MEERO STORIES

11 basic rules for photographic composition

A beautiful image is the result of good composition. Here, we are going to see an inexhaustive list of the principal rules which have been tried and tested over decades of photography. You need to have expert knowledge of these technical rules in order to feel free of them and to concentrate on the essentials, in other words “What is my aim in taking this photograph?”. These rules will be your tool box and in order to absorb them better you need to test them for yourself.

1. The rule of thirds

The principle is simple: divide the scene into 9 equal sections by tracing two parallel vertical lines and then repeat the same thing horizontally. These lines are called the lines of emphasis [*]. The 4 meeting points where these lines intersect are the points of emphasis [**] (see diagram).

rule of thirds diagram

Using this technique allows the image to be properly aligned, balanced and dynamic.

It is related to techniques using the golden ratio, which involves calculating the perfect proportions between the elements of a composition in order to achieve harmony. The golden ratio was used above all in painting and architecture, but it is more difficult to apply it in photography.

The rule of thirds and landscape

For a landscape, horizontal lines are predominant. Making a choice depends on your ultimate aim: either leave 2/3 of the space for sky or 1/3 for sky, depending on your preference to highlight it more or less. It is then a matter of placing the supplementary element or elements of your composition onto the points of emphasis.

[* Alternative translation: "focal lines"]

[** Alternative translation: "focal points"]

Let’s take this photo as an example, where I’ve emphasised the sky (2/3 of the image) owing to its pastel colour shades. I‘ve then matched my subject (the boat) with a point of emphasis. The result is a balanced image with a highlighted subject. As small as it is, it’s the only thing we see.

Sky and ocean photographic composition

Picture credit: Alexis Long

Sky and ocean photographic composition

Picture credit: Alexis Long

Placing a subject on a point of emphasis gives it dynamic strength. Why, you ask? Well, because the eye looking at a photo is not immobile; it sweeps the image generally tracking from left to right like reading a text, then diagonally descending from right to left and lastly from left to right (see diagram).

The rule of thirds' diagram

In the same way that we look at a person’s face, we don’t take in all the face in a fixed way but in small movements going from his or her left eye to his or her right eye, then from that to the mouth: these are the points which make-up emphasises the most and for this reason we call it “the golden triangle”. The principle is identical in photography, although instead of having 3 “sacred” points there are 4.

It is therefore important to place the subject or subjects on these strategic points to emphasise them and give the photograph dynamism.

The rule of thirds and portraits

For a portrait, we try to place one of the principal subject’s eyes on a point of emphasis or on a horizontal line of emphasis at least. For a close-up portrait, it is generally accepted that a part of the forehead is cut (it will be more difficult to cut the chin while maintaining the harmony of the image).

Portrait photographic composition

Picture credit: Alexis Long

portrait photographic composition

Picture credit: Alexis Long

Hint:

The ideal solution is to be able, over time, to form a mental picture of these lines of emphasis. At first, to help yourself, you can use horizontal lines that you can display in your camera’s viewfinder. Some brands also allow them to be displayed directly on the screen in live view mode.

The composition of an image transmits a non-verbal message. If your subject is not looking directly at the lens, you need to enhance the direction of his or her gaze if you wish to transmit a “positive” message (of hope, of the future etc.). On the other hand, you can choose to minimise this as much as possible if you wish to transmit a more “negative” message (of confinement, an uncertain future, introspection etc.).

2. Fill the frame

Sometimes the subject is enough in itself and doesn’t need to be contextualised:

Black and white male portrait

Picture credit: Alexis Long

3. Simplification

In order to emphasise the subject, it is sometimes good to eliminate from the frame any element which might distort the reading of the image. There are several solutions open to you: if you have direct control over the decor, you are in charge of moving anything which is likely to interrupt the view or detract attention from your subject.

Another possibility is to move yourself to find another angle, for example by crouching or moving to a higher position. You can also use the trick of frame within a frame when the situation allows, by finding a frame within a frame which is going to isolate the subject and hide unwanted elements.

