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Learn Photo Composition

Rules are meant to be broken

No composition rule is universal.  No rule will work for every case.  Some clever people have noticed trends in photos that can be summarized as rules and I'll try to summarize some of those rules.

"Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk."
- Edward Weston

"The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial"
- Ansel Adams


2D Composition Rules:
You can look at photos in two ways - either as a 2 dimensional plane with color, or as a three dimensional scene that has been flattened into a 2 dimensional photo.  Some types of photos (macro, long focal lengths or shallow depth of field) tend toward 2 dimensional interpretations and the 2D Composition rules seem to work well.  Other photos (mostly wide angle, deep depth of field) seem to require the strong three dimensional sense to really pop out to the user.  Of course no rule is hard - almost the opposite, simply following the rules often leads to just acceptable images.

Rules of Thirds:
The rule of thirds is by far the best known composition rule.  If you divide the photo into thirds, place objects where the thirds cross.  Align horizons and edges to join the third lines.

Light HouseSnail On Wire

The opposite way of saying this rules is don't put the neat stuff in the center of the frame.


Disappearing Lines into Corners:
If there are strong lines in the scene, try to get them to disappear into the corner.   If the lines break into the center or the edge, it tends to divide the photo, but disappearing into a corner seems to make composition stronger.

Bridge by Cheakamus CanyonCurved BridgeIn Front of Mt. ShastaMark And Andrea On Kintai-Kyo


Use S Curves
Apparently, they eye enjoys following S curves.  This rules seems to apply mostly to water, roads and the silhouettes of people.   

Cascade of FallsStream By FallsFence at Rathtrevor


Movement into the Majority of the Frame
If you have motion, try to place the object that is moving into the larger part of the frame (more space in front of the vehicle than behind).  If the moving thing approaches an edge, it may seem it's about to "fall off", which is discomforting to the viewer.  If you want to be edgy, go right to the edges.

Mark Go Karting

Monotonous Content:
Some images would make killer jigsaw puzzles - they contain many examples of the same object but with deep detail allows the brain to dwell on and discover arbitrary parts of the photo.

Mixed GourdsStones on the Beach

3D Composition Rules:
For Landscape and Environment photos, there are additional strategies you can use to make your photos stand out.  These seem to tap into the brain's ability to perceive or reconstruct spacial relationships.

Using Layers of {Textures | Lighting}

One of the easiest ways to recover three dimensions from a two dimensional rendering is to use layers of lighting or textures.  They eye can easily trace outlines and assign a depth sorting priority to the various pieces in the frame.

View On WhistlerCouncil Building

Using Silhouettes
Another aid to the eye seems to be the use of silhouettes.  Dark Silhouettes are the easier form of Silhouette to form - just over expose the frame in a high contrast scene.

Retreat Island SunsetRetreat Island SunsetMisty View

The second type of silhouette is a blend to ambient (often white).  Fog is the most common situation to cause these effects, although it happens for many other reasons (dust storms, mist, tear gas.)

Islands in Clayquot Sound

Using Reflections

Yellow Pond-Lily - Nuphar polysepalum - On Lake Again, our brain seems clever at resolving a three dimensional scene with the aid of reflections.   If the reflection folds at the center of the frame, it is less effective than using the third line, or even leaving the fold out of the frame all together.

 Reflecting Pond Lake on Black Mountain

Using Depth of field to Guide the Viewer (Foreground Background Composition)
Sometimes a complex scene can be softened if the shallow depth of field is used.  If you have a trace that maps from the foreground to the background, that also can aid the effectiveness of the image.

RainbowOrange Pulling Rope



John Harvey Photo
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Published with the permission of the author. Original article can be found here: http://www.johnharveyphoto.com/LearnComposition/

  








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