Monday, May 24, 2010

Rules of thumb for Composition of Photographs

Ed's note: Pankaj Kaushal, aka spo0nman, is an artist trapped in the body of a geek. When he's not making MySQL applications go faster, he's taking amazing photographs. In this post, he explains the importance of composition in photography. We hope you enjoy this and find it useful!


There are no rules in photography, only limitations -- you need to work around the limitations to make the best presentation possible. You can compose pictures that appear aesthetically appealing by remembering a few simple “rules”. These are by no means rules of photography and should not be thought of as such, I like to think of them as cheat codes. Ansel Adams said, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” I believe that.

1. Rule of thirds

This one is the simplest. The Rule of Thirds is based on the fact that the human eye is naturally drawn to a point about two-thirds up a frame. To photograph with the rule of thirds, all you need to do is: turn on the grid lines feature in your camera and place the subject where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect.

composition using rule of thirds

The intersections make an ideal location for the subject of the photograph. The ones on top work best for portraits. You can use the lower intersections to draw attention to the subject in a crowded picture.

2. Rule of odds

Surrounding the subject with an even number of objects makes it more interesting and aesthetically appealing to the human eye, apparently! The picture in the example has a level of symmetry attached to it, but, it works mostly because of the rule of odds. A person surrounded by two other people makes the image "warm and happy", whereas an even number of objects make a photograph look dull and too symmetrical.

Windmills near Chitradurga photographed using Nikon D70 with a Nikon 18-70mm lens

composition using rule of odds

3. Rule of space

The thing that comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is silence. Why else would Shakespeare make "the rest is silence" Hamlet's final words? Space is like silence. How better to express the grandeur of a subject then by adding space to the photograph. Space and silence are powerful agents to use in your pictures.

towards - photographed using Nikon D70
composition using rule of space

If you know how to use the space in your photo right, you can compose much better shots; else you can end up with photos that just seem off or are not visually pleasing.

4. Simplification

Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)--so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.

You can use "Less is more" as an aesthetic tactic to create an impression of extreme simplicity, by enlisting every element and detail to serve multiple visual purposes

One subject is better than no subject. Why spoil it with clutter? Minimalism and simplification goes a long way if you want photographs that look visually appealing. If your main subject is close to you then your background should be very simple to avoid distractions.



5. Depth of field

Choosing the correct depth of field for your picture can impact the composition drastically. You can use shallow depth of field to isolate the subject from its background, keeping the subject the sole element in the picture and you can put the same subject in context by revealing it’s surrounds with a larger depth of field.

more detail about blade
depth of field

6. Use Low Light

How many horrible party pictures have you seen? They are all over the place. Why must party pictures look like that -- hard white flash light bouncing off walls and subjects? If you don't have a good flash and a softener, using flash should be the last option. Not only does it interfere with your “moment” socially and artistically, but the flash can flatten the photographs, giving it a dull look.

Use low light to your advantage. If there is no light -- create natural ambient light and meter the subject.

good low light photography

7. Add point of interest to the foreground

Pay attention to the foreground. When you shoot a landscape, ask yourself, what's the foreground!?

Interesting foreground objects make for exciting landscape shots. While you may want to go for simplicity and want to keep your main subject unobstructed and in focus, more often than not it would result in a boring photograph. A foreground also gives the viewer a secondary interest point and creates a more dynamic shot.

rude awakening
points of interest in the foreground

8. leading lines

Humans like following lines to see where they lead. Lines have the power to draw the eye to your focus area. Give them something to follow. Anything with a definite line can be a leading line. Fences, bridges, even a shoreline can lead the eye. If you can pair leading lines with a subject that is placed according to the Rule of Thirds, your image should be very strong.

sin city
leading lines

9. Diagonal lines

Just like leading lines, Diagonal lines work well to draw the eye of the viewer through the photograph. They lead you to points of interest as they intersect other lines in the photograph providing perspective and depth.

she's a black belt in karate
diagonal lines

10. Symmetry

I'm not too much into symmetry, but it works. Use symmetry where all else fails.

Fall colours

11. Viewpoint

How many pictures of Eiffel tower can a man see? Proper viewpoint or camera angle is an important factor in good composition.

Photographing from a different viewpoint or camera angle can often add drama and excitement or even bring out an unusual aspect of a subject. Most of the subjects you photograph are three-dimensional and should be photographed from an angle that allows the viewer to see more than one side of the subject.

Walk around the subject and look at it from all viewpoints.

I like the work of short photographers the best -- because they provide a viewpoint of the world that I normally do not get to see. Creating an alternate view of a subject can drastically improve the photograph and make it much more interesting.

sitting on a park bench

12. Background/textures

Using interesting and unusual textures can make a boring image look interesting. By using the right combination of afternoon light and textures you can create exciting effects.

goa me photographed with a Canon SD1000

13. Framing

Framing is the technique of drawing attention to the subject of your image by blocking other parts of the image with something in the scene.

You can create frames inside your image by using just about anything -- by shooting through windows, using tunnels, doors even people. The result is a more focussed image which draws your eye naturally to the main point of interest.

mirror mirror on the wall

14. Close crop

Sometimes when you can't get close enough, the subject is so small that it gets lost among the clutter of its surroundings. By using a close crop, you eliminate the background noise, giving your subject undivided attention.

butterfly at bannerghatta
close crop

15. Break the rules

Many of the photographs in the article were captured using film cameras. With a digital camera, one doesn't have to worry about film processing costs or running out of film. Take advantage of this fact and experiment with your composition - you never know whether an idea will work until you try it.

All the "rules" mentioned above should be taken with a pinch of salt. If they don't work in your scene -- ignore them; if you find a great composition that contradicts them, then go ahead and shoot it anyway. However, the rules can often prove to be spot on, and are worth at least considering whenever you are out and about with your camera.

football at the beach


Anisha Pucadyil said...

Useful observations and lovely photos...I shall be sharing it with my students...with attribution...Thank you....

Guhan said...

very good write up, great tips. thanks for sharing