I feel that there’s a word missing from our vocabulary, and this essay is the culmination of an effort to find such a word, to define it usefully, and to work through some of what it might mean.
A long time ago I was a young art student, being told about the “Rule Of Thirds”. I was told it’s one of the most important fundamentals of art and photography, as it helps you get the right composure in your images. Overlay a tic-tac-toe/noughts and crosses grid over your image and crop or move your picture around so that the “points of interest” lie on the lines or line intersections. Sounds simple, it has been the basis of countless millions of images throughout the centuries. But is it perfect? No! Is there a better, more badass brother to the grid? Yes! Enter the Golden Ratio.
Just to slow things down a bit, here’s what the Rule Of Thirds (I’ll call it the ROT grid from now on) looks like on a plain black background. Chances are you’re familiar with it, you’ve seen it pop up on your cameras viewfinder or as an overlay in Photoshop or Lightroom.
The only thing over which we always have control in photography or video, no matter what your camera, is composition. We’re taught these “rules” and theories to help improve how we frame our work. But how much do these rules really need to be followed? And how does our viewer perceive the work when they aren’t? And is it still really bad framing when the work doesn’t follow the rules but we can’t look away?
In this video from YouTuber Brain Flick, we take a look at the psychology of pleasing compositions. The rules we’re taught as photographers, and the effects that breaking them can have on the work and how it is perceived.
Every great photograph consists of three key elements. First and foremost composition, lighting and of course the moment. Look at any great image and you’ll notice these elements. What part of the image caught your attention? More often than not, it will be the compositional structure that sets the scene. A poorly composed photo can make a fantastic subject dull, but a well-executed composition has the potential to turn an ordinary situation into something extraordinary. This is why composition is critical and should be paramount for every shot you take.
I want to discuss composition and how photographer’s can improve their work by thoughtfully constructing images that make sense. There a few imperative things to understand when discussing the various principles and importance of composition. Let’s face it; people will not be drawn to our photos if there is nothing of interest to grab their attention. To properly grasp composition and capture powerful, and meaningful photographs, we should understand how the human mind works.
Most photographers know of the aesthetically pleasing qualities of certain geometric shapes and patterns. There’s all kinds of “rules” based around them. Triangles are a common compositional tool, as are squares for the “frame within a frame”. Whether we choose to follow those rules or not is down to each individual. But is there more to it than just making things visually appealing?
This interesting short video from Now You See It dissects the shapes found in several animated and live action movie characters. It looks a little deeper at the psychology of shapes, and how they can change our mood and feeling about a character before they’ve even said a word. While the video does pertain primarily to movies, the theory can hold with still photographs, too.
There are no unbreakable rules when it comes to how you should compose your photographs After all, who likes rules except for your old school principal or heads of H.R. departments? There are however, several guidelines you can use to help improve the composition of your photos. In this tutorial, I’ve listed 20 of these guidelines along with examples of each. I’ve started with the most basic ones and finished with some of the more advanced composition techniques.
First of all we have to define what is meant by ‘composition’. Composition refers to the way the various elements in a scene are arranged within the frame. As I’ve already mentioned, these are not hard and fast rules but guidelines. That said, many of them have been used in art for thousands of years and they really do help achieve more attractive compositions. I find that I usually have one or more of these guidelines in the back of my mind as I’m setting up a shot.
We’ll start with probably the most well known composition technique: The Rule of Thirds.
A while back me and fellow DIY writer Joseph Parry were chatting over messenger. We had just started following a blog called Canon of design by Tavis Leaf Glover. Canon of design is a treasure mine of compositional information, which studies the master painters and how they designed, constructed and finished their masterpieces. These guys spent months, even years creating one image. Nothing was left to chance. Composition was perfectly drawn out, over and over again, until the image was compositionally bullet proof. I could write multiple articles about the benefits of signing up to Canon of design, but I will let you make your own mind up about that, just make sure you check it out.
Photography is awash with rules, from the inverse square rule to the Sunny 16 rule; and nestling among the composition rules in the golden ratio. But what exactly is it? And what makes it compositionally valuable?
The golden ratio is a mathematical principle that you might also hear referred to as the golden mean, the golden section, the golden spiral, divine proportion, or Phi. Phi, a bit like Pi, is an irrational number. It is valued at approximately 1.618. As a ratio, it would be expressed as 1:1.618. A rectangle that conforms to the golden ratio would have shorter sides equivalent to 1 and longer sides equivalent to 1.618.
You get there by dividing a line (c) into parts (a) and (b) where (a) divided by (b) is equal to (c) divided by (a). Does a diagram help?
What is Figure Ground Relationship?
Figure Ground Relationship is the relationship of the subject you wish the viewer to focus on and how it relates to the background / foreground. Most people refer to this as a “Silhouette” however it goes much deeper than this. Instead of thinking “This shot works because there’s a silhouette in it”, I would like to push forward the idea that by using FGR we can allow the thought process of “This shot works because we can clearly see the subject’s outline”.
Of course it follows the rule of thirds, It has to to be a good photo, right? I am not sure. You can always “break the rules”, to make a good photo, which loughs at the composition rules…
This display of power from Photographer James Allen Stewart shows that there is no way around the rules, there are only more intricate rules that make a good photo.