The Rules of Composition (Well, they are really more like Guidelines than Rules)
What Are The Rules Of Composition (and why do we care)
As we have previously discussed, Photography is not all about light. There are many different factors and techniques that help make good and great images. Many of these focus on composition and, having been developed over time, are well known and coined as “The Rules of Composition”. That being said, different people will recognize different sets of these rules, perhaps thinking that some are more important than others.
Some Common Rules & Guidelines Of Composition
This rule works because when we look at a Subject centered in the frame, our eyes have no where else to go (other than looking at our Subject). The image is static and then our mind gets bored. When we place our Subject at one of the cross points, our mind searches other areas of the frame to bring it into context. These images are considered dynamic as they entice our mind to move around the frame. This movement makes looking at our image more exciting.
This is because “image tension” is created with odd numbers, thus creating a “visual dynamic”. Care must be taken when using this rule for if there is more than one Subject, they usually must be relating to each other or to the story our image is telling.
When using lines, its important to understand what they do within our image. Do they lead our Viewer to or away from our Subject? Are they straight lines creating a contrast between different elements or diagonal lines creating visual movement? Do the lines form “shapes” like rectangles or triangles that create visual tension and help to give our objects form and structure?
Although many may want to include environmental elements in our images (to give our images a sense of time and place), to do so, even a tiny bit, may distract the Viewer from the Subject and should therefore be avoided.
Appearing in many forms of nature and science (including flower pedals, spiral galaxies, sea shells, etc, in famous architecture such the Parthenon and Egyptian pyramids and famous works of art such as with the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and The Birth of Venus), studies have shown that when used to define the placement of our Subjects, Viewers find these images more attractive then when not used (ie; when observers view random faces in an image, the faces they feel are most attractive are those where the Golden Ratio proportions define the width of the face and the width of the eyes, nose, and eyebrows.
Not a mathematician? The Rule of Thirds combined with Leading Lines may approximate a simplified version of these formulas.
When creating an image with a moving object, you want to place the Subject with space behind (to give the impression of where our Subject has been) and a greater amount of space in front (to create the impression for where your Subject is going).
How do you follow this rule? Identify your Subject and fill as much of the frame with your Subject as possible. Then crop in tight, look at it and then crop again. Don’t be afraid of cropping too much as long as the Subject is in focus. Don’t be afraid of cropping off some of your Subject (the heads and body) to emphasize other parts of your Subject (the eyes). The larger the Subject in our image, the more details and interest our Subject may have.
When deciding to use Balance or Out-Of-Balance, first decide what type of story and emotions are you trying to achieve and then determine how the placement of elements in your image support this story.
How does aspect ratio change how you compose your image? If you take a picture using a 3:2 ratio with your Subject in a rule of third position and then print it on an 8”x10” photo, your Subject will no longer be in the rule of third position.
What to do? There are several tips you might consider. Before taking a picture, see if you can adjust your camera’s aspect ratio using the camera settings. When taking a picture, leave room along the edges to do final cropping during post processing or printing by reducing your lens focus length (maybe even breaking the “Fill The Frame” rule). If you do crop during post processing, make sure you turn the “delete pixels” setting off so you can later go back and re-crop if necessary. As a final tip, feel free to “add pixels using your photo editing software (ie; content aware fill).
When viewing an image, does every element support the image’s Subject or distract from it? Are you telling a story that MUST contain environmental elements or do they take away from the main story? These are questions you must ask yourself, but to answer, you must understand what elements attract the Viewer’s eyes. Some of the more common background distractions may be:
Great care must be taken so that our image tells the story we are intending. If the story is one of nature, moving our saturation slider too far to the right will make the scene look un-real as our image takes on colors that are un-natural. If the story is one of graphics and patterns, bright, intense, over saturated colors might be just what our image is calling for. After making your post processing adjustments, take a step back and try to fully evaluate what you have done. As in the Rule of Simplification, sometimes less is more.
There are many more Rules of Composition that may or may not help tell the story of your image. Although useful to follow, they do not work for every image, and in fact, many great images can be (and have been) created by “Breaking the Rules of Composition”. Thus, is might be best to think of these “Rules” more as “Guidelines” then as actual rules that must be followed. The Rules (Guidelines) of Composition can be extremely useful when first learning how to make good images and/or in learning why an image is great. It’s also interesting to note that when following some “Rules” others may be broken.
As the photographer and artist, it is up to you to decide what rules to follow and what rules to break.
Keywords: Animals, Areas of Contrast, Aspect Ratio, B&W, Balance, Black & White, Breaking the Rules of Composition, Bright spots, Color, Composition, Curved Lines, Depth, Depth of Field, Diagonal Lines, DOF, Fibonacci, Fill The Frame, Framing, Golden Ratio, Golden Rule, Golden Triangle, Guidelines, Guidelines of Composition, Horizontal, Hue, Image, Landscape, Leading Lines, Lines, Marc Alter, Marc F Alter, MFA, Orientation, Patterns, People, Phi Grid, Photo, Photography, Photoshopped, Portrait, Rule of Odds, Rule of Space, Rules, Rules of Composition, Rules of Thirds, Saturated Color, Saturation, Shapes, Simplification, Space, Spirals, Symmetry, Textures, Verticle, Viewpoint, Watch Your Background, What our eyes see
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