May 202011

Great Compositions

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.  In this

series, we will search for the dynamic

symmetry that photographers and

artists have used for centuries to

create successful works of art.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

© Alfred Eisenstaedt Getty.


Martin Corone Dos Santos was the first reader of the site to suggest a photographer to be analyzed. Martin is into the classics. He enjoys shooting a Leica M3 and black and white film. It is fitting that he chose Alfred Eisenstaedt as his favorite photographer. Without getting too deep into Eisenstaedt’s personal story, I will say that he started photography with very little formal training. During World War II he 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.

Words To Know

There are a few terms we need to understand before starting the analysis. Then everyone will be speaking the same language.

    • 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.

I will include the vocabulary list at the end of the forthcoming articles, so you can easily refer to the terms because without them, it is difficult to navigate a composition.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

© Alfred Eisenstaedt.

— The Ballerina’s

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 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.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Sinister Diagonal in bold.

— The Sinister Diagonal

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.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

The dominant vertical and horizontal lines.

— The Vertical & Horizontal

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?” (This is what Myron asks you when he shows you something. If you buy his DVD series you will hear it all the time. But aside from its humor, he is right to ask the question.) The supporting lines reinforce the basic structure of the photograph.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Repeated Diagonals.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Repeated Verticals.

— Connecting the Dots

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.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

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.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

© Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

The 1.5 Armature.

— Creating a Dominant Diagonal

In the 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.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Baroque Diagonal.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Repeated Diagonal.

— Stressing The Important Parts

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.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Dominant Vertical and Horizontal lines.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Repeated Verticals.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Repeated Horizontals.

— Using Anatomy as a Tool

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. 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.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Look at how important her leg is to the composition. It runs right along the Sinister Diagonal.

— The Roots Of An Image

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 1800′s we discover that French painter Edgar Degas worked extensively with dancers.

Edgar Degas Adam Marelli

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.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

The 1.5 Armature and the Baroque Diagonal with its Reciprocal.

— Edgar Degas

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.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

The Sinister Diagonal and its Reciprocal.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Dominant Vertical and Horizontal.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Repeated Diagonals.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Repeated Verticals.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

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.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Adam Marelli

Times Square.  © Alfred Eisenstaedt.

— Conclusion

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 “Times Square Kiss” 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.

Design can reveal things that aren’t always obvious on the surface of an image.

Next up for analysis, the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe.

Myron Barnstone & Adam Marelli

Myron Barnstone reviewing some Cartier Bresson images with me.  © John Marelli.

— Thank You Myron

Understanding composition is not an artistic gift. It is a tradition that is taught. I do not know anyone better at this formidable task than my mentor Myron Barnstone. He runs a one man drawing school called the Barnstone Studios. Located in Coplay Pennsylvania Myron has taught the principles of design for over forty years. His efforts opened my eyes to aspects of design that I have never seen anywhere else.

Barnstone Studio Figure Drawing

Barnstone Studio Figure Drawing Class.  © John Marelli.

I would like to thank him for his teachings, on going consulting, and resources which are the best lessons on composition I have every seen. Whether you can study with Myron in person, watch his DVD series, or learn through my articles, studying composition is essential for all photographers. And I aim to continue passing along this great tradition.

To order Myron’s “Introduction to Drawing Systems” click the link below. Your photography will never be the same.

  28 Responses to “Great Compositions: Alfred Eisenstaedt”

  1. Phenomenal article Adam, bravo!

    It freaks me out that one can explain a great picture by mathematics.

  2. Thanks for the lesson in compostion. Reflecting on my study of art history (especially paintings), the baroque diagonal makes perfect sense. Your explanation of the basics of lines and how they interact was especially helpful.

  3. Thanks Vlad and Renee.

    Vlad, happy to freak you out on a Friday : )

    And Renee, my art history teachers were more like history teachers of art. I always hear that in the Renaissance paintings emphasized stability while the Baroque was on the diagonal. But that was it. I do think they knew the first thing about design.

  4. Outstandingly succinct and understandable lesson in classical composition. Great stuff!!!

  5. Who is Albert Eisenstaedt?

    • Albert always sneaks in when my proofreader is out for the day.

      @ Charles, very happy to hear the ideas were well received.

  6. What a great post! Thanks for continuing the some what secret tradition of composition, at least I for one had no clue about these principles until now.

    • Hey Jesper,

      Happy to open up the tradition for you. It seemed to get lost a bit after WW2, but with everyones combined interest its due for a revival.

