Photography 101 – Composition I

July 16, 2009

There are so many “rules” about composition that I felt a bit overwhelmed writing this entry and decided to break it down and discuss just two “rules” for now. I keep putting rules in quotes because, especially in a creative field like photography, rules are meant to be broken. In fact, the rule I broke in the last entry that Heather spotted so quickly? Even now that I notice it, I think I like the photo better with the rule being broken. So, take everything I’m about to say with a grain of salt, and experiment on your own with each of your photos to determine what looks best in each situation.

The Rule of Thirds

Before I start with the rule that I broke, I have to mention the Rule of Thirds first. Not only is it the most talked-about photography rule, it really makes the rule I broke come into play.

So, imagine drawing lines so that you break up your photo into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The Rule of Thirds states that the most interesting part of the image, or what you want your viewers eyes to focus on, at one of the intersection points of those lines.

For instance, let’s take a look at Myles. I think I’ve show this picture before, but look at him now with the lines drawn on the photo – notice that Myles’ eye sits right at the intersection of the top and right third lines:

Myles' shows us the Rule of Thirds

Here’s another example of a rusted structure near an abandoned bowling alley, this time with the ball of the structure at the top and left third lines:

Rule of Thirds - rusty ball

I love both of the above photos, but they’re not as interesting when I center the subjects:

Centered doesn't look as good


Centered doesn't look as good

One of my favorite Rule of Thirds examples is horizon lines. I always try to put them on one of the horizontal third lines, like so:

Rule of Thirds - horizon

Give your subject somewhere to look/move

This is the rule I broke in the last post… let’s see that photo again:

What rule did I break?

I followed the Rule of Thirds to put St. Francis approximately on the left third line of the photo. However, the poor guy is looking off to his right (our left), and the photo just cuts him off! All that open space on the right for him to look into and he’s not using it! If I was following this rule, I would have placed Francis on the right side of the photo, so he had all the open space to look into. I’ve cropped the photo in such a way to give him somewhere to look:

Giving St. Francis somewhere to look

The picture does, in my opinion, have a completely different feel. The first one St. Francis looked lonely almost rejected, while in the second he looks more contemplative and strong. I know that’s reading a lot into a photo, but can’t you see it? That being said, I kind of like the lonely look, so I don’t really regret my mistake, though I wish I had taken the photo both ways.

Here’s a photo I took of my friend Diana (this is at her rehearsal dinner – remember Josh from the Color-to-Black-and-White Tutorial? This is his wife!), where I got this rule right to begin with – this photo wasn’t cropped at all:

Diana has plenty of room to laugh

This rule doesn’t just apply for people and animals, but also for moving objects – they should have a place to go in your photo. Notice how I gave this tractor a place to drive off to… well, ok, it’s pretty obvious this tractor isn’t moving anywhere anytime soon, but you get the idea:

Give the tractor somewhere to go!

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  • Good post! You do a great job of explaining things.

    Honestly, if everyone followed the "rules" all the time, photography would get boring.

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