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Composition: The Basics

Introduction
Fundamental Ideas
Golden Mean and the Rule of Thirds
Pitfalls
References
Fechner's Follies
Introduction

    Photography is hardly rocket science. However, over the years one aspect of this endeavor has become unnecessarily complicated, and hence confusing. This subject is composition. Photography is an art, and as such one can expect that different people like different looks, so that no matter how many "rules" you break, you are bound to find some people who like your work anyway. On the other hand, since ancient times there has been a consensus that certain arrangements of shapes are more pleasing to the eye than others. The "rules" of composition are based on this idea. There are exceptions to every rule, but in general if you subconsciously factor in basic compositional guidelines when you are framing a shot, you will wind up with something that pleases more people than not. Of course, composition won't help you if your subject is uninteresting, or doesn't convey the desired emotion (wonder, poignancy, relaxation, beauty, excitement, surprise, etc.). Above all, if the lighting is poor, your shot is doomed.

Fundamental Ideas

    Basic to any discussion of composition is the idea that every image has a primary subject, the most important thing in the frame, the item that you wish to showcase. Usually, this subject does not take up the whole frame (actually, it's aesthetically best not to photograph most subjects full frame anyway). In that case, the most basic composition rules would go something like this:

  1. Don't Center Your Subject The human eye and brain are designed to register asymmetries and variations in texture in the visual field. If you have ever studied portrait painting, you have probably noticed that facial portraits are rarely perfectly centered. Nothing is duller than a bull's eye target with bland surroundings or surroundings that don't "balance" the main subject. The concept of "balance" is covered below, but here it would mean elements that connect with or support the central subject. So an exception to the rule would be a full frame subject with balancing elements supporting the center of the image. An example of this type of situation would be a wheel with radiating spokes. If the wheel is centered and the surroundings are blurred or bland, a dull image results. If you shoot the wheel full frame, the spokes radiating from the center "balance" the hub. Exceptions:
    1. Everything but the central element is out of focus, so nothing "competes" with it (but slightly off center is usually better).
    2. There are connecting elements (usually with a full frame composition).
    3. You want to draw attention to a central object that is part of a larger pattern. (Image 1 below).
    4. You want to draw attention to a central object that is camouflaged. (Image 2 below).
    Image 1     Image 2 
  2. Don't split the field of view, i.e. don't place your horizon in the center of the frame. This is a corollary to the previous rule. Dividing the field of view exactly in two creates tension for the eye, because the viewer has to search for the center of interest (i.e. is it in the top half or the bottom). Certain fish have split eyelids so they can simultaneously look above and below the water surface for prey or predators, but it must be nerve wracking.
  3. Avoid Distractions Often photographers zero in on their primary subject and don't notice elements in the scene that draw attention away from the main subject. Foreground elements near the bottom of the frame, out of focus foreground objects, trash, complicated or "busy" geometrical patterns, and perfect geometrical patterns (triangles, squares etc.) are examples of such distractions.
  4. Achieve Compositional Balance
    1. Symmetric compositions place the center of interest in the center of the frame. Compositional elements are symmetric left/right (and possibly up/down).
    2. Quadrant compositions: Here dynamic balance is created by diagonally opposite patterns of light and dark. There are unequal amounts of light and dark on each side.
    3. Sequential compositions: These rely on "rhythm". Regions of changing sizes and intensity lead viewers across the frame, resulting in "asymmetrical balance". Fine art prints, especially abstract compositions may rely on this technique.
    4. Asymmetrical compositions: Pure asymmetrical compositions juxtapose elements of different size, brightness and color. For example, the left side may contain 1 large foreground flower, while the right side may have a number of smaller flowers in the distance. Color or shape is often repeated (on varying scales) to provide connecting elements that lead the eye from on area to another.
    5. Golden Mean: In ancient times, the Greeks observed that certain groupings of elements in a scene seemed more "pleasing" to the eye. Specifically, smaller compositional elements are put inside larger elements that are 1.618 times larger. This can be repeated a number of times to achieve groupings that are 3 or 4 levels deep. Within each larger element, the next smaller element takes up roughly 1/3 of the space, resulting in 2/3 of the space left over. Thus, the image is naturally subdivided on scales of roughly one third the height and width.
    6. Rule of Thirds: The Rule of Thirds takes the idea of the Golden Mean and gives it a new twist: Since "good spacing" is roughly 1/3 of a linear dimension, why not simply divide an image into thirds top to bottom and left to right, and then put the most important items in the scene at the "power points" (the points at which the horizontal and vertical lines intersect). Framing elements can then be placed in the outer thirds. Thus, the top horizontal line is often a good place to put a horizon. The lower horizontal line is a good place to put framing elements like the top of foreground vegetation like hedges. Trees or other vertical framing elements should be at the left or right vertical line.
  5. Include Foreground Objects Classic compositions go from foreground in the bottom third of the frame to distant background in the upper third. When photographing landscapes with distant subjects, consider placing a complementary foreground object in the bottom third of the scene. This CAN BE DIFFICULT, because the foreground object will have to be interesting but not distracting from the main background subject.
  6. Include curves, diagonals and leading lines Natural curves (such as a stream), diagonals and leading lines can help to guide the viewer to the point where you feel his attention should rest.
  7. Vary your perspective Don't just shoot at eye level, get down on the ground and try new angles. For monumental subjects, consider shooting from close in and let perspective convey the majesty of the subject
  8. Utilize natural framing Utilize tree limbs, door openings or other natural elements to put a natural frame on your background subject. Be careful thought, because this can make the background subject seem smaller than it really is.
  9. Make sure your horizon is level These days software can fix an uneven horizon, but why not do it right from the start?
  10. Make sure subject is in focus. Check your f-stop. Learn about the hyperfocal distance and how it can give you maximum depth of field.
  11. Use important filters. Polarizing filters, graduated neutral density filters and color correction filters should be in your bag, whether you shoot digital or film. If you take the optimum exposure at the scene, you won't have to deal with software fixes when you get home.
  12. When in doubt, bracket your exposures. You can modify shadow/highlight balance in Photoshop, but you can't capture detail that is lost in blown highlights and featureless shadows.
  13. Use a tripod and image stabilization. With today's digital cameras especially, you are often on the edge of resolution for large blowups. Plus, there are still a lot of medium and large format film shooters who can generate higher resolution images than you.
Golden Mean and the Rule of Thirds
Golden Mean GridGolden Spiral

