Guide to Composing your Photos
Part One: Rule of Thirds and Balance
Any discussion of composition can lead to trouble. No matter how many rules and analytic techniques you devise or learn, there will always be some wonderful images that break the rules, and some ho-hum images that are perfectly composed. It’s dangerous to over-intellectualize about a subject that is, at its core, subjective and emotional.
Does this mean that we should not bother to learn about composition, and just shoot what we intuitively feel will make good images? Not at all. Compositional guidelines are generally very helpful in setting up a photo; they are right far more often than they are wrong. There’s an important balance to be struck here. Perhaps Robert Bringhurst said it best, even though he was referring to another set of rules, in the in the introduction to his The Elements of Typographic Style, when he wrote
By all means break the rules, and break them beautifully, deliberately and well. That is one of the ends for which they exist.
I don’t believe it’s possible to break the rules well if you don’t learn what the rules are first. In addition, it’s probably best to break the rules deliberately, well, and one at a time. Which leads us to a Dangerous Dichotomy: learn the rules of composition, but don’t always follow them. Balance the requirements of the general, analytic rules with the specific, emotional elements of the individual image.
For the following discussion, we’ll take a trip to photo fantasy land, where we can imagine whatever scene, or whatever compositional elements we need, and arrange things so that they illustrate the important compositional concepts. The real world is not so simple, but you can move around or you can change the focal length of your lens to control the composition.
The Rule of Thirds
The most talked about, and maybe even the most useful, rule of composition is called The Rule of Thirds (ROT). It is very helpful in determining placement of strong vertical lines, and of the horizon line or other horizontal elements.
First, imagine the frame divided into thirds, using two vertical lines, as in this diagram:
Generally, the composition works best if your strongest vertical element is on or near one of those thirdsy lines. Let’s say you’re shooting landscapes in an open woodland. Following the ROT, you place the trunk of a large tree on one thirdsy line, like this:
Now, consider what you want to do with the rest of the frame. Do you want another tree on the other thirdsy line? Probably not. That would look too symmetrical and mechanically thirded.
Perhaps you may wish to leave the rest of the frame free of other strong compositional elements. That probably won’t work very well, either, unless you’re shooting an incredibly interesting tree.
To solve this vexing dilemma, we must digress from our discussion of ROT for a moment, and consider the concept of balance. We want the final image to appear, metaphorically speaking, equally weighted from side to side, without being mechanically symmetrical.
That lone tree on the thirdsy line is just too heavy. We need some weight for the other side of the frame. Maybe we have a nice, convenient boulder, and, perhaps a puffy cloud (clouds have metaphorical weight, even if their physical weight is negligible). Then we’d wind up with something like this:
This might make an interesting photograph, but it depends on how interesting these compositional elements are, as well as about a zillion other variables, such as the light and the details throughout the frame.
Another tool we have which might enable us to create a more balanced composition is the framing element, which we define as a strong compositional element near the edge of the image. For our example, let’s reduce the boulder and cloud, but add another tree; this tree is placed with the trunk on the edge of the image. Now we have something like this:
OK, I know this looks pretty stupid in a line drawing, but it could work in a real photograph. Trust me. Framing elements can do than balance an otherwise lopsided composition. They set the scene. They draw the viewers’ attention in to the middle of the image. They establish the context in which then rest of the image is placed.
Two warnings, though: first, make sure your framing elements are in sharp focus. They are usually close to the camera, while the primary subject may be much farther away. So, be careful and check the preview image in your camera. Blurry framing elements are seldom desirable, unless you are doing some sort of voyeuristic thing.
Second, a possible framing element might be too dark or too light. If the frame is in the shadow while the main subject is in bright light, the dark frame sets a somber tone for the whole image. Maybe you want this effect; an interesting silhouetted shape might be nice. On the other hand, the darkness might create the wrong mood for your scene. In any event, you need to be aware of this effect.
If the frame is in the bright sun, while the main subject is in the shade, you’ve really got problems. The brightness will distract the viewers’ attention, rather than focusing it on the important part of the image. A fuzzy or overexposed framing element can ruin an otherwise interesting image.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch… back to our discussion of the Rule of Thirds. ROT is useful in determining placement of the horizon and other horizontal elements, as well as vertical ones. Look at our horizontal thirdsy lines here:
In broad, sweeping landscapes, where much of the horizon is visible, photos generally work best when the horizon is on or near one of those lines. But which one? When you are setting up a shot, ask yourself “is this shot about the sky, or is it about the foreground?” If your photo is primarily about the sky, the horizon belongs on the lower thirdsy line. As an example, let’s go back to our composition with the thirded tree, the boulder, and the fluffy cloud. Maybe that image has a wonderful sky; the sun is bursting through the cloud, throwing rays of light all over. Now we have something like this:
If the foreground is the primary subject, we’ll need a more interesting foreground. We’ll conjure up a flower filled valley with a river and some shrubs, and wind up with something like:
Hey! Quit laughing at my drawings. I’m a sensitive guy.
If your photo is really, truly about both equally, you may wish to spit on ROT, and place the horizon near the center.
Whenever there is a lot of sky in your photo, you need to be careful with your exposure. The sky is pretty much always a lot brighter than the ground, so your camera’s meter is likely to tell you to underexpose, leaving you with a foreground that is too dark. Keep an eye on the preview image, and bracket your exposures if necessary.
There are other horizontal elements besides the horizon, of course, and you’ll need to keep ROT in mind when you place them.
Vertical balance doesn’t seem to be much of a consideration; I frequently see terrific images where the top of the frame is filled with “light”, featureless sky, while the bottom has lots of “heavy” detail. If we were to turn one of these on its side and analyze it as an abstract composition, it would seem unpleasantly out of balance.
Part Two: Dramatic Focus