Rules of Photography
The Rule of Thirds
Instead of centering your subject in the frame, place your subject one-third of the way through the frame.
The rule of thirds is so pervasive that many cameras can display similar grid-lines when framing a picture to help you follow the rule of thirds. Photo editing applications such as Adobe Light-room display a rule of thirds grid when cropping photos, too. The rule of thirds was first discovered by Greek artists, and it has withstood the test of time. Look for the rule of thirds in the world around you in magazines, paintings, movies, and television shows. You’ll discover that it’s used by all the masters.
The rule of thirds is a very oversimplified guideline. The most important element to remember is not to place your subject in the middle of the picture, nor just slightly off-center. One-third of the way towards the edge is really just the beginning of where composition begins to look deliberate; many compositions look great at four-fifths or even nine-tenths.
The Rule of Space
The rule of space relates to the direction the subject is moving towards. If the subject is moving, or looking in a direction other than the camera, leave room in front of them to prevent the picture from feeling crowded.
The Focal Point
Pictures must have a focal point. Often, the focal point is obvious. If you’re taking a picture of your daughter, she’s the focal point. If you’re a bird photographer, the focal point will always be a bird. Finding the focal point is more difficult with landscape, nature, and architectural photography. For example, you might see a gorgeous landscape around you, but the picture you take comes out boring. Without a focal point, the eye simply disregards the scene as background. Focal points can be flowers, animals, people, or anything that draws the eye. If you can’t find a focal point by changing your position or perspective, don’t be afraid to add one.
The subject does not simply need to be a person or object. If you’re taking pictures at your son’s baseball game, the subject might be the speed of the swing, the excitement of the crowd, or the happiness of the winning team. With practice, you will be able to capture these more complex subjects.
Once you determine your focal point, eliminate distracting elements from the picture. The easiest ways to do this are to move around the subject to find a non-distracting background, move closer, zoom in, or crop the picture. Attempt to fill the frame with your subject without crowding the subject by placing them too close to the edge of the frame.
Another way to simplify pictures is to blur the background using a short depth-of-field. The easiest way to do this is to put your camera in portrait mode.
Angle of View
One of the easiest ways to simplify your composition is to zoom in. Zooming in does more than move you closer—it narrows your angle of view. If you zoom out to a wide-angle, you’ll see more of the background. If you take a few steps back and zoom in, you’ll see less of the background. This difference in perspective gives you control over the background in your pictures. If you want to see more of the background, step closer and zoom out. If you want to focus on your subject, step back and zoom in.
Unless you have a beautiful (and simple) background, the telephoto (zoomed in) picture will probably be the prettiest of the three pictures. Telephoto lenses blur the background, which makes the subject seem to pop off the background. Telephoto lenses also make facial features appear smaller—in other words, a wide-angle lens can make your nose look big, even if it’s not.
One of the drawbacks of simplifying your composition is losing scale. Particularly when the subject’s size is important—such as with babies, puppies, monster trucks, and giant redwoods—you need to include something of a known size in the frame.
That’s why you see so many portraits of newborn babies being held in the father’s hand; the hand, for scale, immediately gives you a sense for the size of the subject.
The same applies for large subjects, such as waterfalls and Great Danes. If you want them to look large in the picture, include something small in the frame, as close to the large subject as possible.
Your eyes are naturally drawn to lines in a photograph. You can use lines to draw the viewer’s eyes to key elements, create patterns, and divide a picture. Lines can be architectural elements such as railings or walls, geographical elements such as shorelines or horizons, or organic elements such as trees or people.
- Lines have different qualities, depending on their shape and direction:
Converging parallel lines create a vanishing point (a concept created by Renaissance artists)—the point at which the lines converge in the distance—creating depth and perspective.
- Horizontal lines give a sense of quiet and peace.
- Vertical lines feel powerful, solid, and permanent.
- Diagonal lines are more dynamic, conveying movement and change.
- Straight lines feel formal, deliberate, and man made.
- Curved lines, especially an S-shape, feel casual and add sophistication, nature, and grace.
