Dynamic composition vs static composition in portrait photography

If you’re wondering whether dynamic composition or static composition is better, the answer is it depends.

Portrait photography composition isn’t just about directing the viewer’s eye in your photo, it’s very much about creating a mood, telling a story and communicating a message.

Which is why my answer above is vague.

The right questions to ask are when and why you should use dynamic composition vs static composition.

So let’s take a closer look…

Dynamic composition techniques vs static composition

What is dynamic composition in photography?

Like the word implies, dynamic composition is attention grabbing, high energy and exciting.

It’s not predictable, so to convey this images with dynamic composition use angles and uneven spacing between elements.

Vertical and diagonal lines affect composition

The only difference between these two images is how the wind has caught the material of her outfit. However, the image on the right feels more dynamic, because the diagonal line created by the material creates interesting angles.

Why use dynamic composition in portrait photography?

In portrait photography, dynamic composition:

  • Portrays a subject as full of energy
  • Creates a feeling of movement
  • Introduces tension (good or bad) to an image

Humans are curious and, just like a juicy story gets our attention, when an image has a sense of excitement and energy, it engages the viewer instantly.

Posing subjects for dynamic and static composition

The background lines in both images are the same – strong vertical and horizontal lines with dainty vertical lines. On the left Laura’s pose is predominantly a vertical line. On the right, her limbs and gaze form diagonal lines and at the same time we become more aware of the vertical lines in the background. She’s looking out of frame, so our eyes are pulled there too before we come back to her face, because we’re curious humans.

How to create dynamic composition using lines

Diagonal lines create angles, so when they are the dominant lines in an image, it makes the composition dynamic.

A sense of movement in photos is created with diagonal lines, because:

  • In life when something is leaning, it feels like it’s going to fall over
  • When somebody is about to move, they lean forward slightly

By including diagonal lines in photos, this sense of energy and movement is conveyed, and the viewer is made to work. Our eyes are drawn around the image, back and forth, so we experience actual movement. This adds to the perception of movement in photos with dynamic composition.

Types of lines to use for dynamic composition

The diagonal lines don’t have to be actual lines in an image. They can be:

  • Implied with gaze or direction of movement
  • Created with the positioning of limbs
  • Natural features in the landscape, such as a river or waves surging to the beach

How you position yourself in relation to your subject and the background can turn vertical and horizontal lines into diagonal lines.

Straight lines that disappear into the distance create diagonals as they diminish, such as:

  • Roads
  • Railings
  • A line of trees

How posing changes composition

The composition of these two images is the same. The only difference is Laura’s pose.

On the left she’s looking straight to camera so her gaze immediately pulls our eyes. In addition, the leading lines lead directly to her face, so our eyes aren’t drawn around the image, making this a static composition.

On the right Laura’s gaze and extended arm direct us diagonally away from her, but our eyes immediately return to her face, because of the leading lines and the color of her dress that demands our attention. So with just a small change this image is instantly more dynamic.

Dynamic composition – color, contrast, perspectives and asymmetry

There’s more to dynamic composition than just lines. Other elements of composition need to convey the same level of excitement, drama and energy to create unity in composition.

Strong colors create dynamic composition

Superheroes wear strong, eye catching colors for a very good reason – they’re dynamic.

Would you take Superman seriously if he was decked out in a calm duckegg blue and beige combination?

Tonal contrast for dynamic composition

For dynamic composition our eyes want excitement and images with a high dynamic range from deep shadows to bright highlights feel dramatic.

So, while you don’t have to go all film noir, make sure you have some shadows and highlights in there for interesting tonal contrast.

Perspective impacts dynamic composition

High and low viewpoints alter perspective. Are you more impressed by a skyscraper photographed from below looking up or square on?

A different perspective adds to dynamic composition, so get low or get high.

Asymmetry creates dynamic composition

Many people love symmetry in photos and it’s a lovely thing, but not for dynamic composition.

Mix it up and make sure that the left and right sides of the image aren’t the same. Or the top and bottom for that matter.

What is static composition?

Static is the opposite of dynamic. So with static composition, you create a sense of calm and orderliness with a feeling of stability, tranquility and security in an image.

When to use static and dynamic composition

The portrait on the left conveys dependability, because of the static composition of horizontal lines and vertical lines in the background and his upright pose. On the right I changed my position so the background and foreground lines became diagonal lines, plus he leaned down to the bannister, introducing diagonal lines to his pose. This conveys a go-getter, energetic vibe, somebody who is determined and going places.

Why use static composition in portrait photography?

Not everything in life needs to be high energy and exciting.

Many times portraits need to instil a sense of trust in the viewer by making the subject appear calm and in control.

How to create static composition using lines

Horizontal and vertical lines convey both dependability and strength. Their dependable 90 degree angles bring the sense of calm and stability needed for static composition.

  • Horizontal lines – nothing is going to slide off a level table, so no energy is required to keep it there.
  • Vertical lines – a building standing straight and tall isn’t expected to fall over, so it conveys strength.

How the photographer's position affects composition

Again, the only change here is my angle and perspective. The left image is shot head on, so it’s more symmetrical (except for one bent leg). By moving to his side and crouching lower to shoot from a lower perspective, the image becomes more dynamic as it’s less symmetrical. Plus, the lines of his pose and in the background become diagonal.

Static composition – color, contrast, perspectives and symmetry

Like with dynamic composition, to create unity in composition of static images, we need to use more than just horizontal and vertical lines.

Subdued colors for static composition

Did you notice that the images I used once I started talking about static composition all have subdued colors? That doesn’t mean that, just because the colors are subdued, it’s a static composition.

I’ve demonstrated dynamic composition right alongside static composition all the way through this article.

Subdued colors in photos do, however, enhance a static composition.

Reduced tonal contrast in static composition

Whilst there’s drama in shadows and light and airy conveys lightheartedness, there’s a huge range of tonal contrast between the two extremes.

As you can see with the two sets of images used in the section on static composition, reduced tonal contrast is more static, calm.

Straight on perspective for static composition

For a nice, calm, dependable image, photograph your subject at their level.

When you photograph down on somebody, you put them in a vulnerable position, because the viewer will be looking down on them.

Photograph them from below and they become more powerful, because the viewer will be looking up at them.

Symmetry emphasizes static composition

Humans crave balance, even though we seek out imbalance by inspecting an image that’s asymmetrical. But that’s the point of symmetry – it’s just there.

Nice and calm and dependable, so we don’t get pulled in any direction.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about dynamic composition vs static composition, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my photography composition tips have helped you to understand how to create dynamic photos, share that too.

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