and horizontal lines.

At the Eye of the Sinister Diagonal and its Reciprocal we have Vertical and Horizontal lines. These are the dominant lines in the composition. They are reinforced or supported by parallel lines throughout, shown in red. The spacing between the supporting lines starts to create a rhythm, “Do you see it?” The supporting lines reinforce the basic structure of the photograph.

Connecting the Dots

Repeated diagonals

Repeated verticals

Man has connected stars in the sky since the beginning of time. Our brains can locate one point and another point and mentally draw a line. Artists and photographers use the Eyes of a rectangle like stars in the sky. By connecting the dots they create movement and action in a picture. Here we can see how important the foot in the lower right hand corner really is to the image. It starts the diagonal that runs from the right side, through the knee of the second ballerina, to the face of the third. The ballerinas are designed on a diagonal. If you can start designing on a diagonal, your pictures will be infinitely more engaging. Watch the corners of your viewfinder for things that connect on diagonals as an exercise.

Repeated horizontals

In this image, the verticals of the window frames and the ballerinas are as strong as the diagonal lines. Also the lines connecting their heads, waists, and feet on the horizontal are very strong. When all the lines are of equal importance the image tends to become flat and two dimensional. It’s kind of like setting all the dials on an amplifier to zero. There is no balance because every element is at the same intensity.

Creating a Dominant Diagonal

The 1.5 armature

In this second image, Eisenstaedt moves to the right side and the image totally changes. Composed as a portrait, the dominant diagonal is now a Baroque Diagonal, instead of the Sinister Diagonal. We are using the exact same 1.5 Armature, but tipping it on end. This causes the Dominant Diagonal to start in the lower left and run to the upper right hand corner.

The feeling is less aggressive than the previous photo because the ballerina who was facing us in the last picture is now in profile. Her role has diminished since she is receding into the background. If we squint our eyes again to look for the subject we see the greatest level of contrast happening on the back of the ballerina all the way to our right. Her armpit falls exactly on the Baroque Diagonal.

When we follow the Reciprocal we see that it connects her tutu and her shoulder, then continues through the next ballerina’s head. Here is a perfect example of the Reciprocal supporting the Baroque Diagonal and making it stronger.

Stressing The Important Parts

Baroque diagonal

Repeated diagonal

In the previous image, the window frames landed right on the vertical intervals of the armature. Landing something on a major division makes it important. In this image, the windows are less important because the verticals land on three of the four ballerinas. The second ballerina is the only one whose body coincides with the window frame. Additionally, the verticals and horizontals in the previous image ran parallel to the 1.5 Armature. They were a very dominant force in the picture.

By moving to one side, Eisenstaedt was able to reduce the coincidences of the window frames from the armature. Since this picture is really about ballerinas and not window frames, I would say this is a more successful composition.

Using Anatomy as a Tool

Dominant Vertical and Horizontal lines

Repeated verticals

Repeated horizontals

In the first image, the ballerina on the right was pointing her toe downwards. This created a line from her foot, through the next ballerina’s knee and up to the subjects face. We could say it started the conversation, but was not delivering a speech.

In the second picture look how powerful the leg on the Sinister Diagonal (remember the one running from right to left) is to the composition. The leg, from toe to thigh, lands right on that diagonal. These are the types of coincides we are looking for in order to design a strong image. That leg is critical to the composition.

Look at how important her leg is to the composition. It runs right along the sinister diagonal.

Try this: hold your finger a few inches away from the screen and cover that leg (the one on the Sinister Diagonal) for a second. Look at how lifeless the other legs are in the rest of the image. Now remove your finger, BANG! See how that leg jumps out? It is essential to the design of the image.

Master photographers like Eisenstaedt knew what was important in an image to create action, drama, and movement. Otherwise we are left with a “sea of mannequins” standing in the window. But with that simple point of the toe, the ballerina’s leg enlivens the entire composition.

The Roots Of An Image

Dancers at the Opera by Edgar Degas. The slight black line at the top and bottom represent the original image. It looks like they cropped it slightly when they scanned it.

Most great photographers studied, looked at, or were educated in painting. In the history of art, photography is fairly new. So our exposure to images often comes through paintings. This certainly would have been true of Eisenstaedt. If we look back to the 1800s we discover that French painter Edgar Degas worked extensively with dancers.

The 1.5 armature and the baroque diagonal with its reciprocal.

