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When it comes to photography, what’s important isn’t just what you shoot, but also how you shoot it. There are a number of established guidelines, which help in composing the perfect image and will make your photos more compelling, more balanced and draw more attention. They have been around for a while, and they are actively being used not only in photography, but also in painting and design. Fact is that great composition is one of the key elements that sets the pros apart from the amateurs.
First though, we have to start at the beginning.
How do people view a photograph?
Viewers want to be guided through a photo and the more continuous that flow is, the more people enjoy looking at an image. Dissonance is simply uncomfortable to look at. I’m sure you have experienced it before, sometimes the eyes flicker around aimlessly without getting drawn into a main focal point, sometimes an image is so empty you don’t even know what you are supposed to look at, or the opposite, it is so cluttered that you simply feel overwhelmed.
What you learn from this is, that you should direct the viewers eye through your image. You want to literally pull them in. To do this, there are a lot of different elements that can add up to a perfect composition. Some call these elements “rules”, but I prefer to see them as ingredients. After reading this article, you will have a cabinet of ingredients to choose from, but of course it doesn’t mean you have to apply all of them all of the time. After all, a cook wouldn’t throw every single ingredient he has into a pot either, right? See these components of composition as suggestions to be held firmly in the back of your mind, so you can pull them out in the appropriate situations.
And yes, all these “rules” do frequently and justifiably get broken. Rules are meant to be broken. But remember, to do that, you first have to know them:
1. The Rule of Thirds
Now, the Rule of Thirds is very simple: it divides the rectangle that is your image into thirds – horizontally as well as vertically. What you get is four lines and four intersecting spots. The goal is to place the elements in your scene along these lines.
Where to Place the Horizon:
Whether you want to place the horizon on the lower or the upper line depends entirely on how exciting either your sky, or your foreground is. If you have a dramatic sky full of the most amazing cloud formations ever, don’t hesitate to show two thirds of it. On the other hand, if your sky is simply blue and boring, you wouldn’t want to dedicate most of your photo to what is basically only empty space, so place the horizon on the lower line.
Avoid the Middle:
Avoid placing elements smack in the middle of the frame, that goes for both the horizon as well as focal points.
2. The Rule of Odds
The Rule of Odds states that an image is more visually appealing to a viewer, if there are an odd number of subjects. A photo with an even number of elements in it is more predictable and therefore more boring, while an odd number creates excitement and drama. In a way, such an image is more balanced, as it sets up a center to focus on. A simple example would be that a photo of three vases is more exciting than a photo of two.
Create a Straight Line or a Triangle:
Research has shown that having three elements in your photo is most pleasing to the eye and furthermore, that they either need to be in a straight line or in a triangle. To create a triangle, position your elements at different distances and therefore, give more depth to the image. When doing this, you will have one main element and two supporting ones drawing the eye into your chosen focal point.
3. Leading Lines
I have already mentioned the importance of guiding the viewer through your image. A poorly composed image will leave the eyes of your viewers wandering aimlessly across the photo, unsure of where to look. To avoid that, you kind of have to take them by the hand and lead them around the photograph and for that, you have to include leading lines. With these lines, you can control the movement of peoples eyes when the look at your photo. Roads for example instill a sense of going somewhere, of motion and thus, create a visual journey and more depth to the image.
Of course, lines can be anything, from railroads, fences and walls to wires, rivers and tree trunks. They come in all kinds of different forms, shapes and sizes: Curving lines will instill a sense of journey, diagonal lines add drama and converging lines add an even stronger perspective and draw the eye towards a prominent focal point.
While horizontal and vertical lines inspire a sense of stability and calm, use diagonal lines to introduce movement and drama.
4. Symmetry and Patterns
Symmetry exists, when the two halves of something – horizontal or vertical – look the same or at least similar. Patterns are a repetition of a certain visual element and they can be either evenly spaced or irregular. Because there are no divergent surprises, symmetry and repetitive patterns have a very harmonious and enchanting effect and can instill a sense of calm in your viewer. Break the symmetry to purposely add tension.