  7. Adam,
    Thanks for bringing this subject up and expanding on it. Nice explanation. I look forward to the next examples.

    Any chance of you applying your analysis to an image that does not fit the model? That might be as instructive as working with images that are great examples.



    • Hey Thorpe,

      Thanks so much, I am happy you liked the article.

      There will be some upcoming images where the photographers missed a great shot by messing up the composition. Initially, we will review the successful images and then work our way into pictures that go “all wrong.”

      There will be some famous disasters and some personal ones too. When I review some of my own images, I often wonder, “What on earth was I looking at?” Its all part of the learning process.

  8. You are over analysing.

    This is like making figures fit a graph that supports your point of view, you just keep on searching until something supports it. The candid photos have not been designed as you suggest.

    What is true is that these are great photographers with a great wealth of experience that knew what a good photograph looked like and how to take it, they weren’t applying this swath of mathematics at the time. In fact what is more likely, as most photographers do, a lot of photos were taken and then upon inspection the best found that may very well fit some more intricate mathematical formulae.

    It’s like poker, knowing how to manipulate chance, but no one’s studying it whilst they take candid photos. I think this glorifies it a little much, there is great skill involved but..

    • Hey Will,

      After analyzing the work of a number of photographers (only a fraction is published here on the site) it becomes very clear which photographers went on a hunch and which photographers, like Bresson, actually used a design scheme.

      Geometry was a regular part of the artistic education and is still taught in pockets. Anyone who studied under Bresson would have gotten a lighter version of the Andre Lhote teachings Bresson got as a youth.

      It used to appear that Bresson’s images, just as an example, were reflective of a man who had a great “sense” for images. But what he actually had was a strong background in design. Some of Bresson’s images line up so well on the armatures that some people speculate that he put tick marks on his viewfinder as a guide. Not sure I am ready to commit to that idea, but after analyzing a large number of his photos, things line up frighteningly well.

      As a photographer, some control is surrendered because we cannot control the sun or everything on the street. We can however improve our ability to see a scene. Most people can surely relate to the situation where they saw a picture, took the photo and then looked at the final image and realized they were looking at the scene all wrong. It happens because the training in how to see is not as popular as it once was. Bresson is often quoted about the importance of “Seeing” above all other activities relating to photography.

      As for other photographers, like Eisenstadt, he might not have been able to explain why an image worked, he might have only said “yup thats a keeper.” When photography is compared to the painting tradition, it becomes clear that there are design techniques that photographers can employ to achieve dynamic images. The concepts of Dynamic Symmetry are the larger umbrella that capture the “Golden Ratio”, which has been part of art, architecture, and design since its man started building. Math and Art have a historical connection reaching back thousands of years. Photography is just the latest phase of image making in the art tradition.

      Some will prefer to “roll the dice” while other might like to study images in greater depth. I welcome both and look forward to the results. I would encourage anyone to study and analyze images to see what is uncovered.

      If you have any questions about design or learning about design feel free to shoot me an email.

      • Hi Adam, thanks for the reply.

        I believe very much that geometry is a huge part of photography, what i’m saying you’ve more or less explained, and that is I think it’s much more the art of instinctively seeing rather than on location analysing and formulae, for sure a photographer looks for certain cues but I reject the idea they compose each photo to such a high degree of so called perfection. I’m sure, as you’ve shown, that taking the worlds best photographers and a selection of their best photo’s will yield eerily strange mathmatics.

        For instance, I play the drums, i’ve played them for years, people often wonder how I can play off the cuff patterns that appear to be extremely complex, I am not however going over every little hand movement and what to hit next in my mind, I simply have had so much experience that I instinctively know what I’m doing, in fact I almost feel absent minded.

        I’m not taking away from this that it is not interesting, it is, but I believe, personally, that to make a great photograph one should instinctively understand themselves what is attractive and then look for this, rather than how many angles intersect here or there.

        I enjoyed the article.

        • Hey Will,

          Yes, yes I agree with you that every subtle gesture in a photograph is not designed. Most photographers, successful or not, notice patterns or shapes or something eye catching. Bresson was an odd exception, while Eisenstaedt did not have the same type of classical training.

          Before photography, there were no accidents in painting. But there are examples of fantastic compositions that a photographer cannot explain. They simply saw something they like and took the picture. My hope, is that by revisiting the famous pictures of Master Photographers, we might even see things they were missing.

          The next article will be on Craig Semetko and should be in interesting follow up. He does not compose with all of the geometry that Bresson used, though he is very influenced by Bresson’s work. Unlike Bresson, I know Craig personally and we have an on going discussion on design, so I can speak a little better about where he is coming from. More to come on Friday in the article.