Use leading lines to draw the eye to your subject.
Any time a picture has prominent lines, including the ocean’s perfectly flat horizon or the vertical lines of a building, you must take care to make sure your camera is level. If you process your picture and discover that it isn’t perfectly level, just rotate the picture in post-processing so that it’s straight. Rotating pictures requires you to crop the edges slightly, so it helps to shoot slightly more wide-angle than you need.
When you include angled lines, choose a perspective that allows the angles to be at least 20 degrees off-level. Anything less doesn’t look deliberate and isn’t as appealing. To control the angle of lines, change your perspective. For example, in a landscape with a straight fence through it, you could hold your camera perpendicular to the fence so that it was perfectly straight across your picture. Or, you could move close to the fence and turn left or right so that the fence drew an attractive 20 to 30 degree angled line through the landscape. However, you wouldn’t want to be somewhere in-between; a 5 degree angle would look careless and unattractive.
Like lines, patterns draw the eye through the photo. Patterns can make a repetitive subject interesting and show quantity without cluttering a picture. When the pattern continues off the frame, the composition implies that the pattern continues forever.
Patterns are all around us, both in nature and in man made structures. Using patterns in your images creates a sense of rhythm and harmony. Patterns appear when elements such as lines, shapes, colors or forms repeat themselves.
You can add depth to a picture by using a natural frame. Frames can be trees, doorways, window frames, or anything that surrounds your subject.
Framing in photography is exactly what it sounds like you’re creating a visual “picture frame” within your image to draw focus to your subject.
Symmetry creates pictures where one half could be a mirror image of the other. Symmetry shows geometric precision and simple beauty.
When showing symmetry, alignment is critical. The picture must be perfectly centered, vertical lines must be straight, and the horizon must be completely flat. Often, you will need to disregard the rule of thirds and perfectly center the subject in the frame. When you see a reflective surface, such as still water, use symmetry.
When many beginning photographers first begin thoughtfully composing their shots, they have a tendency to line up shots perfectly straight, square, and flat. Moving off-center and showing a subject at an angle shows more depth and provides a more lively, dynamic, and casual composition.
There’s value to square composition; it conveys a stately, formal, and professional attitude. If that suits your subject, then a straight composition is a good choice
Panoramas create a very wide-angle perspective by stitching multiple photos together. Panoramas are easy, fun, and free. Panoramas can capture an entire environment, up to a 360 degree view around you. Not too many places in the world are beautiful in a full 360 degrees, but it’s comforting to know that a photo never has to be limited by the widest angle of your zoom lens.
Panoramas are practical, too. By creating a panorama, you can create a photo with the same angle-of-view as a super-wide angle lens, or even go wider than the widest lens in the world. Because panoramas stitch together multiple pictures, they effectively increase your camera’s megapixels, allowing you to take sharper pictures and create much larger prints.
When creating a panorama using a tripod with a panning head, make sure the tripod is completely level. Otherwise, the horizon will drift upwards or downwards, requiring you to crop it heavily.
There are a couple of things to avoid when composing a panorama:
- Using a polarizing filter.
- Including subjects very close to the camera.
- Composing a picture with trees and bushes in the foreground. They won’t stitch together well.
- Photographing moving subjects. A moving subject that spans more than one photo might appear in multiple photos or not at all. If this can’t be avoided (for example, if you’re in a crowded area), try to keep the moving subjects in the middle of a single frame, or edit out the offending subjects in post-processing.
Now that you understand the theory of photographic composition, perform these practices:
- Visit an art museum and note which of these techniques your favorite pieces use.
- Go through your existing pictures and see which of your pictures used each of these techniques.
- Every time you take a picture, make a point of following at least one of these compositional techniques. Often, you will use two or more techniques in the same picture.
- If there is a technique you’ve never intentionally used, find a subject you can use the technique on.
- Take both square and off-center pictures of a person, a house, and a car. Which do you prefer?
- Create a horizontal panorama using at least three photos and process it using Microsoft ICE. Next, create a second panorama by holding your camera vertically.