Friday, March 14, 2014

Compose Yourself - Photography Basics, Part 3

Photography Basics Part 3: Composition and the Rule of Thirds

Read Part 1 and Part 2

In the previous installments of this series, we've talked about shutter speed and aperture - the foundations of a technically good photograph. However, we both know that there is more to an excellent image than high technical skill. This week, we will talk a little bit about the art of photography.

What does composition even mean?
"Composition" refers to the way elements are arranged in the frame. One of the difficulties of photography is learning to actively "see" all of the items in the frame. The brain naturally has a tendency to filter out superfluous or distracting items in the field, while you are acutely focused on your subject. It may not be until after you get home and are reviewing your shots that you realize your cousin Bob's red hat is glaringly present in the corner of each image. Learn to critically evaluate the scene as you are shooting to avoid these types of errors.

What is that "rule of thirds" thing you mentioned in the title?
The Rule of Thirds is a classic rule of art that helps organize and define what makes a particular composition pleasing, or not. The Rule is simple: divide the frame into thirds both ways, so that you have a grid. Your subject ideally should sit at any of the intersection points in the grid. Make sense?

Here is an example.

You can see that I am close but not exact in aligning the top right flower with the grid.
Here is another example:

The idea is not necessarily to be perfectly aligned with the grid (although if you are that good at geometry, more power to you), but rather to avoid plopping the subject dead center.

Why is a centered shot bad?
A "centered" composition can deaden an image, as it leaves no room for the viewer's eye to wander about the frame. The eye is automatically drawn to the center of the image, where it stays. In an off-center, or rule of thirds obliging image, the eye starts at the center and then is engaged to move around the frame by the off-center subject.

So, what you are telling me is, I should never use a centered composition?
Well, no. There are some instances in which a centered composition can produce a very dynamic image.
Fort Worth Zoo
In this example, the heads of the rhinos are centered, while their bodies act as "interest points" spanning away from the main subject. The viewer's eye fixes initially at the central point, then is drawn out to the edges of the frame, and back again into the center. The central placement of their heads visually "draws" the image together.
A center-heavy composition also emphasizes balance, symmetry, and peace. In short, there are no hard rules, although the rule of thirds is an excellent guideline, particularly for beginners.

Don't forget to read Part 1 and Part 2 of Photography Basics.
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