Good composition is as essential as my subject matter. Maybe even more so in many situations. A photograph of a typical subject like pigeons or children will be entirely vanilla and boring if shot in a traditional straight-on, center frame approach. But if I use some of the composition elements discussed below, even the mundane becomes extraordinary.
Here are three of the most critical elements of photo composition.
Of the three techniques discussed here, leading lines are the easiest to understand and apply. We want to draw the eye of the viewer across a scene by using the lines there. This technique is what makes photos of roads and train tracks disappearing into the horizon so appealing.
While this particular example is obvious, bridges, trees, and clouds can all act as guides to add subtle enhancements to photos even if they aren’t the main subject. Leading lines are one of the best ways to add extra zest with just a few extra seconds of contemplation.
The Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is another of the fundamental principles of photographic composition. The law is relatively simple, and many cameras have Rule of Thirds visual overlays that can be activated while looking through the viewfinder or on the LCD screen. A Rule of Thirds scene gets split between 9 equal rectangles and four visible lines.
The idea behind the Rule of Thirds is to align my points of interest either at the line intersections or along the lines themselves. Using the photo below, if we imagine the intersecting lines, we can see the horizon and dock both roughly follow the two horizontal lines.
The tip of the left boot is near the lower left intersecting point between the horizontal and vertical lines. And the right boot follows the vertical line exactly.
Here’s another example. The eyes and lips of this man both align along the horizontal lines of the Rule of Thirds. His whole head is along the left vertical line. The wider left eye is nearly on the upper left intersection. And his mouth is on the lower left intersection, making both points of interest for this photo.
The Golden Ratio
The Golden Ratio is also known as the Divine Proportion, Phi, Golden Mean, or Fibonacci’s Ratio. This ratio can be described mathematically as 1:1.618 and is quite literally a formula for beauty. In photography, it is a representation of proportions found all over nature that are innately pleasing to the human eye.
Many objects such as the shell of a snail or the elaborate interior of this sunflower grow in this way.
If I want to use this in photography, I can use either Phi lines or my imagination once I’ve practiced with it. Phi lines are similar at first glance to the lines of the Rule of Thirds, except the middle sections are much smaller. This is because the ratio for each section is 1:.618:1 instead of 1:1:1 like the Rule of Thirds.
I can use the Golden Ratio in almost the same way as I would with the Rule of Thirds. I want to place the subjects in such a way that the points of interest coincide with the intersecting points.
But because the Golden Ratio is a subtler adjustment than the Rule of Thirds, it’s often much easier to use in post-processing.
Luckily many editing programs such as Adobe Lightroom have Golden Ratio overlays to aid in composition. The Rule of Thirds is an approximation I can use while shooting that allows me to fine-tune my photos then later using the Golden Ratio.
All three of these principles are time-tested and easy to understand with a bit of practice. Best of all, I’ve placed them in the order in which you should study them. Start with leading lines and work your way to the other two. With these principles in hand, you’ll make the most out of any scene!