Edgar Degas

The sinister diagonal and its reciprocal

Degas has one huge advantage over Eisenstaedt. He can make sketches watching the dancers, then refine his design back in his studio. As a result, painters tend to have more elegant and complex designs than photographers. As I mentioned earlier, a composition on the Diagonal is the most active type of arrangement. We see Degas using the Baroque Diagonal running from the lower left to the back of the dancer on the right. The Baroque Diagonal hits the white of her shoulder and finishes in the upper right hand corner. The Reciprocal Diagonal forms the angle of her body and creates a vertical that hits her elbow.

Dominant vertical and horizontal

Repeated diagonals

Repeated verticals

Repeated horizontals

On the opposite side we see the Sinister Diagonal and its Reciprocal landing on the forehead of the ballerina in the foreground. The Sinister Reciprocal also creates the angle at which the ballerina in the background (facing us) is standing. While there are vertical lines and horizontal lines in the picture, we can see that Degas made them less important than the diagonal. He wants us to feel the movement of the dancers. He does not want them standing like statues. Notice the almost uncomfortable lean of the ballerina in the foreground. She looks as if she might fall over. We literally fall into the image with the gesture of her body. Everything is this image is a deliberate design decision. The more a photographer can understand design and the classical tradition of art, the more effectively they will be in making images.

Conclusion

V-J Day in Times Square

Applying the lessons of design to photographs will reveal the “Subterranean Architecture” used by artists and photographers to design pictures. In essence, the compositions are not very complicated, but will prove to be incredibly effective at creating a successful hierarchy in images.

Based on the information above, you will easily see why Eisenstaedt’s “V-J Day in Times Square” is considered to be a classic. The woman falls on the Baroque Diagonal, its Reciprocal passes through both of their faces; the Sinister Diagonal passes through both of their arms and hits his elbow and shoulder. Can you see how exquisitely designed this image really is? Hopefully with this analysis you will be able to articulate why an image works or why it is poorly made.

About the author: Adam Marelli is an artist, photographer, and builder who lives in New York City. He holds popular photography workshops year-round around the world. Visit his website here. This article originally appeared here.

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• http://www.michaelspotts.com Michael Spotts

Meanwhile the photographer just thought, “that looks about right.” *snap*

• http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Grady/1025941918 Brian Grady

I almost made it through that whole thing. Almost.

• Tim

Interesting to see this on PetaPixel. I normally have to hunt through painting and illustration videos and books to see this. Most photographers just think “rule of thirds” and are done with it.

• Jake

That’s probably true in terms how most people shoot, but it is interesting, at least to me, to understand WHY compositions work the way they do. There is a very psychological aspect to what makes good art, and the better one understands it, the more throughly one can appreciate and create a good image beyond just knee-jerk opinions.

• 11

voodoo science

• Adam

This is the photography equivalent of seeing the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich.

• http://www.facebook.com/david.tribby David Tribby

WAY OVER THOUGHT… The man’s not drawing all these bs lines in his head. Out of thousands of images he shot he has a sensibility to pleasing compositions (as all good photographers do). Stop trying to pass photography off as a geometry lesson. You can take any pleasing picture and draw a bunch of lines over it and claim that’s the reason it looks pleasing….but it’s not.

• http://www.oldworldcreative.com Evan Skuthorpe

Exactly!

• Jacq

As long as I keep drawing lines in my photos, I’ll end up with some kind of composition as above…

• Bad guest post

Another example of how photographers like to make things complicated. This could be simplified to putting the face on the rule of third. Instead, the author chose a complex BS grid and randomly picked popular photos that correlates with the grid to prove his point. The grid has crossing lines that meet in the rule of thirds.

• phototodo

“Her armpit falls exactly on the Baroque Diagonal.”

My compositions are going to really improve.

• http://twitter.com/kofteburger Mehmet Kıvanç Özel

and cropped afterwards

• Mansgame

Exactly! It reminds me of some of the Lit teachers I had in HS and college who would talk about a 5 line poem like “You see, the yellow flower is meant to symbolize the friendship but the clouds were foreshadowing that the summer would soon end and the 3 turnips which symbolized god (remember, god comes in 3′s) and that all good things must end” when the writer just wanted to write about a pretty yellow flower.

• Wolfmeyer

This is a typical example of what the web will be in a few years: useless articles to justify ad displaying.

• TedCrunch

A heavy-set woman goes into a bar, raises her arm (exposing a hairy armpit) and points to the men sitting at the bar. She asks: “Which of you gentlemen is going to buy this lady a drink?” A drunk sitting at the end of the bar says, ”Barman, give the ballerina a drink!”
She downs the drink, then raises her arm (exposing her hairy armpit), points to the men, again, and asks: “Which of you gentlemen is going to buy this lady a drink?” Again, the drunk at the end of the bar says: “Barman, give the ballerina a drink!”
She downs that drink and repeats the performance a third time. The barman says to the drunk: “Sir, it’s not my business who you buy drinks for, but why do you keep calling that woman a ballerina?”
The drunk says: “Any woman that can lift her leg that high must be a ballerina.”

