Oh, great Master, how do I attain mastery of my craft?
Follow the rules!
The rules of composition
Since time immemorial some artistic creations have been held in higher esteem than others. Some artists are recognized as masters and aspiring newcomers try to emulate their techniques and figure out the “secrets”. Over time a body of techniques, tricks, and practices has been codified into “rules”. A subset of these applies to the arrangement of elements in visual creations, including paintings and photography.
Some of these rules are based on human perception, the way we see and experience the world. Human eyesight keenly discriminates colors and contrast and our minds form shapes and depth from small clues. There was a time when seeing the saber-toothed lion before he spotted you meant living another day. As early artists mentored their apprentices some conventions were passed along and became part of the body of rules.
Modern artists are taught to practice the rules – see admonition above – and they are widely followed. Lay observers are used to seeing the artistic works and the conventions have become a language for visual communication. We perceive some creations as wrong, uncomfortable, they deviate from what we are used to, they feel “flawed”.
The painter and photographer tries to tell a story, convey a feeling, with just a two-dimensional, static, visual image. It is hard to invoke in the viewer the experience that the artist might have had when seeing what she imaged. There is no way to present the biting chill of a winter gale, the fragrance of a field of flowers, the sizzle of a steak, the softness a comforting blanket, the laughter of a child, the rhythm of a drum, and yet we manage to arouse those feelings with well-crafted images. Having a set of rules, a language that is understood by the viewer, helps us to connect to the subconscious mind; so these rules are important because they work, because they are expected.
So what are these rules for photographers? When you search the Internet for “composition rules” you will get millions of results. There are the “8 top rules...”, the “ten best rules…”, “four easy rules …”, “12 important rules…” and so it goes. For this article I have compiled a larger number of rules. Some are well known, others not always included in a list of “master rules”. The order may not agree with other authors and indeed the “most important” rule is not at the start of my list.
All these widely differing lists of rules should alert your sense of caution. We will come back to that matter after the presentation of the rules.
Make it Golden
The first rule on my list is the rule to follow the “golden mean”, golden ratio, golden section, golden proportion; there are many terms for this concept. Indeed it can be expressed as a number. I list it first because of its historical significance. This concept is millennia old and is said to have been applied to the most important architectural and artistic creations of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and many other cultures.
The Golden mean even has a Greek letter by which it is known, phi, φ or Φ. It may not be quite as famous, and likely not quite as useful, as for example pi, π.
Here is the definition: Two entities, or quantities, are related by the golden ratio if the larger is to the smaller as the sum is to the larger. Expressed as an equation it looks like this:
A / B = (A+B) / A
We can do a little bit of mathematical manipulation, and substitute Φ for A/B:
A / B = A / A + B / A Φ = 1 + 1 / Φ
This makes it mathematically rather interesting. The golden ration cannot be expressed as a simple number and, like pi, goes on infinitely when written in decimal notation. The approximate value is 1.618. The rectangles here have that ratio. Note that when a square is sectioned off from such a rectangle the remaining rectangle will have the same proportion. This can be extended and, with quadrants of a circle drawn in the squares, will result in the “golden spiral”.
This proportion may be used as the aspect ratio of a photo. It is slightly wider that the standard 35mm aspect ratio (3x2 or 1.5), but narrower than the modern HD television ratio (16x9 or 1.777...). Positioning the elements of the image according to this value will certainly gain the applause of mathematicians and art historians. It might even “look good”.
Let the thirds rule
The “rule of thirds” is the most widely acclaimed rule in composition. Just about every list starts with this rule. It is so pervasive that many camera viewfinders, and just about all cropping tools, show the field divided into thirds.
The rule is taught because the human eye is said to be more interested in images that are divided into thirds. Or is it the human mind? This may, or more likely may not, be a natural phenomenon. We all have become conditioned to following this rule because it has been done for centuries.
So maybe the reason you should follow this rule it is that your viewers already expect it, because every photographer worth his or her salt uses it in every image.
And what does the rule ask you to do?
