This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine in 2008 – subscribe to see our article sooner than 6 years wait
To delve deeper into this topic see our Mastering Composition and Visual Design eBook
Do you feel that your photographs are starting to become predictable? If so, then perhaps you need to move beyond the basic elements of composition. The following ‘guidelines’ may help take your images to the next level.
Beyond the Rule of Thirds
Almost every photographer is aware of the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds divides the frame of an image up into three equal portions both vertically and horizontally, and the photographer generally places the subject of the photo at the intersection of the one of the horizontal and verticals thirds (photo 3 -below). Notice how the lighthouse is placed on a line of the thirds and the red cap of the house is at an intersection of the thirds. The horizon line is also placed near a line of the thirds. The rule of thirds works well to create pleasing and balanced photos.
If you want a little more dynamism in your images, try composing using the points along the “golden spiral”. The golden spiral is derived from the golden mean where each succeeding number after one is equal to the sum of the two preceding numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc). The ratio formed from these numbers is 1.618 and is called the golden mean. If you take a 35mm frame (2:3 format) and successively divide the picture frame into 1.618 rectangles you will ultimately spiral down to a smaller rectangle that is a powerful point of attention (photo 4). This point can move to any of the four corners of the photo (photo 5) and often images created using points derived from the golden spiral are more exciting and energetic than images created using the rule of thirds. If we return to the lighthouse photo and recompose the image so the red cap of the lighthouse sits on one of the power points of the golden spiral we produce an image that is much more dynamic (photo 6).
So how do I know where the power points of the golden spiral are when I compose through the viewfinder? Well, I don’t know precisely, but I can compose approximately knowing that the power points are closer to the corners than if I followed the rules of thirds. Also, note that each golden spiral power point is unequally spaced from the edges of the photo (see photo 5). It is this unequal spacing that makes the composition more dynamic. When composing in the field, put your main subject a little closer to the edge of the frame–making sure it is not symmetrically placed in the corner–and you will have something close to the perfection of the golden spiral (Photo 7).
Composing with Triangles
An offshoot of the golden mean is something called the golden triangle. Here, the frame is divided diagonally, corner to corner, and then further divided in one of the main triangles by intersecting the opposing corner with a point derived from the 1.618 ratio (see photo 8). The red lines in photo 8 are the three main triangles that divide up the picture area; the blue line is the 1.618 ratio line. Any photo with diagonal lines and strong shapes will be more pleasing if the shapes and lines follow the layout of the golden triangle. If we go back to the golden spiral version of the light house (photo 9) we notice that the main elements within this photo form obvious shapes that fit nearly perfectly into the triangles defined by the golden mean. Notice also that within the main triangle are sub triangles that further help to add interest to the composition.
For me composition is all about shape: I do not look at objects within my frame as ‘subjects’ but rather see their form. And my task is to distribute the shapes in my picture-space in a pleasing manner. The golden mean, golden spiral and golden triangle give us a good foundation for the layout of the shapes and lines in our photographs. For example, in photo 10, a dusk shot of the Lunenburg Academy in Nova Scotia, I distributed the shapes in the photograph according to the rules of the golden triangle with the tree branches making up one triangle, the building filling most of the second triangle and the sky as the subject of the third triangle. Notice also how the most important part of the photo, the steeple, lies at the intersection of the three triangles.
The Power of Shapes
Now that we know how important implied lines and shapes are to composition, we can explore the emotional meaning to the shapes that we distribute in our pictures. The basic shapes are rectangles, triangles and circles. Rectangles are familiar, safe and comfortable and imply stability and truth but also rigidity and conformity. Triangles suggest action and power because of the pointed nature of the shape. A triangle on its base is powerful but stable but can represent growth. A triangle on its point is unstable and often threatening. Circles suggest infinity, softness, spirituality and security.
Freeman Patterson has pointed out that photographers are often drawn to different shapes at different times over their evolution as artists. During periods of change and growth many photographers find an affinity towards triangles. Circles are often sought by those photographers seeking peace, harmony and well being. Rectangles appeal to those who long for comfort and familiarity. I have seen the shapes change in my composition over time as I go through different phases in my life. Lately I am on a huge triangle kick – I don’t know why, maybe it’s a mid-life crisis! I guess it is better to go out and photograph triangles than buy a Porsche or try to climb Everest! Even in a forest scene where you would think that triangles are not prevalent, I find triangles (photo 11). The scene is divided diagonally into two triangles and the clumps of trees on both the right and left sides of the frame form triangular shapes. Even the centred rock is almost triangular. Did I know I was organizing the picture space into triangles at the time? No, the composition just ‘felt right’ to be organized in the way it is presented.
‘Gestalt’ is from the German word for ‘form, pattern or configuration’. Gestalt theory tells us that the whole can’t be seen by looking at the individual elements. Only when the final product is assembled do we see how the components make up the whole. The same happens in photography. I don’t necessarily recognize the shapes, lines and forms in the scene before me as I am photographing. What I do recognize is that when the composition comes together in the viewfinder it just feels ‘right’. After the fact, I can analyze my photos and then understand why the composition worked so well. It definitely helps to understand the theory behind composition because the more you understand things, the more intuitive or subconsciously things will ‘click’ in the field. I found the more I studied why my pictures were successful or why they failed the better I developed my sense of “gestalt”.
Based on the lesson in this article, see if you can figure out why the composition in photo 12 is successful. If you need a hint, remember to apply what you know about the golden spiral, golden triangles and the power of shapes.
The photo of the pathway follows the rules of the golden triangle very closely with the boardwalk dividing the image into two triangles and the smaller triangles containing distinct areas of the photograph. The vanishing point of the boardwalk is right at one of the power points of the golden spiral and the s-curve of the boardwalk snakes it way through the photo connecting the three main triangles.
We hope you enjoyed this wee article on composition and can start to apply these principles to your own work.