By Allison Wheeler on | No Comments
Whether you have a trained eye of a photographer or you are a regular Joe off the street, we all can look at an image and either be wowed or walk away saying, "ehhh." Both reactions likely come from the photo's composition.
A photo's composition is the balance of elements in the frame. An image with good composition tells a story by guiding the viewer to the most essential element in the frame, the subject.
So, how can you ensure each image meets those standards and has excellent composition?
Here are a few fundamental composition rules you should follow and a few reasons why breaking some of these rules can be okay.
Chances are you are already familiar with this Rule of Thirds. This was the first photo composition rule I learned when I started my photography studies, and you will find this artistic rule applied to almost every area of the visual arts.
Here is a screenshot in Lightroom to help you visualize what it means to use the Rule of Thirds in your photo composition.
The rule of thirds principle requires you to divide your image into thirds both horizontally and vertically, like nine sections of a tic-tac-toe board. The idea is to place your subject at one of the four spots where the lines intersect.
It has been shown that viewers' eyes are more likely to be drawn to subjects in those areas, creating a more pleasing image to view. Click this link for a fantastic in-depth guide to using the Rule of Thirds.
The Golden Ratio is very similar to the Rule of Thirds; however, the lines are a bit narrower. You can see that instead of the nine equal rectangles in the Rule of Thirds, the middle rectangles in the Golden Ratio grid are smaller. The idea is still to place your subject at the intersections.
The Golden Spiral happens to be my favorite natural way to compose images. Technically, it is based on some serious mathematics (which goes WAY over my head). Essentially, the spiral covers the area of interest, while the remainder of the image is the background.
Note: You can view several of these composition overlays when using the crop tool in Lightroom. First, you need to have the crop tool selected and then press the "O" key (keyboard shortcut) to cycle through the overlays. You can also press "Shift + O" to rotate the overlays on your image.
When preparing to take a shot, it is always easier to make your subject stand out from the background if the background is clean and simple. I love to shoot from a particular area in my backyard because it is evenly lit and evenly lit and is clear of distractions. Trust me; starting with a clean background is so much easier than cloning out distractions in post-processing.
Simple ways to remove distracting elements in your photo are to move in closer and naturally crop out distracting details. You can also use an open aperture to blur the background and make it unrecognizable. And if all else fails, you can get up and physically remove any distracting objects or clutter from the background.
In the image below, I used blur to simplify the background - can you tell there were raspberry plants and an old wheelbarrow in the background?)
One of my favorite ways to get creative is to find different ways to frame my subject. Whether I shoot through tree branches, window frames, or in this case, my son's new bicycle, finding ways to isolate my subject by framing them helps tell the story behind the image.
And because I said I would share how you can sometimes break the rules, this particular image violates many of them!
First, the subject is in the center of the frame, which, according to the first three rules mentioned above, is a big no-no.
Also, if you had seen this image in color, you would have been able to tell that the background was anything but clean and simple. This is one of the big reasons why I love being able to convert images to black and white.
Images like this show instances when the image's story is more important than any technical composition.
Using directional leading lines to draw the viewer's eye to the subject is an excellent way to wow viewers with your composition.
The lines on this deck lead the viewer right to the family. And keep in mind that the lines do not have to be actual lines. They can be a row of trees, buildings, or even ants following one another. As long as the "line" leads you to the subject, that is what makes this rule of composition work.
And since we are on the topic of lines, one of the essential rules for every image is to keep your horizon line straight! In nature, the horizon is a flat, straight line where the sky and earth meet. This rule applies even if there is no actual horizon in your image. As we all know, trees do not grow diagonally from the ground.
Just make sure to keep the horizon straight in your photo because a straight horizon line is a composition rule that should NEVER be broken!
I used to shoot many of my images from further back. As a documentary-style photographer, it's my instinct to take pictures that include the entire scene. It was actually my mother who encouraged me to get in much closer for some shots. Now, I love filling my frame.
These closer shots help fill in the details of the story I want to tell in my photos. And as you can see, I would have missed plenty of details in this image had my son been further back in the frame, like that worm crawling on his face! Yuck!
Center Position? What? Yes, you can place your subject in the middle of the frame... IF IT FITS THE IMAGE!
Placing the subject in the center of the frame can often lead to a dull photo. However, it CAN work with the proper elements. For example, this image's leading lines and symmetry direct the viewer to the subject in the center photo... AND IT WORKS!
Just be aware that subjects placed in the center of images can often look dull and flat. So if you decide to use center positioning, make sure to have other engaging elements in your image to help the viewers' eyes hone in on your subject.
Yes, sometimes you have to be patient when trying to compose an image. Since I like to take a photojournalistic approach to my photography, there are many times when I have to wait for the perfect composition to come into my viewfinder.
Whether during the first dance at a wedding or photographing my boys in the backyard, if I am positioned well, I will only snap the shutter when the subject of my image is where I want them in the frame. So what happens if they never move into the right place? Simple. I change my position.
Do not be afraid to change your perspective and shooting angle to achieve the composition you are aiming for.
Photographing from above helps your subject appear smaller and more vulnerable. Photographing from below your subject helps your subject appear larger and more powerful. And shooting through something can also be a fun perspective that adds interest and variety to your photos.
Your camera settings also play an essential role in the composition. An image shot with a 35mm lens will look completely different from one taken with a 70-200mm lens. The same goes for the aperture. A wide aperture will blur more of the background, while a narrow aperture will show more of the details.
The best advice. Practice! Shoot a lot. Discover what you need to work on and go after mastering that task. Do not be afraid to fail. Let me tell you; I have taken some real "winners" in my journey to learning photography. Eventually, you will learn to compose images in your mind before you even pick up your camera.
Once you find ways to showcase the subject in each of your images, you will have mastered the rules of photo composition (and picked up a few situations when it's okay to break them too)!
Do you have any questions or comments about Photo Composition Rules? Leave us a comment below - we would love to hear from you! And PLEASE SHARE this post using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)!
Allison Wheeler is a lover of lifestyle photography from Norman, Oklahoma. Her eyes were opened to photography by toying with Instagram in 2010. She got a camera soon after and learned to use it by documenting her life with her husband and three young sons. She now happily does the same for others, from births to weddings and almost everything in between. To see Allison's most recent work, visit her Facebook page. She often gets on Pinterest to avoid cleaning her house.