Open and Closed Composition

In the first article of our Mastering Composition series, we discussed the definition of the term “composition”. We also outlined the main goal of composition and talked about why it is such an important part of any work of art. As we dive deeper, it is necessary to define two discrete types of composition with photographic context in mind. One such type is called “open composition”, while the other one, predictably, “closed composition”. These two types are further split into several smaller branches. Our readers have already mentioned some of them previously, such as symmetrical composition. These subtypes will be discussed in separate articles over the next few weeks. As before, an assignment for beginners is waiting for you to participate in at the end of the article.

Open and Closed Composition-11

1) A Brief History Lesson

You may be surprised to hear about open and closed composition. Where did these definitions come from? Well, I am quite certain a lot of our readers realize or know that photography has always been very close to painting, and is so even today. In fact, at some point photographers were actually seen as rivals to painters. Only, their art and craft got away without the skill of wielding a brush normally associated with painting (which painters were quick to notice and criticize). Here is a very brief summary on how photography and painting are related.

To start at the beginning, the first to try photography were scientists – chemists or physicists. This is because, initially, the process itself was fascinating from a scientific point of view. For example, the first permanent photograph was made by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce around year 1825-1827. We won’t go over too many details, suffice to say that artists quickly took over the technique. Want to guess who were most interested in the new technique among them? Yes – painters lead the way. Naturally, the two types of visual art are very similar in many respects. Artists looked for the same things in photography as they did in paintings – similar, interesting subjects, beautiful light. What they used to capture with a piece of canvas, a brush and some paint, they now “drew” using light, lenses and chemicals. Thus rules that apply to painting also largely apply to photography, and that includes composition. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Now that we know where composition rules and guidelines come from in photography, we can discuss the two main types in a bit more detail. These classifications are most likely known to you on some level and are in fact very simple. Let’s start off with the closed composition.

2) What is a Closed Composition?

A closed composition photograph is the sort of image where all the elements are arranged neatly inside the frame. The elements of an image that uses closed composition do not draw the viewer’s eye away or make it jump from one object to another. In other words, it is the sort of composition where the main subject or object is clearly distinguishable from the rest of the frame and instantly draws your attention. Often, though not always, the main subject or object is located near the center of the image and not at the corners/borders.

Open and Closed Composition-12

All the other elements help direct viewer’s eye towards said subject or object and away from the edges of the photograph (or any other work of visual art, for that matter). Such a composition often results in a static, consistent, stable images that feel complete, finished and calm.

Open and Closed Composition-13

Closed composition is suitable for a number of photography genres. Still-life, portrait, landscape, even street photography can incorporate closed composition very successfully. Still-life, also widely known as naturmort (nature morte – meaning “nature dead” in French), is probably the most common genre of photography to often use closed composition, along with portrait photography.

Some genres incorporate one of the two types more often than the other. For example, landscapes tend to use open composition more often than a closed one. Certain composing techniques can help you achieve and enhance a static composition, such as framing inside your photograph:

Nikon 16-35mm VR Sample 1 Resized

Imagine this photograph was not taken through the naturally-formed red sandstone arch in Utah. Such a photograph would showcase the vast landscape and, as such, use an open composition. Shooting through the arch enclosed the main object of the photograph within a frame effectively turning an otherwise open composition into a closed one.

3) What is an Open Composition?

An open composition is, as you may have guessed, the exact opposite of a closed composition. Where closed composition is often about static subjects and sense of stability and consistency, an open composition is in one way or another dynamic. Now, that is not to say that if you have a portrait photograph where your subject is moving, it has to mean your image is based on open composition. Not at all. It’s not the actual movement that makes your photograph dynamic, it is the sense of movement achieved through different means. These means include leading lines, color, number and placement of subjects, etc. Your photograph may do without a single moving subject. As long as there are plenty of lines, shapes and elements that keep your viewer’s eye focusing from one element to another, the image can be considered dynamic.

Open and Closed Composition-3

In a photograph that uses open composition, elements of that image run off towards the edges and seemingly beyond. Just as importantly, it is the lack of framing and constraint that helps achieve an open composition. Such an image draws the viewer inside the picture and makes it easy to imagine what is happening outside of the physical edges of that particular photograph. Of course, in some situations even a framed image can use an open composition.

