Composition

A comparison with and without the rule of thirds

Composition > Technicalities

Composition. The absolute requirement of every image. In a cage match between an improperly exposed, out of focus image with great composition and an image with uninteresting composition and terrific exposure and focus, the improperly exposed, out of focus image with great composition would come out laughing victoriously. Master composition and you’ve mastered photography. Yes moving a few steps to the left or the right is that important.

In an article about composition professional photographer Alain Briot wrote:

- No amount of technology can make up for a lack of inspiration

- Cameras and other gear are technical

- Inspiration is artistic

- The two things exist on different planes

- Achieving a personal style in fine art means working as an artist not just as a technician

Rules

Although it is impossible for me to lay down rules on composing an image. This is something that differs for each photo and must be learned by experience. I can, however, give a few suggestions on the type of things to look for when taking an image. Below is a list of different components of composition. What is important is not that they are all used in a picture, but rather how they complement and enhance each other. I discuss this idea in the next subtopic “know your subject”. Pay special attention to what is said in this next subtopic, and find ways to relate this principle to your own photography. All the other components of composition that I list below are only extensions of “knowing your subject”. Go out and Practice this principle, live this principle, dream this principle. Your composition, and in the end your photography will grow. center your composition around this principle and you will create more compelling images. You will have the power to direct the viewer’s attention where you want it to go.

know your subject

A picture’s elements must complement and enhance the subject

What is the subject(s) of the picture you are about to take? all the other elements of the picture should be helping the subject(s) stand out. A plain colored background definitely helps the subject stand out. Movement in objects towards the picture’s is another great way to compose a subject. A vignette will draw attention to the center. There are an endless amount of ways in which different parts of the picture can help make your subject stand out., It doesn’t matter how it happens, just make sure elements of a picture complement and enhance your subject instead of distracting and in the end ruining your picture. In trying to avoid distracting the viewer from the subject I often hear sayings like “less is more” or “Keep It Simple Stupid”, these sayings stem from the fact that having a distracting elements in your picture will completely ruin the composition.

 

Edit: After writing this article I learned about the gestalt principles. These principles can be a useful way to look at composing images.

Another quote from Alain Briot:

“Composing a good photograph is not easy. Teaching others how to create interesting compositions is even harder. In fact, composition is one of the most difficult areas of photography or of any visual art for that matter, so much so that my teacher, Scott McLeay, refused to teach composition. His only guidance in this matter was brief and succinct. He would simply explain that, in regard to composing a photograph, each part of the image is equally important.”

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is not an actual rule, it’s a guideline that you should be aware of, and then ignore. The rule of thirds dictates where the most interesting points in an image are, but this is far from being correct. On a blank canvas the most interesting pieces would be at the intersections created by dividing a picture in thirds, but in a picture there are many elements that nudge those points of interest in one way or another. The composition guidelines that don’t specify a predetermined position to place your subject will have a far bigger impact on your photo than this rule. When taking a picture compose the picture in the way you think would work out best, not at the intersections created by the rule of thirds.

A great example of breaking the rule of thirds is the below image I took of some light trails. When this picture is aligned by the rule of thirds it looks terrible, but when aligned along the center it looks much better. I’m not advocating that you shoot all your pictures in the center, off-centering the image is a good idea, trying to follow a rule like the rule of thirds or the golden ratio is a bad idea. See the section on centering subjects to see why this picture works well when the subject is centered horizontally.

A comparison with and without the rule of thirds
The centered picture is much better than the picture that follows the rule of thirds
Golden Ratio and Phi Spiral

Same as the rule of thirds (see above point), but uses different intersecting lines to create points of interest. See this article for more info on how these rules work.

Positionaing the subject

A few things to keep in mind when positioning the subject.

  • Pay attention to the other elements in a picture and the mood being conveyed
  • Usually it’s a bad idea to put the subject in the center of the image
  • Keep distracting elements from getting into the edges of the picture, unless you plan on fixing this in post.
  • Pay attention to leading lines and people’s eyeline (the invisible line created from a person looking in some direction) Eyelines are one of the biggest thing I keep in mind when composing an image.
centering the subject

when you have a large amount of power or symmetry in an image, it can be desirable to center your subject. The power in the image can be further enhanced by using a square crop. This puts a lot of emphasis on the center, and keeps out parts of the image that don’t have as much power.