Place the important elements at the intersections, the four points around the center. See the illustration of the boy in the sea, the intersection points are indicated with crosses, the “third” lines are very lightly ruled in this photo.
If you have just one object the choice of location is yours but follow the other rules. If there is a horizon, it is best along the lower or upper line. If you have strong vertical elements they should be located along the left or right vertical line. If you can divide your image into thirds you will make all the dilettante judges happy.
Avoid the middle
By their very nature photographs are static images. When the main subject in a photo is dead center the image feels even more static. It seems dull and lifeless. This does not have to be.
Many other rules suggest where to place your elements to achieve a more dynamic, interesting photo. Sometimes just leaving a little more space to one side or another can bring the photo to life. So be careful and stay away from the middle!
Keep it on the diagonal
Placing your elements horizontally or vertically can be just as boring as centering them in the middle. Find a way to place your subjects along a diagonal or at a dynamic angle to bring “action” to the picture.
Let odds rule
Now this rule may strike you as odd. The rule says that if you have multiple elements having an odd number of them is more “pleasing” than an even number. Our human mind automatically organizes what we see, so we unconsciously pair up the elements. Supposedly we are more pleased when one prime subject is accompanied with two secondary elements. Elements arranged in triangles are more dynamic and interesting than items in square or rectangular placements.
This rule probably breaks down if there is a multitude. After about four or five items we see “many” unless we consciously count. Please don’t go off killing the chicks just to comply with this rule!
Eliminate everything that does not support your message!
Like this rule, if it can be said in just one word, that’s the way to say it. The same applies to pictures. If you have just one subject you can make a more powerful statement about it than if you must spread the viewers’ attention over a number of elements.
Present your subject simply. Anything else is a distraction. That applies to items in the background, it concerns lighting and details.
Define your center of interest. Review everything else, including space and format. See how you can eliminate or deemphasize everything that does not conform to your intended message.
Be careful with this rule! As Einstein is quoted as saying “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler!” It is possible to overdo. As you review the scene ask yourself what is there that does not enhance the subject but also what is there that strengthens the visual message.
This rule can be used in editing as well. Anything in the frame that doesn't support the scene takes away from it.
Fill the frame
This seems like a simple rule. But is it? Think about it and you will ask, “what frame?”, “fill with what?”
The “frame” is not your camera’s sensor or viewfinder. Think of how you will present it to your viewers. Will you show it as pictures in an album? Will the image be presented as a large print on a wall? Most likely these days, your viewers will see your art on a monitor. Older monitors have a 4 to 3 aspect ratio (1.33..) while the newer ones use the HDTV format of 16:9 (1.777..). Keep in mind that the 35mm format is 3:2 (1.5). “Fill the frame” is not quite as easy as it seems. Many photographers like to be able to crop to the final format - even the golden ratio! – and leave some space for that when taking the picture.
The second part of the question is what to fill the frame with. That does not mean the main subject! It means your final picture with all that is needed for the image that you wish to convey. Another rule calls for “breathing space”. That space is part of the picture, so there really is no conflict. The rule to “fill the frame” does imply that you need to get close enough to capture the image you wish to present. Leave no extra, wasted space.
Cut with caution
In many instances you will not want to show the entire subject in the photograph the entire subject. A portrait is a ready example. It will be necessary for you to decide what to include in the photograph and what to exclude.
This rule, to cut with caution, wants you to think carefully. Some parts of a subject can be cut without the viewer missing it. Some portions can be readily imagined, almost automatically so, and allow you to concentrate on the important details.
When you first saw the photo of the bottles or the statue on this page, did you really miss the parts that have been cut? Does it matter that some elements are outside the frame, implied and not included. You can cut powerfully and tell the story you wish to convey. Include all that is needed and exclude the rest.
Frame the subject
With any photo you wish to tell a complete story. Including elements inside the image that help frame the primary subject can add a sense of completeness to the picture. The viewer’s eye will be directed to the main area.