Open and Closed Composition-9

As with closed composition, basically all photography genres can use open composition successfully. A very good example of open composition is landscape photography. Even though landscapes are not always dynamic, it is the sheer sensation of space and depth that emphasizes an open composition. Also, wide angle of view helps draw the viewer into the scene effectively getting rid of borders and constrains of the format. Along with that, a wide-angle lens creates a stronger sense of perspective. On its own, a wide-angle lens does not create an open composition, but does add dynamics to a photograph.

Open and Closed Composition-8

4) In-Between the Two

At times, it can be very difficult to distinguish between the two types of composition. For example, you may come across a landscape photograph that has both strong perspective and no actual borders, opposite to the sample provided above where the landscape is framed within the photograph. All of these elements would lead you to believe the photograph uses an open composition. However, if the lines and shapes emphasized by the strong presence of perspective draw your eye towards one main element of focus and keep it there, such a characteristic would define a closed composition. So which one is it? In truth, both. It is very difficult to enclose a work of art in a set of rules and definitions. A photograph can have characteristics found in both types of composition. It all depends on the creativity, idea and skill of the photographer himself. Having said that, more often than not characteristics typical to one of the types are more prominent than those of another in a single photograph.

Take a look at this photograph:
Open and Closed Composition-1

At first glance, the main element of interest is clearly framed inside the photograph. The dark square archway acts as a sort of a frame that keeps the viewer’s away from the edges of the image. The composition also appears to be central and quite static. One would be completely forgiven for thinking this is a closed composition, period. However, if you look more closely, you will notice that there are several different objects rather than just the yard on the whole. The part of a motorcycle showing, the red car and part of the silver one on the right side, the balcony and windows – they all attract attention and no one of them seems to be noticeably more important than the rest. There seems to be no one main element of interest, but several different ones located at different areas of the photograph.

Such number of separate important objects makes the image somewhat dynamic, because they make you shift your gaze to different parts of the photograph several times before you take it all in. You then realize only a fragment of a scene is showing. Imagining the rest of the building with its white window frames and the hidden half of the bike or car is very easy and just sort of happens as you look at the photograph. The elements run off towards the edges of the square archway that acts as an inner frame and beyond it. So this photograph incorporates characteristics of both closed and open composition types.

5) Assignment for Beginners

This simple assignment is for beginner photographers who would like to actively learn along with other readers and participate in creation of these articles.

  • Now that you know the basic theory behind open and closed composition, as well as saw some image samples to help you distinguish one from another, try to define which of the two main types are used in the following photographs. List your answers and why you think so in the comments section below. Do not worry if you think your answer is wrong! The whole point of this exercise is to learn, and the process of learning is inseparable from mistakes.

Image #1

Open and Closed Composition-10

Image #2

Open and Closed Composition-2

Image #3

Open and Closed Composition-7

Image #4

Open and Closed Composition-4

Image #5

Open and Closed Composition-5

Comments

  1. August 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    1-Closed
    2-Open
    3-Closed
    4-Open
    5-Open

    Great Article Romanas

    • 4
      ) Paul
      August 13, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      I feel all five are Closed compositions, even though some look Open to me. This article provides me of a new vision into photography. I am novice.

    • 11
      ) DavidL
      August 13, 2013 at 7:39 pm

      I agree

      Closed
      Open
      Closed
      Open
      Open

  2. August 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    A very interesting and well constructed article. Thank you! :)

  3. 3
    ) Simon
    August 13, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    Thank you for the article. It makes sense to me and I will think about this when I compose my next shot.
    Can you tell me what lens and settings you used on the first photo? The photo with the woman and bouquet of flowers standing in a forest.
    Many thanks

    • August 14, 2013 at 4:32 am

      Simon,

      thank you for your kind words. The first photograph was taken with a FF camera and 85mm lens, aperture set to f/1.4

  4. 5
    ) Radovan
    August 13, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    1.closed
    2.closed
    3.open
    4.open
    5.closed

