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What follows is a discussion of the theory that leads to the rule of composition as it relates to works of art and photography. Even though called a "rule" it probably should be referred to as a "guideline", in that there will always be other creative considerations in mind. Nonetheless, it represents a terrific starting point in the creation process and forces the creator of the work of art to examine his subject in detail in relation to the other elements of the composition.

Composition is simply defined as the organization of space. Just as musicians compose symphonies and interior designers arrange furnishings to please the senses, photographers compose pictures so that all of the visual elements of the image relate to each other in a harmonious fashion.

  • In portraiture it is the photographer's responsibility to organize the visual elements of the image such that the primary subject (normally the face) is the most dominant and visible feature.

  • In a group photograph skill is required to insure that equal emphasis is placed on each subject so that one individual does not dominate the portrait.

  • Sometimes a secondary point of interest (a prop, tool, toy,etc.) is an important element of the composition. These elements should be placed in a manner that relates it to the primary subject, but be subordinate to it.

    Primary and secondary elements of composition are arranged so that their relationship is naturally pleasing to the eye. Subject placement should not be arbitrarily made, but instead made so that its location relative to the sides and vertices of the frame provides a natural and pleasant means of viewing it. Determining that placement is based on a proportion that is inherent in nature itself, and one that would be universally recognized by any intelligent culture.

    The ancient Greek civilization studied shapes, patterns, and proportions that existed in the natural world around them and found that, from among them all, that the "Golden Proportion" was the most simple, beautiful, and perplexing of all. Found naturally in plant and animal form it led the Greeks to theorize that the same natural beauty existant in nature should be utilized in manmade creations (art, architecture, music, etc.) if they, too, were to be thought of as beautiful.

    Saddle PointsThe Rule of Thirds is simply a generalization of the techniques used to locate saddle points within the photograph. Imagine dividing the interior of the camera's viewfinder into a Tic-Tac-Toe grid. The four points of intersection within the grid, called "saddle points", indicate the best possiblilities for subject placement that produces the most interesting and dynamic composition. It pleases us as viewers in an abstract sense because it forces us to recognize the "Golden Proportion" within the framework of the rectangle. In fact there are 4 such "saddle points" available within the rectangle. Either one of these may be utilized as the location of the primary subject. Any secondary elements of the image should be placed at another saddle point or on a diagonal line that exists between saddle points.

    The center of interest in an image is not in the center because placement of the subject there forces our eye to view it in an unnatural and uncomfortable manner. Note in the following illustration how the "Golden Proportion" is not utilized when the subject is in the center. The triangles formed within the rectangle are disproportionate to one another.

    Centered Subject

    The same rules of composition apply to rectangles other than the golden rectangle. Even though 5x7 and 8x10 photographs are disproportional to each other the viewer's eye can be pleased if the subject is placed so that the interior of the image is divided into similar triangles. Look at the 5x7 and 8x10 representations, as well as the 11x14, that follow and notice how saddle points are determined in the same fashion.

    5x7 8x1011x14

    It's a simple process that clearly indicates how to make proper subject placement. By thinking abstractly and drawing logical conclusions we are now able to relate this information to practical composition in portraiture.

    Each of the portraits that follow has a single individual as the subject. Notice that, whether vertical or horizontal, each image is composed so that the subject placement coincides with a saddle point.

    Little Boy's BluesGeorgia On My MindLaneWell Placed BlockBaby BearGray FoxGoldilocks

  • Michael Minner Photo
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