Framing elements, like the tree and the rocks in the photos below, provide isolation of the main subjects without tearing them from their environments. Use natural and surrounding elements to highlight your subject.
There is another consideration when it comes to framing your photo, and that is the actual presentation frame. Not every photo fits perfectly into the “golden ratio-ed” frame. Make the frame fit the subject.
Balance the elements
Photos can appear empty, void of something. Well, they can be unbalanced. That detracts and even disturbs the viewer. The elements of a photo should be balanced to present a harmonious whole.
Place your elements in such a way that the secondary item supports rather than competes with the main subject. Find a direction of view that includes the elements in such a way that they balance each other.
There are two examples here that attempt to illustrate balancing elements. With the photo of the glass its shadow acts as a balancing element.
The photo of the moat uses a small dark area on the right to balance the large light area on the left. It also does that with a similarity in shape.
Lead to your subject
Leading lines in your photo are the most powerful way to direct how the viewer experiences the picture. Our attention is naturally drawn to follow lines. These can be actual lines of parts of the image or lines formed by a series of objects.
Our mind is programmed to “connect the dots”. You can take advantage of that and literally lead your viewer on a journey of your photo, showing the parts of your image in the order that you decide.
There are many kinds of lines. They can be straight, curved, simple or complicated. They can even be formed by the tops of trees against the sky, as implied in the photo here.
As you use leading lines, be sure to lead to an element you wish the viewer to visit. Don’t lead out of the frame unless you want the visitor to depart!
Help your viewer know where to look. Find elements in your scene or subject that will form leading lines and use them as guides within your photo.
Provide breathing space
A rule mentioned earlier urges to “fill the frame.” This does not mean to “crowd the subject”. All subjects need a certain amount of space for the photo to appear pleasant, “just right.”
Another form of space is called “negative space”. The photo here has plenty of negative space. Such use of space can be very powerful. Negative space can even be stark white or black and be a powerful component of an image.
If a subject is meant to be in motion, space in front of it will give it someplace to go. It helps the viewer to imagine the motion.
Even static subjects, portraits for instance, should allow space in front. Subjects should look “into” the photo. If your subject is looking out of the frame, the viewer’s attention will be pulled out as well. Don’t lose your audience before they see your creation!
The two images of the sea gull, both cropped from the same photo, and at the same scale, give quite different feelings of the subject.
Clean the background
The background in a photo can be quite distracting, but it can also support your message. It is natural to concentrate on your subject and not pay attention to what is behind it.
As you prepare to take the picture, look carefully. Does the background help tell the story or is it saying something quite different?
Sometimes just a small shift sideways or up and down will place a more complementary background behind your subject.
You may also be able to tone down a busy, distracting background by using a shallow depth of field with a wide aperture setting.
Be careful when using an SLR camera which presents the scene in the viewfinder as produced by the camera lens. To aid focusing, the lens will be operating at maximum aperture. That is also the setting for the shallowest depth of field and the background will be blurred. Your exposure setting, however, may call for the lens to be stopped down when the actual photo is captured. The background may turn out in disturbingly good detail.
Say it with shapes
Shapes can tell entire stories. That crooked tree, a strong shadow, the suggested outline of a child, all these can be the elements of successful photos. Look for shapes to carry your message.
Show it in patterns
Patterns and textures are tools for interesting and exiting photographs. They are all around us; some are interesting and compelling by themselves. The rhythm of repetitive elements, be they dancers or strands of rope, can bring harmony and a sense of order to your photos.
Taking patterns even further results in textures. By themselves textures can make very interesting photos. As an element supporting other subjects texture can add, well, texture to a picture.
Say it with lines
Lines are something our eyes are most sensitive to. We notice them, we follow them, we translate them into shapes. We see them as the edges of objects, in the arrangements of elements. Look and you will see lines everywhere.
Use lines as leading lines and use them as elements of your pictures. The illustrations here are dominated by shadow lines and the lines formed by the objects themselves.