  5. 6
    ) John Adams
    August 13, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    1. Closed
    2. Open
    3. Open
    4. Open
    5. Open

  6. 7
    ) chirag save
    August 13, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    1. Closed
    2. Open
    3. Open
    4. Open
    5. Open

    • 50
      ) Bobbie Muncy
      August 22, 2014 at 5:44 pm

      Agree

  7. 8
    ) Saiful Zaree Johar
    August 13, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    1.Close
    2.Open
    3.Open
    4.Both
    5.Both

    Well, this is my PoV…still learning (my camera is ~6 month old :-P )

  8. 9
    ) rod
    August 13, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    1. closed
    2. open
    3. open
    4. open
    5. closed

    • 25
      ) Storm
      August 14, 2013 at 2:18 pm

      Agreed.

    • 34
      ) Richard
      August 18, 2013 at 5:31 pm

      Agree

      • 47
        ) Mark Gibson
        October 26, 2013 at 7:51 am

        Agree, though I could see an argument for “both” for #1 and #5.

  9. 10
    ) Sophie
    August 13, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    My guess and I am also a beginner in photography is:

    1. Closed
    2. Both
    3. Open
    4. Open
    5. Both

  10. 12
    ) Sabrina
    August 13, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    Thank you for this article. Well, here goes on the assignment:

    1. Open – The horizontal and vertical lines continue beyond the edge of the picture. The alternating blocks of color further add to the movement. It takes a moment for the eye to settle on the bouquet.

    2. ? – It has the elements of an open composition but everything looks very stable. The color of the bike draws the eye immediately.

    3. Open

    4. Closed – The lines lead to a framed ending point; a dead end.

    5. Both

    I am eager to read more of this series. It’s great timing as I just assigned myself a photo project in which I am limited to take photos with my camera phone. My goal is to increase my awareness of light and, of course, composition. Please let me know if you have any suggestions.

  11. 13
    ) Motti
    August 13, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    I tend to think that all are open composition. Image 4 is somewhat a mix of both though. In all of them there is no specific subject that draw my attention. Even the first image of the flowers, although has one different focus object, still offer many other focal points in the wall behind. It does not enclose the object but creates a background for it.

  12. 14
    ) Kevin HD
    August 13, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Thanks a lot!

  13. 15
    ) Jan
    August 13, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    excellent article. thank you!

  14. 16
    ) Pedro G. Herrera-Davila
    August 14, 2013 at 12:53 am

    14 August 2013

    Congratulations on your excellent discussion, Sir. As usual, your presentation is simple, direct, sensible and, if I might add, cerebral. I read you all the time and am never disappointed! I see your point and agree with you. On the other hand, what strikes me most in your essay is your statement that: “It is very difficult to enclose a work of art in a set of rules and definitions.” Your statement is why I remain very sensitive to the label “work of art”…especially as applied to photography.

    Some photographs are called “artistic” and others are not… what “works” for others will not similarly appeal to others. This also includes all other “works of art”…and it includes me. And this is why I prefer to keep my thoughts to myself as far as making “art comments” on photographs, remaining in the realm of the technical if someone cares to ask me for my thoughts.

    It is for this reason that I continue to read you and the other excellent writers of Photography Life…I find your work really educational and even enlightening. I sincerely congratulate you and wish you all the very best. You have enriched my life and I am grateful. God bless you.

  15. 17
    ) Henrik Manoochehri
    August 14, 2013 at 1:24 am

    1. Closed. Strong single subject completely within frame.
    2. Closed; same reason as above. Open; doorway with graffiti runs outside and leads beyond as does flower pot at far left of frame.
    3. Open. no strong subject held within frame. The one strong element, the vertical dividing line between the two fields is anchored at both top and bottom edges.
    4. closed. the strong orange wash on the wall at center top and the tunnel at center bottom dominate and are contained within the frame.
    5. Closed; the graffiti dead center. Open; door and window at edges lead out and beyond or into the interior space. Doors and windows open perceptual timeline where I, at least can imagine someone looking out of or walking into or out of the composition at another point in time or if the image were not static; i.e. moving picture rather than snap shot.

