Rules of composition seem to get a lot of flak. Really though, they are simply commonly appreciated methods of composition and certainly have a place in our repertoire. This is especially true while we learn the ropes.
In this article, we will spend some time looking at a few common "rules" of composition, that we will discuss in terms of them being templates for our future work. By looking at each "rule" as a way to learn a new aspect of composition, we can focus our energies on adding tools to our belts rather than fighting them off as cliches.
Template #1: The Rule of Thirds
Let's start with everyone's favorite target, the Rule of Thirds. This so-called rule asks that you break your composition up into three equal sections vertically and horizontally and place important parts of your composition on the intersects of the lines that divide your composition.
While this can lead to boring or repetitive compositions when overused, it can also lead to moving your composition around and seeing potential other ways to compose an image than that which you initially saw. By looking through your viewfinder and placing your subject on each of the four intersection points, you’ll see different possibilities and maybe even come up with something better than your original idea.
I often do this myself when I compose images. I will pan and tilt the camera in order to place the subject on all four of these intersects as I begin to compose. Even if I don’t come up with something better than what I saw in the beginning, I might come up with options or give myself ideas for a future session.
Template #2: Center Your Subject
One offshoot of the rule of thirds is avoiding central compositions. This can certainly be good advice for people just beginning to learn composition who, without thought, place their subjects in the center of the frame. However, considering other portions of your image, such as leading lines, can make a central composition one of the most powerful tools you have.
Before throwing away the idea of placing your subject in the center of the frame, consider the subject and also the other elements of the composition. Let’s take the example of a spider in a web. If that spider is in the middle of the web and all the lines are leading towards it, placing the spider in the center of the frame makes sense as the power of the lines leading to it will make it stand out even more - especially if you compose perfectly symmetrically.
Another example might be a single mountain in a landscape. Let’s say you have a river that leads to a mountain and some clouds in the sky that recede away from you in the direction of the mountain. A wide angle lens will help accentuate the fact that both of these things, from your perspective, lead to that mountain. In this case, placing the mountain in the center of your composition may also make sense.
Now that we’ve taken a look at some “rules” that get a lot of flack, let’s take a look at a few more techniques that will help us to understand composition better.
Template #3: Rows of Pillars
The human mind loves patterns. Even where they seemingly don’t exist, we try to make them. It helps us to understand the world around us. By making use of visual patterns, we can make striking images that give us a sense of calm. A pattern can be especially powerful when it is broken, so look for things like red in a sea of green, a person walking down a row of pillars, or a splash in the middle of concentric ripples.
One pattern that can be used as a template is the patterns formed by receding pillars. By placing yourself directly in between two rows of pillars and placing your subject in the same way, you can create a powerful pattern that is broken up by the subject. This creates a visual contrast for the viewer and is an extremely easy way to see the power of repetition and begin training your mind to look for it.
Template #4: Converging Lines
Lines are the basis for everything in our images. Remember that the photograph is just a two-dimensional representation of the world. Photographs are nothing more than lines that the human brain relates to objects it has seen in the world. In photography, some lines can be literal, and some can be implied. We’ll look at the easily visible, literal kind here.
You’ve probably heard someone talk about the concept of leading lines. These are simply lines that draw your eye towards a subject. Common examples are things like railroad tracks or roads leading into the distance. Any lines that meet at some point will have a very powerful drawing power and lead your viewer right to the subject you want them to look at.
Template #5: Frame Your Subject
The images we make are defined by their edges. We want to keep our viewer inside those edges and prolong their journey within the image we have made. One way to do that is to frame your subject with something else in the composition. This provides borders to “stop” the eye from wandering out of the image. Using a frame can also provide for more depth in your image, which is something we’ll talk about in next week’s article.
A classic framing technique is to surround your subject with a door or arch and allow the difference in light to help with contrast as well. This can be seen in photograph after photograph of the world-famous Taj Mahal. The moment when you’re first greeted with a full view of the Taj Mahal is as you make a right turn and walk through the Great Gate. It is here that jaws drop and legs stop working. From behind that crowd is the classic shot that photographers make time and time again. It works so well because the frame forces the viewer to look right at the gorgeous building.
What’s Really Happening?
Through each of these templates, we’re actually subconsciously learning about visual weight — the way in which things draw the viewer’s eye. By placing our subjects using the Rule of Thirds, we’re placing them in positions known to draw the human eye. We’re essentially increasing the visual weight of that subject. By centering our subject, we are doing the same thing. However, by centering it and then considering how other elements in the frame draw your eye to the middle, you are giving even more visual weight to the centered subject. With the pillars example above, we’re lending visual weight to the object that breaks a pattern. We’re also creating lines that recede into the image and draw us to the subject. The concept of visual weight is a great way to look at composition, and we'll explore it more in some upcoming articles.
There are no right or wrong answers in composition. Some compositions may be more pleasing to large numbers of people and thus considered to be “better”, but they are certainly not the only way of making images. Learning these templates and why they work the way they do is a great way to further your compositional skill-set. With knowledge of some templates that form pleasing compositions, you can then start to combine them, modify them, or completely disregard them. They also give you a great set of known options to fall back on when you're struggling to compose an image. Thus, learning some templates is useful to us all as photographers.