The word composition comes from the Latin compositio, -onis, derived from compositium, which means to put together, connect or arrange. In visual arts, it refers to the balanced and harmonious distribution of different elements.
Photographic composition, therefore, is defined by the act of finding a point of view in which all the elements are positioned in a visually attractive way for the viewer. When composing an image, all the elements are placed with the objective of creating impact and transmitting a visual message.
When talking about anything artistic in nature, the word “rule” can sound very strict, especially because in creativity there shouldn’t be any rules. However, there are aesthetic foundations that serve as guidelines to create images that are stronger and more pleasing to the eye in order to better tell our story and help the viewer understand it.
The “rules” that we are going to go through are simple, however, when applied together in one single photo can have a lot of impact and add value to our work.
Let’s start with the basics:
Everyone or almost everyone is familiar with the rule of thirds, it’s very simple and probably one of the first things you learn about in photographic composition.
It is easy to identify and apply when you are out shooting which is what makes this rule so interesting. Despite being the starting point towards more complex compositions, it should not be dismissed because of its simplicity, on the contrary, often less is more, and this rule of composition is an elegant solution in many situations.
The golden ratio, mother of all rules of composition and proportions in art and widely used by DaVinci, Michael Angelo, Gaudí and many other great masters throughout history, was developed by Fibonacci with his famous sequence, and consists in dividing a space into smaller parts that, if you trace with a line, generates the golden ratio or Fibonacci spiral.
And why do I get apparently side-tracked telling you all this?
Well, because the rule of thirds originates from this very ratio whose pattern appears in nature time and time again: from snail shells to galaxies, almost everything is governed by it. It also explains why, when you compose with the spiral or rule of thirds the resulting photographs appear so natural to the eye. However, using the rule of thirds alone will make your photographs static and you might not always want that.
So how do you fix that?
The simplest way to make your composition more dynamic is by using diagonals. These allow us to “destabalize” our framing and because our brain is programmed to make sense of things, it will automatically try and understand why and unconsciously follow the diagonal looking for equilibrium. Furthermore, you can use diagonals to lead your viewer to a specific point in your photograph, allowing you to place more emphasis on the object or subject.
As you can see in the examples, the diagonal can be imaginary: by using a series of subjects within the frame, or it can be real: using architectural elements or shadows to create the diagonal.
Another way to create more impact in your photography (and it’s one of my favourites), is by using the rule of odds or threes. It’s as simple as the name suggests, all you have to do is try to compose the scene with an odd number of subjects and if it’s with three, even better.
By now you are probably starting to realise that composition has a lot to do with how the human brain works with regards to what it sees, and a love story exists when it comes to the brain and the number three; the holy trinity, Neptune’s trident, the three musketeers…Admiration for the number three has been with us throughout history, and according to experts on the subject, the brain tends to make things as easy as possible for itself.
We saw examples of this in our article on colour, and the same is true when it comes to quantities. If we have an even number of subjects in our photograph, the brain will organise them into pairs in order to process the information more quickly and will therefore give them less importance. However, with an odd number of subjects our brain will unconsciously search for the one that is missing, making it pay more attention to the image and spend more time examining entire photograph.
If you use 3 subjects, aside from all of the above, you’ll also be able to create a geometric form, something that the brain loves, especially if that form is a triangle.
Why is this interesting?
Well, because triangles are a mixture of a little bit of everything that I have been talking about up until now. They include diagonals that lead the viewer through the photo and make the scene dynamic and, because you are framing 3 subjects, it’s likely that some of them will be positioned within the rule of thirds.
Explaining these concepts with words may seem a little dense, but with this “guide” you’ll be able to create good compositions more easily. Now all that is left is for you to go out with camera and carefully observe your surroundings. I promise you that you’ll start to see triangles and diagonals appear right before you!
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