  16. 18
    ) Gary B
    August 14, 2013 at 1:40 am

    Closed
    Open
    Open
    Both
    Closed

    I think???

  17. 19
    ) Gautam Roy
    August 14, 2013 at 2:21 am

    1. Open – The tile design in the frame is not a repeating pattern thus takes your eyes across
    2. Open – The bicycle though pulls in first but then my eyes started reading the window, the flower pot , the door.
    3. Closed – My remains in the center of the frame, it doesn’t wander.
    4. Open- Too many things to view and absorb
    5. Open – The eyes tend to travel to the window and the reflection on them.

    I thank you so much for this article, as somebody who understands that he has issues with composition, this is god send.

  18. 20
    ) crisanel bertoldo
    August 14, 2013 at 2:40 am

    1. closed
    2.open
    3.closed
    4.open
    5.open

  19. 22
    ) Cecilio
    August 14, 2013 at 6:39 am

    1- closed
    2- closed
    3- open
    4- open
    5- open

  20. 23
    ) rhea
    August 14, 2013 at 11:20 am

    1-closed
    2-both
    3-open
    4-open
    5-open

  21. 24
    ) Paulo
    August 14, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    1-closed
    2-open and closed
    3-open
    4-open
    5-open

  22. 26
    ) Arijit
    August 14, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    1 – closed
    2 – open
    3 – open
    4 – closed
    5 – open

    • 27
      ) Arijit
      August 14, 2013 at 4:09 pm

      5 – both

  23. August 14, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    To me all five of the photos seem to be open compositions.

  24. 29
    ) Ron M
    August 14, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Open- flowers not only object of interest
    Open- bicycle and graffiti point to maybe more to right of frame
    Closed- no interest outside of frame
    Closed- we’re in a box
    Both- interest balanced between in and out of frame

  25. 30
    ) Joe Jones
    August 14, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    The way I interpret these compositions,

    1. Open
    2. Open
    3. Open
    4. Open
    5. Closed

    I draw these conclusions based simply on the manner in which my eyes are drawn throughout the frames. In all but the last, my eyes are drawn around the various elements of the frame. The first was a little tricky to define. I suppose it is more a subjective observation but, though there is a static object, unless I knew that was the photographer’s intended subject, I could see the pattern on the wall as the subject and the vase of flowers as a compositional element of the foreground. It doesn’t hold my gaze, which is why I see it as open. Great article.

  26. 31
    ) AM
    August 15, 2013 at 6:25 am

    1- In between.
    2- Open.
    3- Open.
    4- Open.
    5- In between.

  27. 32
    ) Moira
    August 15, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    All open in my opinion.

  28. 33
    ) Dan
    August 17, 2013 at 10:51 am

    1. Closed
    2. Open
    3. Open
    4. Open
    5. Closed

  29. 35
    ) Catalin
    August 19, 2013 at 4:30 am

    1.Leaning to say Both. Why? Although the main focus appeared to be the vase of flowers, the eyes are distracted by the powerful colored squares.
    2.Open. The bike, the door graffiti, the plants, the wall, all distracts my attention.
    3.Open. No borders, a sensation of movement.
    4.Both. Is a similar photo with the one in the article. We have some kind of borders, but a busy scene also.
    5.Both or Closed. The main focus appears to be the writing on the wall and the eye is drawn to the middle of the photo. But there are a few elements of open composition (no borders, the multicolored flags).

  30. 36
    ) Tuan anh Luu
    August 19, 2013 at 6:02 am

    1. Closed
    2. Open
    3. Open
    4. Both
    5. Both

    Thanks for yr article

  31. 37
    ) Paul
    August 19, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Romanas, we enjoyed a full week discussing the open and the closed. It should be time for you to declare right answers and their reasons.

    • August 19, 2013 at 11:46 am

      Paul, soon to come, I promise! Right now, I have a review in progress that I need to finish up real quick.

