Defining the composition of a picture, is defining the scene and the mood you want your viewer to experience. That is why it is the most important aspect of an image. A sharp photo with a boring composition, is worse than a interesting photo that is lacking some sharpness. This page describes how to create a good composition, to help you improve your photos.
It truly helps to follow the rules if you have never tried this, but be aware not to follow them blindly. This page explains why compositions work and how using them can improve your photos. It is encouraged to break these “rules” for artistic matters.
On this page three possible compositions are discussed:
Rule of thirds
Most starting photographers are inclined to put their subjects in the middle of the photo. If this applies to you, consider to change something (or not), and start using the Rule of Thirds. This is one of the most known composition rules in photography and can instantly improve your work, whatever type of photography.
Using the rule of thirds, you divide the frame in nine equal rectangles, by drawing lines at one-third and two-thirds of the photo horizontally and vertically. Your main subject (for a portrait photo this would be the eyes) should be placed on one of the points where the lines cross. You “should” avoid placing your subject in the middle rectangle.
Not only do you place your subject on one of these points, but also the horizon. Which should be level at one-third or two-thirds of the photo. If the sky is important, the horizon should be at one-third of the photo. But if the landscape is important, you should place the horizon at two-thirds of the photo (like the image below). Another important rule to remember is that horizon should be level!
Why does it work?
The reason this composition works, is that from one of these points, your eyes have space to move around the photo, this makes the photo dynamic. Because our eyes are tend to stay static in the middle of the photo (it is natural to us), we don’t look around any more once we have reached the center of the photo.
Fibonacci’s Golden Ratio
Leonardo Pisano, also know as Fibonacci, was an Italian mathematician, and the first western scientist to describe the sequence 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on. Did you notice a pattern here? The sum of the previous two numbers, is the value of the next number. For example: 0+1=1; 1+1=2; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8, etcetera.
It is assumed he learned this sequence while staying Algeria, where he met Indian and Arabic mathematicians. If you divide one number by the previous number, it will become visible that the outcome on average, is around 1,6 (starting at 5 – the sixth number in the sequence). Prove: 2/1 = 2; 3/2=1,5; 5/3=1,666; 8/5=1,6; 13/8=1,625, … 144/89=1,617, etcetera. Mathematicians calculated that the golden ration number is 1.618 (source), also known as Phi.
How can this be used in a composition? Suppose the canvas of your photo is 3.000 pixels by 2.000 pixels. Just like the Rule of Thirds, we will divide the canvas in nine segments, but this time not at thirds of the photo.
The first line we draw on the canvas is vertically at 3.000/1,618 = 1.854 pixels.
The next line is also vertically, this time at 1.845 (the position of the previous line) / 1,618 = 1.146 pixels.
Now, we’ll divide the canvas horizontally, starting at 2.000 / 1,618 = 1.236 pixels.
And finally a horizontal line at 1.236 / 1,618 = 764 pixels (counting from the top of the canvas).
Just like in the rule of thirds, the subject should be placed at the red dots.
Why does it work?
Just like the Rule of Thirds, this works, because your eyes want to move around from these points, making you look longer at the picture. The big difference between the Rule of Thirds and Fibonacci’s Golden Ratio, is that the subject is a little more towards the center of the photo in the latter one. This is useful when you feel that the subject is too close to the edge of the frame, or need a little more negative space for artistic matters.
Both composition “rules” as described above have one thing in common: the subject is never in the middle of the photo. Like mentioned, this creates a dynamic photo. But what if your goal is to achieve a sense of serenity? A central composition might work in that case. With a subject in the center of the photo, your eyes stay at rest, hence the picture will be calmer, like the image below.
Adding some power to the photo above, is done by adding symmetry to the composition. Unlike in the previous described compositions, the horizon is in the middle of the photo.
Combining the Rule of Thirds (or Fibonacci’s Ratio) and symmetry, changes the atmosphere of the photo completely, like in the image below. Opposed to the picture above, the tree is not centered, but on one of the points on the imaginary “line of thirds”.
Why does it work?
Symmetry can be used as a powerful composition tool, but be aware not to wear it out and create a boring picture. Reflections, or structured buildings are grateful subjects for a symmetric composition.
This composition works, because our brain is always looking for patterns and structures. Since symmetry is the ultimate structure, we associate symmetry with beauty, and consider it pleasing to the eye.
Hopefully these tips above are useful. Like implied in the introduction, these “rules” should be used as tools, not as rules. One final tip: No matter what composition you use, don’t try to stuff too much elements in one photo. Keeping it simple will create the best photo!