Composition ; Misunderstanding S-Curves, Natural vs Implied

As a composition technique I'm sure S-curves ring a familiar bell, as the name suggests, it involves having a major element of a landscape composition be S-shaped, for example; a river's meander, a sand dune's arc etc.

However, explanations like this are often too overly simplistic, as if hunting down a naturally occurring S shape then photographing somehow creates a 'good composition' as a by-product. Sure, placement of this S-shaped object in the frame plays a role, but the power seems weighted entirely on the S shaped object in these explanations -- essentially look, find, shoot'. 

For me, the real potential for S-curves to help create a strong compositions comes from embedding them through the positioning of elements in the frame -- implying them, as opposed to documenting them.

Implied S-curves

Here's an example of an implied S-curve from an image of Dead Horse Point. 

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An S-curve is suggested to the eye through the 3 grouped rocks (A), which provide the lead in from the lower portion of the frame, drawing the eye up toward the cliff edge to the far left of the frame (B). The river then aims to pull the viewer across the frame to the next focal point (C), the sunlit ridge of the butte, the still Colorado providing a means for the eye to arcs around into Canyonlands (D) where it picks up the horizon, or drifts up to exit the frame (E).

These objects, their placement and shape, work together to make an implied S within the image.

Creating 3 dimensionality

The primary aim in placing objects along an S shaped curve, is it enhances the perception of depth. An S-curves' double switchback sweeps left to right, creating lateral and vertical travel for the eye; this sense of time spent 'in frame' and continuity from element-to-element gives the viewer a richer sense of depth and 3-dimensionality to an otherwise flat 2D representation of the real world.

Implied Narrative

Implied S-curves don't just work to give a distinct path and create depth to a composition, they help establish an order and continuity between elements. Images that achieve complete front to back S-curves have a greater sense of completeness to them - a beginning, a middle and an end. S-curves which only occupy portions of a frame however, break the eye's journey, disrupting the illusion of depth and space.

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In the image above, the implied S-curve aims to sit at clear entry and exit points to the frame. The spout (A) at the frame's lower right provides an entry point into the image. After a change of direction at the top of a group of prominent boulders (B), another solitary boulder (C) at the falls' base aims to draw the eye up to the top of the waterfall exiting the frame (D).

Order from chaos

Often seeing a set of elements to create an S-curve from is difficult. The landscape is a chaotic place, numerous features and elements vie for our attention.

One approach to successfully making an S-curve is to think about features that draw you as prospective points of interest along a potential unrealised curve.

On this example below, I was drawn to several distinct visual characteristics of the rainforest; the clubmoss drenched firs, the luxuriant green carpet and nursemaid logs.

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I located a tree which had fallen at a strong diagonal (A). Needing the middle part of an S led me to change my viewpoint in the clearing till I saw another tree on an angle (B) which worked it's way to meet the bottom of the firs (C). At which point I saw the eye could follow the vertical trunks see the moss and exit the frame (D).

Keeping an S curve as an end goal allowed me to break the landscape down into smaller constituent parts, stages of an image, connecting them along that imaginary path.

Creating S-curves from the landscape is a far more challenging proposition for the photographer, but the resulting resulting depth and interest it will bring to your photography are well worth the time and investment in the field. Don't find it. Make it.

Paul Marsden

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