  32. 39
    ) Balaji
    August 20, 2013 at 3:06 am

    Romanas, Thanks for the great article and we enjoy learning these techniques and having such assignments is the best part to test our understanding

    1) Closed – The flowers are in the focus and there are no distractions by other objects and the flower fits within the frame
    2) Open – There is no a defined frame/edges, however could find more objects to focus …cycle,flower pot,marks on the door
    3) Open – As the building structure doesn’t have defined edges and also distracts due to the background and inner structures within the building
    4) Open/Both – This looks like a mix of two, arch represents the focus point with defined shape and the wall is focused through it (similar to red sandstone example) however the cars and other objects within the frame makes it to look like an open composition
    5) Open – The words on the wall fits into closed composition but the extended part of windows well outside the frame and there is no bokeh effect on the windows and the colours which distracts the focus on the wordings on the wall make it as open composition

  33. 40
    ) Flo
    August 20, 2013 at 9:37 am

    My guesses are:
    1. Closed: true, the vertical orientation makes my eyes “drop” to the flower along the wall, but I’m not sure this isn’t completely influenced by the structure of the website, given that I had to scroll down on the picture first :P plus, the final effect to me is very calm, no movement at all once I reach the flowers.
    2. Both: at first I thought closed because the bycicle seems to be the main object, but I’m lead to move frequently me eyes to the other two green spots, the graffiti and the flowers. However, these are static subjects (no lines or patterns to lead me out of the frame, maybe the door), so again with the calm vibe.
    3. Open: the diagonal lines, the alternate pattern, the side of the building that contrast with the one in the background, no single subject, etc etc.
    4. Both: already explained in the article.
    5. Open? The problem here is that my rational mind jumps in, I read the strings shoe store, and start looking for shoes in the frame :P which makes me wonder, as a beginner in composition, how do we value words in the frame?

    Interesting article! Thanks!

  34. 41
    ) Roxxie
    August 22, 2013 at 1:35 am

    open, open, open, closed, closed.

  35. 42
    ) Maegan
    August 26, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Brilliant article, a fun read for sure! THanks,

  36. 43
    ) Jayatu Das
    August 29, 2013 at 9:16 am

    open- clearly the subject is not the flower vase with flowers. the picture is thought provoking. the soft focused wall behind make it open.
    clearly open.- the bicycle, closed windows will make us try to imagine what is going on in the house. no definite subject.
    open- the picture is not just showing a texture. the right side and the hint of smoke make it a open composition.
    open.-easily understood. no need of clarification.
    closed- just a funny pic, i think.

  37. 44
    ) Rahul
    August 31, 2013 at 3:52 am

    1. closed
    2. open
    3. open
    4. open
    5. closed

  38. 45
    ) R Sail
    September 7, 2013 at 1:22 am

    Hello I think;
    1. Closed
    2. Both
    3. Open
    4. Open
    5. Both

    You are welcome

  39. 46
    ) Answers
    October 19, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Closed
    Open
    Open
    Closed
    Open

    You’re welcome.

  40. 48
    ) P Wang
    January 6, 2014 at 6:18 am

    No. 1, I would consider it closed. Although the horizontal and vertical lines continue beyond the edge of the image, but the eye finally focuses on the bouquet.

    The no. 2, I would think it closed, as all the elements in the image do not attract the attention of the eyes as much as the bike does.

    No. 3, closed, as the frame work inside finally attracts the attention of the viewers’ eyes.

    No. 4, open, or both, as there is a clear feeling of movement going beyond through the gate.

    No. 5, both, at the first glance, the words attract the attention, but after that the eyes go beyond both sides of the image to look for the shoe store.

  41. 49
    ) Sandra
    February 25, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    I did not look at any of the other comments, not until I post mine.
    1. open, the different squares entice your eye to move around the photo.
    2. open, the door, bike, flower box pull your eye to look at each element
    3. open, the diagonals, and leading lines keep your eye busy
    4. closed, the leading lines take you direct to the focal point, the end.

    I love the way you prepare your lessons and examples. I wish I could afford a photography school. I have searched for books to find this type of instructions.
    Thank you

  42. 51
    ) orvi
    September 24, 2014 at 7:17 am

    close
    open
    open
    open
    close

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