Using isolation to compose architectural images

“The art of photography is about directing the attention of the viewer.” – Steven Pinker

Composition is probably the most important element of creating an effective photograph. Having a great subject sure helps, but even something mundane can be made interesting if you know how to compose your shot. In terms of creating architectural abstracts, perhaps the most important place to start is isolation. Below you see the Geisel Library in San Diego.

geisel library

A great documentary shot to be sure, and a good way to get a sense of the full building. However, by focusing your attention on various details of the building you get a greater sense of its essence. You notice things about the structure that get lost in the whole scene.

geisel library

geisel library

geisel library

There are two ways to deal with isolation. Negative space and fill the frame. Both are effective, yet convey different feelings. Negative space leaves some breathing room and offers a space for the viewer’s eyes to “rest”, resulting in a greater sense of calm, while filling the frame creates tension.

In this first example of Aqua, both images are isolating the waviness of the building’s facade. The image on the left uses the sky as negative space. The blown out sky completes the dark to light gradient occurring from the bottom up, leaving that empty space for the building’s top to soar and your eye to flow past your subject and rest. On the right, those waves fill the entire frame, which keeps your eye moving within the subject.

aqua, studio gang architects

Next up, Calder’s Flamingo. This time, the Mies van der Rohe building in the background acts as negative space, allowing the Flamingo to stand out against the dark, relatively empty backdrop. Alternatively, filling the frame in the neighboring image showcases a minor detail of the sculpture and its shadows.

alexander calder flamingo

In this image of a staircase at the Palmer House, the structure itself acts as negative space. Often, when looking up from the base of a staircase you can get this effect. Whereas the look-down shot on the right you see how the pattern of the steps and the railing act to fill the frame with some level of busyness throughout the whole composition.

palmer house hilton

As with all tools of composition, know what you want to convey to the viewer. This will guide you in choosing how to isolate your subject and whether to fill the frame or leave some negative space. If you’re undecided, try both and do a small study of the subject.



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