Motion

I used to have a few subtopics about lines, but I’ve now combined them under this heading of motion as that is what lines are all about. It’s not the lines in and of themselves that are important, but the motion that they convey. In a well composed image A sense of motion will be created that moves your eye either straight at the subject, or in a dance between different elements of the picture. Care should be taken that there isn’t any undesirable motion conveyed in a picture.

  • Motion created in the direction of the subject is always desirable
  • The gaze of a human’s eye is a simple yet powerful conveyor of motion
  • The intersection at two lines of motion is especially powerful
  • All elements along a line, including both implied lines and actual lines, benefit from the motion created by the line they lie on. lines can form the subject of an image
  • Winding lines are good at creating motion
framing

An image can be framed by doorways, arches, branches, etc. Framing an image helps create a sense of depth. When framing an image, make sure the frame is simple, and doesn’t overpower the image, unless you want the frame to be the main focus of the image, in which case the opposite is true.

hue/value/saturation

Many people think that the hue/value/saturation should be change to be as close as possible to the way your eyes perceived the scene you took a picture of. I am of a different opinion. Hue/value/saturation should be changed to express the feelings you want to portray, and to add some artistic creativity. If you want an image to have a cozier feel use a warmer color palette, if you want a cold feel use a cooler color palette. Hue/value/saturation can also be modified locally (to selective parts of an image), to make parts of the image stand out more/less. One way of using this technique is to strengthen the gestalt principle of foreground-background relationship by increasing the differences to the background and foreground in hue, saturation and value.

Depth of Field

Obviously keeping something in sharp focus is going to make it stand out from everything else. Be careful about any out of focus areas in the foreground as they can often be distracting. Sometimes the out of focus area can be a main part of the picture. This is can happen if you want to shroud part of the picture in mystery.

edges

In the beginning of the article when I quoted Alain Briot he mentioned that his teacher Scott McLeay would say that each part of the image is equally important. Don’t forget the edges are a part of the picture. They are just as important as the rest of the picture.

cut Off people’s Limbs at appendages

If you must crop out a body part, remember that the missing body part will distract the viewer more if you don’t crop at an appendage.

simplicity

This guideline is often seen. It is actually comes from a higher overarching guideline that I talk about in my first subheading entitled as ‘know your subject’.

keep horizon straight

It doesn’t have to be kept straight to the edge of the picture, but it does need to be kept straight to some point of interest, or else it needs to be at a big slant for dramatic purposes. Keep your horizon straight when shooting landscapes.

Frame Tight

Getting closer to the subject will put an emphasis on the subject but at the same time…

negative space Is interesting

…Having a lot of negative space adds serenity to the picture’s mood.

eyes are important

When placing a person in a photograph, align their eye’s with a point of interest within the picture.

bottom right corner

Of the four corners in an image this is the most interesting corner. This only applies in countries where the people read top to bottom, left to right.

Lighting

This is very important. very very important. I won’t say much about lighting as that is a topic for a different article, but don’t forget to pay attention to your lighting.

Mood, Message

Remember when creating a composition, there is no single right way. It all depends on the mood and the message that you are trying to portray. There are many wrong ways to compose an image, and It takes skill to spot a correct way. Try to stay away from composing an image in the same way as everyone else. Be new. Be creative.

Viewpoint, positioning yourself

Move around and find a way of composing an image that you like. Try taking a picture from down low, up high, far away, in close, from the left, from the right, etc.

Symmetry and Repetition

Symmetry and repetition are easy for us humans to stand out. Guy Tal is a photographer who does a good job of finding repetition in nature. Symmetry and repetition work best when there are sleight difference, allowing the viewer to compare and contrast the repetitious patterns.

Lenses

Use a wide angle lens to increase depth, and focus attention away from the edges. Increase it even more with a fish eye. Use a normal sized lens for a natural feel. Use a telephoto to compress the depth, and to give the edges more of an emphasis. Or fake the lens-distortion in post-processing.

Depth

An image can be flat or deep. Both are valid ways of creating images. Use the following techniques to create depth.

  • Pick the appropriate type of lens. See the lenses subtopic above for more info on this
  • layer the foreground and background elements
  • Add lines and motion going into the image
  • Increase __ with depth

Further Reading:

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