          Thanks again for your thoughtful contribution, I am sure a lot of people really gained a lot through your comments. : )


  9. Very great thoughts based on design, I am speechless as to your clarity on the subject. Thank You

  10. Wow! Adam your education is really showing. Gr8! job. Very clear articulation both through pictures and words.

  11. Many thanks for your generosity in sharing this information.
    I have been looking for this for many years as I am sure many others have.
    I am certain that your life must be bountiful to be so generous.
    I am trying to find somewhere on your site where you explain the root 4 and the many sub diversions created by that. But have yet to find it.

    Any help in that direction would be much appreciated.

    I do many portraits and find your subdivisions for the verticals invigorating.

    Thank you for your professionalism.

    • Hey Luc,

      Happy to hear you are enjoying the articles. If you would like to see more examples of the Root 4 breakdown have a look at the Craig Semetko article: The Root 4 is particularly useful for organizing larger groups of people on flatter diagonals
      than the 1.5.

      But if you are doing portraits, I would recommend using the 1.5 armature. It was a successful method that Bresson used for years. It will give you all of the
      major divisions required for fantastic portraiture. If you would like to learn how to apply these techniques to your images, I would recommend the private
      sessions I offer. We can review your current work and you will learn how to use these techniques while you are working.

      If you have any more questions let me know.


  12. I can hardly turn out the light because I want to keep on reading.

    Thanks again for this incredible site.


  13. Hi Adam,

    I run into your website just yesterday, but I must say I find it extremely interesting, with lots of information I have no idea about before. I will try to see photography with different eyes from now on.
    I have a question about the second balerinas image, the vertical one. Why baroque and not sinister diagonal as dominant? As you also mentioned, the leg of the dancer lies on it and I can see it touches as well the head of other dancer. So to me they are at least equally important graphical elements lying on it comparing to the baroque one, but I might be missing something. I would like, if possible, a short explanation on this.

    Thank you

    • Hi Dragos,

      The Baroque plays a heavy role in the composition because everything is leaning to the right. That main figure, on the right side, dominates the entire scene. She does a good service to the image by pointing the leg of her opposite foot. This allows the Sinister to “take off” in the opposite direction, but should explain why the Baroque sets up the first direction. Does that make sense?

      And happy that you are enjoying the website/articles. There is a hidden wealth of information embedded in these pictures which deserve a guided explanation.

      Enjoy the “New Eyes”.

      Hope to cross paths with you at some point.


  14. Hi Adam,

    First, I want to thank you for the beautiful articles published on your website.
    I found very interesting in what you write.
    I also find very interesting the dialogue that ensues in the comments below your articles.
    Certainly has given me another perspective to see the photos.
    Keep up the good work.

    Thank you again.

    • Hi Eutychia,

      Thank you for the kind words. I must say, you have such an interesting name. how do you pronounce that?

      The community of photographers who congregate here are some of my favorite too. They are a thoughtful, inquisitive bunch who are committed to advancing their understanding of photography and design, without all of the bickering and nasty comments that appear elsewhere on the net.

      Looking forward to seeing how the articles will add a new level of flavor to your images.


  15. Hi Adam,

    Thanks for sharing this. After a quick read I immediately bookmarked your article and have been coming back and re-reading it to better appreciate the wealth of information.

    I have been doing the majority of my composition by my own natural design instincts (for better or for worse), but I think better understanding composition as you elaborated will extend the options available to me as I continue to practice photography.

    Many thanks again!

  16. Nice analysis but Eistenstaedt’s second ballerina’s placement has nothing to do with the sinister diagonal, she’s placed there by the good old rule of thirds (third across, third down). in facet, she’ll always be the point of interest as she is the one looking directly at the viewer, you will immediately lock onto her, thus her placement on the third is no coincidence. this picture is simply evenly balanced by the 4 girls balanced symmetrically across the frame.

  17. I appreciate your composition analysis above of this Eisenstaedt photograph. However, the composition examination of the Degas was based on the upper left quadrant of the original painting: Dancers at the Opera. Were you trying to talk about these armature principles via a section of a painting within a painting? Your imposing of the baroque, sinister, and reciprocal diagonals seems a bit forced on this internet cropping of a Degas masterwork. But overall I appreciate the article since I worked with a painter who studied with Myron Barnstone. I’m jealous that you were able to study with Myron directly. Best, James Miracle

  18. amazing article, thank you

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