    The Golden Mean was discovered in ancient Greece. It is based on a mathematical sequence of numbers, (the Fibonacci Sequence): 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34 etc., in which each number is the sum of the previous 2. The ratio of each number to the previous one is 1.618. Somebody figured out that if you took made a rectangle ("Golden Rectangle") in which the ratio of length to width is 1.618, you could divide the rectangle into a square and another rectangle which had the same proportions as the original (i.e. another Golden Rectangle). You could continue subdividing as long as you wanted to. In art, if the smaller subjects should have the same proportion to the next largest adjacent subjects as the largest object or grouping has to the image as a whole. To find the approximate Golden Mean of an image (one of the two points to place the primary subject), draw a diagonal, and then a perpendicular from the diagonal to each of the two unused corners. It also turns out that 1f you construct nested series of golden rectangles by starting with a small one and scaling up along adjacent sides, you can draw a spiral curve through intersection points that is called the "Golden Spiral". This curve looks like the shell of the chambered nautilus, and has been shown to be basic to many other radiating structures in nature, such as flowers.

    The ratio of the size of one golden rectangle to the next larger one is approximately 1/2.618 or 0.38, approximately one third. This led photographers to the Rule of Thirds, as explained above. The 4 power points are not far from the focal points dictated by the principle of the Golden Mean, so they are natural points to put primary subjects in an image.

Pitfalls

    The composition principles discussed here are rough guidelines, not absolute rules. You should have enough of a "feel" for them that you can evaluate the composition for a potential image without doing a lot of conscious thought. Remember, you are creating a work of art. If taking a picture involved only applying a set of mathematical rules, then all engineers and mathematicians would be great photographers. This is the problem with camera clubs: applying a rigid set of composition rules to any and all images is ridiculous. Composition is a SECONDARY consideration to the LIGHTING and SELECTION OF SUBJECT. Also, if you travel and take pictures mostly of famous natural and man made icons (i.e. the famous things everybody else photographs), you had better find new and unique ways of showing your subject. Photography should not be learned by practicing how to get the "right" or "standard" picture of a particular subject. Keep your eyes open and discover the HIDDEN BEAUTY that others miss, by finding beautiful things that others ignore or fail to seek out.

    Here are some musings on the old adage to leave some space in front of animals in animal portraits (i.e. don't show them with their faces about to leave the frame). Usually this is described as "giving them room to move". Why do we like to do this? Basically, it relates to the connection the subject has with the viewer. When animals are entering or centered in the frame, we feel subconsciously that we have spotted the animal in time to watch what it is up to. This is in fact part of our survival skills as a species. When the animal is leaving the frame, we feel we have missed something. You may have noticed that in head portraits of people, the subject is slightly off center with more space in front of the eyes than behind. The subject gazes toward the center of the frame, but not directly at the viewer. When doing animal head shots, try the same effect, especially with the eyes near hot spots in the "golden mean". Avoid shots where the animal appears to be looking at something outside the frame of the picture, because that also subconsciously makes us feel that we are missing something. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules as well. For example, if the emphasis is on what the animal has left behind, a shot showing the animal leaving the frame could be quite a powerful image.

    For more rants on this subject, see Fechner's Follies.

References

    Some of the above is taken from the following references:

  1. http://photoinf.com/General A comprehensive series of articles on general composition
  2. http://photoinf.com/Golden_Mean A collection of articles on the Golden Mean and it's application in the real world.
  3. Composition in the Field for the Amateur Photographer (1) Advice from Dale Cotton
  4. Composition in the Field for the Amateur Photographer (2) Advice from Dale Cotton
  5. Perspective and Composition (1) Advanced References from the art world on perspective and its connection with composition. Check out the "Linear Perspective" link.
  6. Perspective and Composition (2) More references on perspective and composition. Check out the "Compositional Models" link.
  7. Composition Tips A camera club perspective on composition.
  8. Photo Composition A perspective on Theme, Emphasis and Simplicity
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