Photographers have largely borrowed the rules of composition from the fine arts. In the process of working artists discovered that while painting the same objects, the place where the objects were positioned on the canvas made a huge difference. Depending on the composition of the objects in them, some paintings were better accepted by the viewers, while others less so.
Thus, artists gradually established some composition rules over time, which we can now either use or break, but still need to be familiar with, because you can always tell when somebody knowingly breaks a rule and when someone simply doesn’t know it.
Modern cameras can focus automatically, or choose for us important settings like shutter speed, aperture, white balance and sensitivity, they can even turn on the flash when the light is not enough. To put it simply – they can do everything for a photo to be technically good. What they cannot do, however, is compose the frame for you. This is your job. That is why composition is one of the most important aspects of photography.
Rule of thirds
One of the basic rules in terms of composition is the rule of thirds. If you split a photo into thirds vertically and horizontally, the places where the lines would meet are the accent points of your photo. These are the places where we should place the important elements of a scene, the ones we want to emphasise.
It would be wrong to assume that if we put the object in the perfect centre of the photo it will be more effective.
The classic understanding is that the horizon should coincide with the upper or lower horizontal line – high or low horizon. When shooting a portrait eyes are often placed along the upper horizontal line.
Another rule of thumb related to composition is that the main elements in a scene should never touch or be cut by the borders of the frame. It is not good if they touch one another, either. There should always be some space around the main objects.
Repeated elements in the frame create a sense of rhythm in the composition.
They can be ordered or scattered, but are either way well-accepted by the viewers. Even when they are void of apparent meaning, they still look good.
Zebras are a good example illustrating the point above. They are almost the same as mules, but because of the repeated pattern of black and white stripes, they are much more photogenic.
It is a good idea to look for natural leading lines guiding the gaze of the viewer to the main object in the photo. It could be a road, a river, deep shadows or something else. In the following two examples, the leading lines are the fountains and the stairs.
Looking for symmetries, analogues, or reflections within the frame is also a good solution. When there is symmetry, central compositions, where the main object is in the middle of the photo, is also acceptable, as well as central horizons.
When the main element is only one and especially when the background is an even colour, it is also possible to place the object in the middle of the frame (central composition). If you position the object on the left or on the right, having a lot of empty space on one side only will seem too side-weighted.
While horizontal lines in a frame bring a sense of peace, lightness and balance, jagged lines and diagonals create drama and tension. While shooting, we can tilt the camera to the left or right to produce a more dynamic composition. The horizon does not have to be level on every photo. Although many people do that subconsciously.
Of course, these are not canonical rules which should never be broken. We know that modern art has turned classical rules upside down and inside out. It is now a matter of personal preference whether we will stick strictly to the rule or we will take a different approach to composition. In the two photographs below the first one follows the rules more closely. It is more logical a portrait photograph to be taken with a portrait layout of the sensor. The figure fills up the space of the picture better. The horizon is level. The second photograph uses an unusual composition. The camera was tilted, the vertical lines and elements are now diagonal. The portrait is with a landscape layout. However, it does not look worse.
A classic rule in portrait photography is to leave more space in front of the person’s face and less space behind the person’s back. If there is movement, there is more space left in the direction of the movement and less space behind.
As we said before, rules can be broken, especially when this makes for a more dramatic shot. Here are some examples where rules were followed (the portrait on the right) and where they were clearly broken (the portrait on the left) – parts of the head have been cut out of the borders of the frame, the head is far away, stuck in the corner with no space before it. However, the sense of movement and dynamic is intensified because of the diagonal position.
good exercise in composition is to shoot for some time only with a prime lens, even only with manual focus. Technical limitations are good for your creative growth. Beyond any doubt, zoom lenses offer more composition opportunities and subconsciously we choose the easiest option. When we cannot compose the frame the way we want to, when we are limited by the lens and its viewing angle, we start to think more about the scene and what to include in the frame and what to exclude. The manual focus will force you to work more slowly, giving you additional time to look around and consider all the details rather than act on your first impressions, which is our standard reaction.
There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.