Ultimate Guide to Composition Rules in Photography
I just had a conversation with someone asking me to critique their work. I usually do not do this as I get so many requests, but this person wanted my opinion on the work.
I ventured to his website to look at the ten photos he had set aside for me, and I was stunned. They were sloppy and haphazard. They were barely snapshotting quality.
So I called him. I felt if I were going to be blunt and honest with someone, it would be best not to come in the form of an email. Emails can be so cold and unfeeling. It is so easy to read attitude and opinion into an email that does not exist. Especially if I write it because I am not exactly the best writer out there. You’ve read this blog.
I explained that I was about to get up on a soapbox and preach a little. That it was not personal in anything I was about to say, and that everything I assumed would be all about my opinion. He could choose to ignore it and go about his photography journey; however, he saw fit. But for now, listen.
Now here is where I include you in this conversation and do a little preaching. So buckle up kiddos, let the rant begin!
There are two types of basic photography in my very humble opinion.
1. The haphazard approach, or the lucky approach. They are the same as they rely on luck to nail a great shot. We will cover this first.
2. The planned approach where inspiration and motivation hit the photographer, and they make something happen with their camera.
Let’s take a look at a photo and discuss the haphazard or lucky shot.
Now, everyone has seen this famous shot. It was captured at random in Times Square at the end of WWII. The photographer had no planning, no time to make adjustments, and indeed no time to think about composition. He saw the moment unfold before him, and he grabbed the shot while he could.
Most people could look at that shot and claim that they like it. But let’s dig into this because it would not be just my opinion to tell you that most people’s brains are hard-wired to like certain things in composition. You may not even truly recognize any composition in this image. But it is their none the less, and it is the main reason why you like it. Believe it or not.
I count 13 “lines,” converging into the main focal point of the image. I stopped at 13, but there is probably more if you keep looking. The main focal point, of course, is the subject’s head locked in a kiss. Thirteen converging lines push the viewer’s eye to that point in the photo. Most people would never “see” these lines if they were not pointed out to them.
Also, the rule of thirds comes into play as well.
And finally, I see lines of intersection helping focus the image as well.
So, where are the converging lines? Let’s take a look…
Lines made up of natural elements in the photo, converge to one general point, the focal point, and serve only to strengthen the feel and emotion of the photo. The composition makes this shot better.
But what about the rule of thirds? Where is that? Well, here you go….
If we roughly divide our photo into thirds, we get a tic tac toe board. And loosely is all that is required. With the rule of thirds, we only need to be in the ballpark to effect our photo. In this case, the heads of our subject sit roughly along the top horizontal third line. If we can get our focal point, again, the heads, somewhere along a third line, strengthen our image. If we can get it at an intersection point, it is even better. In this case, we are adding the rule of thirds to the lines of convergence. We now have two compositional techniques coming into play—the more, the merrier.
(Oh, and please don’t nitpick me saying my lines were not entirely on a third line. I told you only need to get close. And in fact, their heads are almost EXACTLY on the third line. Unlike the line I drew.)
Well, what about the lines of the intersection I mentioned? Let’s take a look…
The heads of the crowd help solidify the top horizontal third line and create a visible line in the photo. Our young couple’s bodies form a line stretching from bottom to top and intersecting with that top horizontal line. And the intersection point happens to be our focal point—the kissing heads.
Again, I stress that this was probably ALL luck. But could it be possible that our Time’s Life photographer Mr. Alfred Eisenstadt, who was seasoned and trained in the elements of composition, who had intentionally practiced his art for a major magazine – at that time the most read the magazine on the planet – and because he was seasoned and skilled and knowledgeable about these rules of composition, that he just did what was now second nature to him? I have a hunch on that, and I bet you can guess what it is.
I will also point out that I think it is a bit ironic that the person who happens to capture such an iconic image signaling that end to World War II, happened to be a German immigrant. But I digress.
So now on to part 2, which will take far less time. The second technique is the one that is planned. Let’s take a look at another photo.
Maurice Krijtenberg is a true star of “Make it happen.” It is a perfect example of seeing something in your head and creating it into existence. It is a beautiful shot. But at its root, is sound compositional techniques that make it exist as such an astounding image. We have our subject positioned off-center and roughly standing along the right hand vertical third line. Also, her head sits at an intersection point of third lines. We also have a set of converging lines formed by a band in the clouds that start wide on the right and converge on the left. It serves to help make your eye first slam toward the subject, but then move across the frame to the left to slam right back over to the right. Perfect. Also, we have another compositional technique being used, called Simplicity. It merely means that the less stuff you have in the photo, the more you focus on the subject.
The bottom line is this, composition wins. It is an essential element of great photography. I encourage you to learn those rules. Endeavor to use them in every shot. The more you practice using them, the more you will see the opportunities. And one day, when you have those rules so deep into your photographic makeup that you can take a photo on the fly and frame your photo according to those rules without even thinking about it, THEN you can start trying to figure out how to break those rules.
But how on earth can you break a rule if you don’t even know what the rules are? You can’t. You will take a good photo and think it was raw talent when you just blindly stumbled into a compositional technique, but you don’t recognize it because you don’t know what they are.