For example, you can photograph an object in a doorway or even compose the photo with the decor close in the foreground:

The statue of liberty composition pic

Picture credit: Alexis Long

From a technical point of view, you can also change the focal depth in order to keep the subject sharp and to isolate it from the background by making this blurred (see below left). Another possibility is to overexpose whatever surrounds the subject, as in this photo of roses taken in front of a window (below right).

Lastly, you can light just the subject and dim the rest of the frame by changing the lighting, for example with a flash concentrated on the subject leaving the rest of the frame under-exposed.

Blurred background photography hint

Picture credit: Alexis Long

Under exposition photography with flash

Picture credit: Alexis Long

4. Symmetry and central composition

In this precise case, for the photo to be successful it needs to be perfectly symmetrical and guesswork just won't cut it. In this type of situation, a tripod is often useful (to control the horizontality of your image and the symmetry of its vanishing lines). If you prefer to hold the camera, you still have the option to reframe it slightly retrospectively.

How to do Symetric portrait

Picture credit: Alexis Long

Symetric photographic composition

Picture credit: Alexis Long

5. Perspective, dynamic tension and geometry

Vanishing lines

The vanishing lines are those lines in the composition which guide the gaze towards a precise point in the image: they lend dynamism and allow you to focus your gaze on this point.

Vanishing lines photography

Picture credit: Alexis Long

Vanishing lines photograpy rules

Picture credit: Alexis Long

Dynamic tension

Lines which lead the gaze in opposing directions are going to create tension inviting the viewer’s eye to move around over the image:

Dynamic tension photography

Picture credit: Alexis Long

Dynamic tension photography

Picture credit: Alexis Long

Geometry

As a general rule, simple geometric shapes go together quite well and can easily be found in urban environments and also in nature for anyone keen to observe them. For example, a square frame will happily marry with a circular shape.

Geometrical photography

Picture credit: Alexis Long

6. Negative space

It is the abundance of “emptiness” that will highlight your subject.

Negative space photographic rule

Picture credit: Alexis Long

7. Pattern

The repetition of a pattern often results in very beautiful images, as in the photo above of a brick wall, for example.
 

8. Texture

Taking advantage of the ground, materials, fabrics, the bark of a tree, the mist on the panes of a window etc. will give good results as far as composition is concerned and will give the image structure.

Using textures in photography

Picture credit: Alexis Long

9. Frame border

You can sometimes play with the frame border as an element of the composition: to do this, ask yourself the following question: is the frame a player in the image I want to create? Or, on the other hand, should it remain invisible, tending to disappear?

10. Shot scale

When telling a story, it is recommended to alternate between three scales of shot in order to give it dynamism:

- Wide (context)

- Medium (also context, but with an aim closer to emotion)

- Close-up (emotion)

It is a good idea to adopt a scale per message. This rule is also called the rule of 3 for 1.

11. Breaking the rules

The rules have been established so that they can be learned, and sometimes broken, knowingly. Be open-minded and maybe, by choosing not to conform, you'll stumble upon something surprising. 

 

Conclusion

The composition of an image doesn’t only make it visually pleasing. One of its most important roles is to help tell a story. It is up to us, the photographers, to be aware of the message that we wish to send through our images and to compose our images accordingly. Photography is a visual art, but it is also, and above all, a question of thought.

 

Author's BIOGRAPHY

Alexis Long

He discovered photography as a child through his grandfather’s photos of mountains and they will forever remain etched in his memory. Following scientific studies, he took the plunge of working in the theatre and on graduating from the Cours Florent, he joined the famous company of the Comédie Italienne in Paris where he acted for 5 years, notably in the role of Harlequin. At the same time, he was teaching myself photography and began little by little until he became a professional.

His website: www.photographe-comedien.com

 

 

 

01 Oct 2018 by François-pierre Bruiet

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