Allow symmetry to speak
You would think that the rules stated so far seem to discourage symmetry in photographs. Don’t accept that! When you encounter a scene with glorious symmetry, maybe a formal garden, a stained glass window, or just a perfect tree on a hill, use it! It may be someone else’s creation or a natural formation, but it is there for you to use and show. Symmetry provides a formal, calm, ordered feeling, even when it is not completely perfect.
Pick your view
You don’t have to just look straight ahead. There are things to see looking up and looking down, interesting objects behind and inside others. Some objects appear surprisingly different when viewed from other than a normal angle.
An unusual angle may provide an easier way to place the elements into a pleasing composition.
The appearance of objects and the mood of a picture can change dramatically with the angle of view. Looking down makes objects appear smaller.
Experiment with point of view, your photos will be richer for it!
Use depth clues
By their very nature, photographs are two-dimensional. What you photograph most likely is very three-dimensional. Use the depth clues in the converging perspective lines, in the different shades of haze of distant hills, the different amount of blur in close-up scenes.
You can make a photo give the feeling of space by having items in the foreground.
Look for and use depth clues, position them to aid the overall composition.
Emphasize your subject
It stands to reason that you want your primary subject to be visually the center of attention. Sometimes subtle elements can distract the emphasis to irrelevant items.
Try to put your subject into the “best” light. The viewer’s eye is attracted to the lightest area of your photo. In a mostly light image the point of greatest interest may be the darkest object.
Use leading lines and lighting to guide the viewer through your photo.
Sometimes your main interest cannot be either the lightest or darkest element. See if you can position it against a background element to provide the best contrast. Maybe just a small hole in the canopy of trees can provide a bit of clear sky as the background for your bird friend. Shift your position to take advantage of that.
Be very conscious of emphasizing your subject.
Say it with color
Just as you select the subject of your photo, also be mindful of color. Color can be just as much a topic as shape or texture. Colors can create the right mood. Think of the somber cold tones of a rainy day or the bright warm colors of a sunny afternoon. Strong coloring can set the tone, so can singling out elements with strong colors to bring your image to life.
Photographers specializing in monochrome have an additional advantage here. The monochrome image is much more of an abstraction than a color photo. Giving the monochrome rendering just the right tone can be a powerful way to support your message. Selective coloring can emphasize just the element you want to present. Use color to your advantage.
Oh, great Master, how do I attain supremacy in my craft?
Break the rules!
Imagine yourself looking at the latest photos posted on your favorite sharing site. You scan past the overly gaudy landscapes, the wide-eyed kittens, the beached boats under doomsday clouds, and on and on. What photo attracts your attention, stops your finger rolling on the scanning wheel? It has to be extraordinary, unusual, unexpected, surprising, astonishing.
When you follow the rules to create your image, your photo will conform to an expected, familiar visual language. The message will go right through, right to the subconscious. The viewer isn’t stopped by “grammar” or “misused words”. The viewer understands your message. It is like a sugar-coated pill. For the most part, that is exactly what you expected, what you wanted. You let your image speak, to transmit the message, the feeling, the mood. Sometimes staying within the rules may keep your photo from being extraordinary, it may come up to the highest standard, but it might not stand out.
If you want to be noticed, admired, you need to surprise, enchant, you need to break out from the crowd. You need to break the rules!
Why all those pages of rules only to be told to ignore them? Ignoring them is not the secret. You must know when to use and when to break them. Know what the viewer expects, then deliver what you want her to experience. Surprise, jar, shock, astonish, amaze, know what feeling, what mood, you want to arouse. Knowing the rules and why they work will help you to understand how you can compose and deliver that image that stops the viewer in his tracks to pay attention to what you have to show.
One final rule, no, not rule, just a suggestion for all of your picture taking: Use a tripod with your camera as often as you can. It will transform your thinking into that of a photographer not just a snap shooter. Taking a photo will take longer, it will give you time to look, to see, to compose. It will help you to wait for that cloud to get into just the right position, it will give you time to see the trees sticking up behind your model, the smudge on the coffee cup. It will make you a better photographer!