Photography, like most forms of art and science has rules. The rules are meant to be your guideposts to creating an aesthetically pleasing image. The rules of composition have been around since long before photography was invented; their origin goes way back to the old masters who first put brush to canvas. We have become “genetically engineered” to expect these rules in our art. However, art being what it always has been, sometimes it’s exciting and daring to break the rules.
Composition: Science vs. Art
As for the science piece of photography, they are somewhat less forgiving. The rules of exposure, focus and shutter speed are pretty steadfast. If you do not have the correct exposure, the shot will be under or over exposed. Period. If the camera is out of focus, kiss that shot good bye. The shutter speed may be too slow, then the shot will have blurred motion. If that’s the effect you were going for –great. If not; too bad. Some things can be fixed in post-production, but it’s always best to get them right in the camera.
This post we will be discussing the rules of composition. I’ve already covered the others.
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is not that difficult to understand: Have your subject off center –not smack dab dead center on the shot. Most people just starting out do not realize this. Most cameras are designed to have the subject centered; they focus that way, the exposure meter reads in a center weighted manner. Why? Because they know that most people do not get the Rule of Thirds. Don’t be most people.
Picture the view finder with a tic tack toe grid overlaid on it. Some cameras even have a feature you can turn on to do this for you. If your camera does, use it at first, but don’t get used to relying on it; turn it on for a while to get yourself in the habit of using the rule of thirds –then shut it off.
On this grid, simply line up your subject to intersect with one of the lines. Why? Because since man began painting on something other than cave walls it was determined that it just looked better that way. We’ve become “hard-wired” to believe that. It’s in our DNA. When photography came along a couple hundred years ago they just applied the same rules.
Not all subjects or scenes lend themselves to this rule, so don’t be afraid to “break” the rule if it just feel right to you. But all things considered, if you can apply the Rule of Thirds –just do it!
Place the horizon at the top third or the bottom third. This will make for a more pleasing composition. This is another piece of the Rule of Thirds. Don’t place it right down the center line of your shot. Think about what you are taking the picture of. For example, if you are at the beach and you want to get a nice shot of the water and sky, look at which is more interesting to look at: Is it the surf crashing on the rocks under a bright clear blue sky –or is it the dark foreboding clouds in the sky over the calm water? The part of the shot that’s more interesting is the part you want to show more of. If they are both interesting, pick one; take a couple shots both ways and decide later which you like best.
Leading lines is a great way to draw your viewers into the shot. Use leading lines to take the eye toward the subject, or wherever you want your viewer’s eyes to go. Using the concept of leading lines along with the Rule of Thirds can make for a very powerful shot.
Focus on the Eyes
Like the Rule of Thirds, we humans have become hard-wired to look for eye contact. If your subject has eyes, focus on them! A great shot with out of focus eyes will leave the viewer feeling like the shot just didn’t make it. They may not even realize why. Just not being able to see the eyes clearly will detract from your image. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a person, a dog or a bug, if it has eyes focus on them!
Rules are Meant to be Broken
These rules are meant to help you better compose your photographs. You should practice them until they become second nature. Once you do them without even thinking about them, then you can start to think about breaking them. When composing your shot, compose it to the rules; then think about whether the shot lends itself to breaking those rules. Don’t just break them for the sake of breaking them; break them with purpose!