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.
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:
- 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.
- Everything but the central element is out of focus, so nothing "competes"
with it (but slightly off center is usually better).
- There are connecting elements (usually with a full frame composition).
- You want to draw attention to a central object that is part
of a larger pattern. (Image 1 below).
- You want to draw attention to a central object that is
camouflaged. (Image 2 below).
- 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.
- 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.
- Achieve Compositional Balance
- Symmetric compositions place the center of interest in the center of the
frame. Compositional elements are symmetric left/right (and possibly up/down).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Make sure your horizon is level
These days software can fix an uneven horizon, but why not do it right from the
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Grid||Golden 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.
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