Photography is a form of visual communication and the main goal in taking almost any photo is to draw peoples’ attention to the finished photo and then keep their attention long enough for them to derive a message from the photo.
Learning some basic rules or principles of photocomposition helps us construct a solid foundation that can support both conscious choices based on those rules and our intuition’s freely flowing, creative compositional sense, leading to rich, compelling photos and ultimately accomplishing the above goal.
Although many people are intimidated by the words “photocomposition” or “photo design,” using composition wisely and creatively is one of photography’s most important and creative tools.
Today’s column explores one of the most important of these basic compositional rules, the Rule of Thirds, and how to apply that rule while composing photos in the camera.
This and the other principles are actually quite easy to learn and implement and using them almost always produces remarkably improved, interesting and potent photographs.
Wikipedia says, “In the visual arts, composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art … The organization of the elements of art according to the principles of art.”
Improving our composition does take practice and effort but the most difficult part is to remember to consciously consider composition while shooting our photos, to consciously scan the whole image in the camera’s viewfinder or screen, checking for and fixing any compositional mistakes before releasing the shutter.
While using these rules most often improves our photos, there are some situations when breaking rules of composition actually produces the best photos. When I’m shooting and a photo’s composition just “feels” right to me even though it’s incorrect, I’ll quickly analyze it closer and if the “incorrect” composition doesn’t detract from the photo, I’ll trust my intuition and take the photo.
Rule of Thirds
Probably the most powerful and effective basic rule to learn is the Rule of Thirds. Look at the grid in Graphic A. The two vertical and two horizontal lines bisect the frame into thirds in both directions, hence the rule’s name.
A photo’s center is its least interesting area and placing the subject there is generally the least interesting choice. Yet, peoples’ natural tendency is to concentrate so much on the subject that, until we train ourselves to do otherwise, we place the subject in that center, ultimately making this habit a very difficult one to break. Hence, peoples’ most common compositional mistake is placing the subject in the photo’s center. Smack in the center.
Notice the photo’s center is inside the box made up by Graphic A’s four grid lines. While the center is a photo’s least interesting position for the subject, the most interesting and dynamic positions are where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect or along any of the four lines themselves. Learning to place our subjects in any of these areas is probably the most effective way to improve our photo composition.
Practice consciously composing photos by forcing yourself to look at every part of your photo, then using the Rule of Thirds to help improve your photos’ composition and appeal. Learn to see the whole frame at a glance, so in the future you’ll be able to compose photos in just seconds before those fleeting moments disappear.
Look closely at Photo A, and consider its composition. I’ll refer back to it in February along with several more compositional rules.
Answers to Last Month’s Questions
In November’s column, I posed some questions to you about lighting.
Here’s a short wrap up, plus the questions and answers.
Photo 1: Every scene has a key light. If it didn’t it would be completely black. If there is only one light source, then it’s the key light and there are no fill lights. Photo 1 is a shot of the Laramie rail yard. What are its key light and fill light?
A: The overcast sky is the key light, although it also provides the scene’s main fill light. Also, lightly toned objects in the scene are very small fill lights, but they contribute little to the scene’s lighting.
Photo 2: Photo 2 is a backlit photo. What is the key light and are there any fill lights? Why are the shadows blue? Is shaded snow always blue?
A: The key light is the sun, even though it’s also the back-light. The blue sky is the fill light and because it’s blue and snow is so reflective, the open sky lights the shadows with blue light. Shadowed snow is gray when a gray overcast sky is the fill light and is red if a red barn is the fill light.
Illustration 1: Photo 3 is a photo-composite that was shot shortly after sunrise and created by joining four separate photos together. Notice how yellow the snow is, especially in the left half of the very snowy Sheep Mountain. Why is that? Secondly, why does the snow gradually loose the yellow tint and also become darker as the view moves to the right toward the end of Sheep Mountain? And in answering this question, can you also tell where the sun is along the eastern horizon behind me when I shot the photo?
A3: All three questions have one common answer.
In Illustration 1, the red lines show the sunlight’s direction and the black lines show the scene reflecting back to the camera. Notice that the camera is directly between the rising sun and the most yellow and brightest area of Sheep Mountain on the far left. Because snow is so reflective, it reflects more yellow sunrise light directly back toward the sun (red lines) than in any other direction, which accounts for the greater yellow tint and brighter reflection where the sun, the camera and the brighter part of the scene are in a straight line.
Consequently, as the direction of the sun shining on the snow (red lines) gets further and further away from the angle of the sun reflecting back to the camera, (black lines) less of the sunlight is reaching the camera, gradually reducing both the yellow color and the snow’s brightness.
Photo 4: Lastly, I referred to Photo 4 and asked you to identify the key light and the fill light that are lighting the moon as it emerges from the earth’s shadow during a full lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, the newsprint didn’t pick up the subtleties of the fill light, so you may have been confused by my reference to any fill light at all.
A4: The sliver of sunlight as it peaks around the earth is the key light. I hinted at this answer when I mentioned, “the bright area in the upper right where direct sunlight is once again lighting the moon.” Sunlight reflecting off of the rim of the earth is the fill light that is “filling in” the shadowed parts of the moon.
So, till next time, keep your eyes open, your camera handy and your imagination flowing.
Dan Hayward is a 38-year veteran photographer. He is well known for his fine art and people photography and his aerial and ground-based images documenting Wyoming’s Natural Environment. He is a 4-time Purchase Award Winner and One-time winner of the Peoples’ Choice, Best in Show Award at recent Wyoming Governor’s Capital Art Exhibitions. Go to www.HighLightAndShadow.WordPress.com to view extended versions of his photography columns.