• illet

Isn’t the same as seeing what you want to see? When 9/11 happened, you could see it in the dollar, add numbers to make it significant to 9/11.

• http://www.facebook.com/escobado Art Escobado

Adam,

This is a very powerful article. Where did you get the overlay comp guide used to analyze these photos?

• http://twitter.com/LanceButcher Lance Butcher

hahahaha, was thinking the same thing

• Brixton

Is it just me being an amateur…but couldn’t you do this with any picture as long as you put enough lines in there? Reminds me of the slot machines with all those lines!

• http://www.facebook.com/tavisglover Tavis Glover

No, it’s not the same. The fact that certain elements of the photo land on the major lines of the rectangle show that the photographer knew what he was doing. Look at other random photos, look at your photos…you won’t find this composition technique. It works!

• http://www.facebook.com/tavisglover Tavis Glover

Calling this useless shows your lack of interest for learning great composition techniques. Better just stick with the rule of thirds.

• joshmolina2

This is the kind of content i wish i saw more often.

and yes you could draw as many lines as you like on any picture but that does not by any means mean that those lines will follow the particular angles and proportions that the human eye finds aesthetically pleasing. There is a science behind aesthetics and what we find beautiful. Whether the photog was or wasnt consciously aware of every line and proportion while taking the shot, is not really the point of the article. The point is to examine what proportions the eye finds pleasing and why. This is helpfull for photogs to think about while taking the shot, as well as after when selecting which one is the strongest.

• http://www.facebook.com/tavisglover Tavis Glover

Just like Mozart played his piano. I’m sure he never studied composition, or read the notes in front of him. He just kept playing his piano for thousands of hours and eventually he found something that sounded pleasing. Sorry, but you are wrong. There is something greater to photographic composition other than the rule of thirds. By analyzing photos the way Adam is doing you will begin to see that all great compositions contain certain elements. And I challenge you to “take any pleasing picture and draw a bunch of lines over it” to try and find a pleasing photo. You won’t find the same results as above. Either you are close minded, or you really have not put a lot of thought into composition. You’re obviously not alone in your assumptions.

• http://www.facebook.com/tavisglover Tavis Glover

Funny, but far from the truth. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Myron Barnstone, who teaches these great composition techniques…”The line of an artist, the words of a poet, the paragraph of an author; these things have to have unity, there has to be a scheme, there has to be something intellectually supporting what they do.” Meaning composition needs to be strong throughout many forms of art, and this method of analyzing photos by using dynamic symmetry is proven true by the masters…Da Vinci, Degas, Van Gogh, HCB…

• http://www.facebook.com/tavisglover Tavis Glover

Remind me not to hire you for anything photography related. Being this ignorant of composition can’t be a good feeling.

• Mike

Ignorant of composition?! You might as well call Eisenstaedt “ignorant of composition”, because I’m pretty sure he did NOT imagine gazillions of lines over the scene.

• Mike

Rarely it is the artist that over complicates things like that. It is our late analysis of their work that’s moronic.

• Tzctplus -

As it could be predicted, the snappers are scratching their heads in disgust in suspicion of something they don’t understand, or worst, are not willing to try to understand.

They get one or two pictures right by chance, and like the proverbial donkey that played a tune in a flute, congratulate themselves for not needing any theory to get their snaps.

In the other hand, people that have dedicated their lives to understand why and how one can achieve a degree or artistic proficiency present their results and insight, just to be met by incredulity. The era of the amateur indeed.

Lets those who want to be blind be blind. They have no redemption.

• http://www.facebook.com/tly88 TouLong Yang

the grid has been around just as long as the rule of thirds. it is perhaps even more important. it’s called the golden ratio. educate yourself, please.

• http://www.facebook.com/tly88 TouLong Yang

it’s quite shallow to think that a writer just wanted to dedicate his time to writing about a pretty flower. if that’s how you really think, then you must have never created any kind of meaningful art.

• http://www.facebook.com/tly88 TouLong Yang

the reason composition exists in all forms of art is because of these lines, they are called the golden ratio. the golden ratio is pleasing to the human eye because it appears naturally and organically in our world and in nature itself. it is a wonder of the world. if you’re wondering why your “artwork” is lacking, i’m guessing it’s because you’re so ignorant of the fundamentals of art and design. (which includes the golden ratio)

• thejudeman

One may or may not use this so why call this a rubbish article? Besides the author is not trying to impress not even to convert believers here. The author is just presenting another theory of composition that one can add to their toolkit.