5. Find a Focal Point
Just like if there are no lines to lead a viewer through an image, leaving a photo empty and without a subject can result in people not knowing where to look. It will give them a feeling of “there’s something missing here” and they probably won’t give your photo more than a passing glance.
The key is to find an emphasis, a center of interest in your scene that can draw the eye. For that, use a dominant feature, such as a mountain, a tree, a house or a person. You can also focus on something that is a different colour, a different size or has a different shape. There are a lot of ways to do this, but the end goal is to find a point of interest, something that sticks out and gives the eye a resting place.
6. Leave Space for Movement
Photos that convey a sense of motion, for example a running horse, a driving car, a walking person or simply someone glancing or leaning into a certain direction need a little bit of extra space. If you crop too tightly in the direction of the implied movement, it will instill a caged, tense feeling that not only leaves your subject with no way to escape, but will also make the viewer uncomfortable. To make it simple: You have to provide the observer with an answer to where the subject is going. Show the journey, leave some breathing space and don’t end the frame too abruptly.
7. Fill the Frame
This might seem contradictory to the last point about leaving space for movement – haven’t I just told you to give the poor subject some room to breathe? But filling the frame doesn’t mean you have to get rid of every little bit of empty space there is. The goal is simply to cut out any unnecessary background elements and give your subject as much room as it deserves. After all, you don’t want people having to squint to make out the subject of your photo.
For example when shooting portraits, you don’t have to leave this big bubble of room around the person’s head, don’t be afraid to crop off part of their head. You can even go super close and capture only a detail for a more dramatic effect and a more unusual shot.
So how do you fill the frame? Either use a bigger zoom, use your legs and move closer to the subject, or if you only want to do some trimming, crop in post processing.
8. Use Layers
Layers are what give your images, which after all are a flat medium, an element of depth. Your goal is to turn a two dimensional photograph into something threedimensional. To create these layers, you can first look at what the world around you has to offer. Picture the typical mountain landscape, with different toned mountain ranges layered behind each other, each of them getting weaker coloured until they fade into the background. The layers receding into the background create that much needed sense of distance.
When creating layers, it’s important to find a foreground, middleground and background. In landscape photography for example, the foreground could be a patch of flowers or some rocks to provide an entry point into the image, the middleground could be the water and the background a mountain range and the sky.
Other types of layering are used in people and wildlife photography, where the depth of field is used to keep certain things in focus and blur the background, with a well defined transition zone from sharp to blurry working as a separation. You can also create layers by adding water reflections, using mirrors, playing with colours and brightness and so on.
9. Keep Backgrounds Simple and Check your Edges
This rule is something a lot of beginners have trouble with. They are so wrapped up in the subject in front of them, that they completely forget what is happening in the background and at the edges of their image. In the end, they will have cut-off people walking in and out of the frame and a cluttered background that doesn’t add anything to the photo, but only distracts.
Not all backgrounds are bad of course, but you should actively look at the whole scene in front of you and decide what is worth including and what is not. That might mean that you have to find a different angle (for example, if a tour group is cluttering around in the background, shoot from the other direction), wait till people have moved out of your shot or use a wider aperture and blur out distracting elements.
A good rule of thumb with backgrounds though is to keep them simple. And if you absolutely can’t see any way to get rid of these distracting elements, consider cropping the image or clone stamping them out afterwards.
You have probably heard it before, but I’ll say it again: less is more! Like many aspects of life, this concept applies itself to photography as well. Chaotic, extremely cluttered or overcomplicated photos only unneccessarily confuse viewers. The idea behind simplifying your images isn’t to create something overly simplistic, but rather to remove uneccessary elements. To do this, ask yourself what is distracting in your photo and zoom, recompose, blur or even crop or clone stamp in post processing.
These are what I consider to be the basics of composition but of course, there is more to consider when taking your photos, such as colour, contrast, movement, framing and so on. But this is a tutorial for another time. For now, take these above ingredients to heart, maybe even go and try to work only on one rule at a time. For example, head out into your city and only photograph diagonal lines for a day. Happy shooting!