• Aphotog

All of that went way over my head. I just follow the rule of thirds usually, which seems to correlate to all this diagonal lines stuff too.

I guess it’s interesting to know why some claim images “work” but I think most people just shoot what they “feel” looks best and they end up being one in the same.

• az_121490

I think we could all agree that most photographers never took up painting, or even drafting and illustration, so it’s understandable that many of them would dismiss this article for being so technical. It’s the “technique vs. feeling” debate happening all over again, just like what musicians are bickering in music, or any other kind of art for that matter.

• Matthew Wagg

Wow, so much hate for this article, when really they need to listen to this stuff as it is fundamental to photography. If any of the commenters had ever taken an art lesson in ever they’d realise that all of this stuff and much much more is taught to artists when learning their craft. Ever wonder why the art world doesn’t think photography is an art form? Look at the plebiscite replies below…

• Ken Elliott

Nice article. But I don’t think it applies to shooting – it applies to post process. I shoot events using instinct, but I crop in post to refine the image.

• John Kantor

Painters can control composition to the nth degree – candid photographers can only look for good ones.

• joshmolina2

good writers never waste words. To bad more photogs dont adhere to this philosophy. I guess being able to snap a million shots of the same thing makes it far to easy though. How boring literature would be if you only ever looked at the surface like that? There is so much potential depth to art, why waste it?

• Mak Wa

A combination of the photographer’s eye (experience at framing) and serendipity. Since he only had a split second to get into position and compose before foreground and background elements changed (unless it was a semi staged shot).

• Mak Wa

Painters and authors do not have time constraints in capturing the moment, they could take as long as they like and make changes until they got it just right.

• http://furiousgryphon.com/ Thomas Oeser

Meanwhile another 300+ million photos got posted to Facebook today,

• http://www.facebook.com/carin.basson Carin Basson

He probably didn’t have to – he had a talent for framing the image. By observing what he did through “instinct” we learn what makes the image special.

• Silverprint

This article is a typical case of “complicate ignorance”.
It totally misses the (any) point.

First it does not take in account perspective, and the human brain is perfectly able to guess where the photographer was when he shoot and to consider how important this positioning is.
Second it does not take in account tonality. Tonality has a great importance in the balancing of the parts: any ratio in parts needs to take tonality into account.
Third, in a flat picture there are also “tonal vanishing points”, ie directions and hierarchy suggested by tonality and local contrast that guide the eyes of the viewer giving him a specific order of observation of the single parts. This order “rearranges” composition

Fourth, lines are pure abstractions, we do not think in lines.
Fifth, Mr. Arnheim made the same mistakes too long ago.
Etc, etc…

• Mohammed Akram Ali Mehkri

Not True David, once u start focusing on well composed frames, you will start focusing on these lines through the viewfinder. when i started taking photography seriously, in the initial phase, in viewfinder composition was ” just a BS bunch of lines” but now as i shoot, these make a lot of differences between a snapshot, photograph and a piece of art.

• Mohammed Akram Ali Mehkri

Ken, one of my instructors had suggested that i stop photography unless i learnt the art of composing the frame in the camera. this may be technical mambo-jumbo for many but having had first hand experience on how photographs are appreciated, i would apply (and sometimes break) these rules to get my audience appreciate the work.

• Bob Solar

This article is absolutely incredible! You depicted very dry concepts into such an explanatory way!!

• Ken Elliott

He’s right. I didn’t explain it well. I like to get it right in-camera, but sometimes when events are unfolding, I know I fall back to shooting on instinct. In post, I have more time to think about these things as I’m making my selections. As one uses these techniques in post, you naturally build your instinct. So my advice is to use these in post, but try to get it right in-camera.

When I shoot my 4×5 film camera, I do take the time to think about composition details.

But I lack the art education many have, and others may have better opinions/suggestions.

• John R

I await the hate. But a crop on the right to remove the foot, much better.

• John R

that also brings in the man on the right into the composition. Plus pan left a bit.

• http://lubowphotography.com/ Lubow

Marelli writes, “Based on the information above, you will easily see why Eisenstaedt’s ‘V-J Day in Times Square’ is considered to be a classic.” I believe the image is a classic for capturing an emotive moment that encapsulated the joy of the times. And, well … the kiss approximates the rule of thirds, with a nice C curve below it. Perhaps I’m wrong, but an adage comes to mind: Sometimes, when you examine an elephant with a microscope, you don’t see the elephant.