Lesson Four
Composition; Style and Placement of Elements in the Frame
by Stephen J. Kristof
all rights reserved


Photography educators often tell their green wannabe photographers that if they are serious about the art, they should no longer take "pictures", but rather, strive to begin "composing photographs".  There's actually an important distinction there and it's good advice.  What makes a photograph an excellent one, after all?  Well, like any artistic pursuit, it takes a lot of practice, a good measure of luck, and training in the foundation and theory of both technique and style.  Oh, yes, and there's that other little thing about an openness to kindling the creative spirit.

Any one of these factors may be quite a challenge to achieve, but without all of them in play, it is unlikely that the artist will create sincere, attractive and compelling photos on a consistent basis.  Anyone can be lucky with the odd photo here and there, but that isn't enough.  Practise all you want, but without the necessary foundation and theory, the experience may lack the direction to develop a repertoire of skills that is necessary to compose stunning images.  The same applies to the creative mind; it's a vital ingredient but, in itself, is not enough.

As you can see, all of these factors are necessary to compose excellent photographs on a consistent basis.  This is not to say that a commercial or artistic photographer hits the jackpot with every press of the shutter.  On the contrary; the pro's snap off more frames than anyone.  But because of that critical combination of practice, luck, training and creativity, they end-up with far more images that embody the essence of good photography.

I recently attened a professional workshop led by an employee of a large computer manufacturer that shall remain nameless.  The representative was certainly charged-up about his employer's equipment and operating system - perhaps to the point of over-caffienated, energy-drinkish absurdity.  In any event, he buzzed around the room, at one point bragging about how his seven-year-old daughter was taking quality photos because she simply embraced today's so-simple-to-use digital technology without question and was already seeing her world photographically.

Well, I'm paraphrasing what he said.  The whole idea of seeing one's world photographically is essential to professional artistic photography and I sincerely doubt that this computer rep understood that concept.  In the final analysis, what he failed to realize was that while his daughter accepted the technology as a means to an end and engaged in a creative pursuit, she lacked the rest of the package.  She or her camera may be able to produce technically proficient macro shots of flowers and such, but is far less likely to be able to compose a variety of different types of photos with a sense of how the human eye wants to process information.  That is ultimately the difference between a dash of  luck and easy equipment - and - the rest of the equation.

SO WHAT IS COMPOSITION?

As the sub-title says at the top of this page, photographic composition is all about style and placement of elements within the frame.  Some people refer to composition as "framing" and that might be easier to understand.  In its simplest form, a photographic image comes to fruition based on three main things; (a) content, (b) technique, and, (c) style.

The "content" is basically the subject matter.  Everything that you see, in terms of the physical objects or subjects in the frame, is content.  A person, lamp, street sign, beach, mountain, pebble, wall, garbage can, sofa - you get the idea - is considered content.

The "technique" part is all about how the equipment was used to create the image.  If a camera has manual controls, these are considered technique adjustments.  Things like shutter speed, aperture/f-stop, flash, added or manipulated light, use of tripods and choice of focal length (ie. magnification power of the lens) are all examples of technique.  College or university students of photography programs receive extensive training in subjects such as theory and practice of lighting, optics (lenses), shutter speed, etc., because knowledge of these things allows them to create photos based on the style that they choose.

That brings us to the final concept of "style".  Style is how the photographer sees an image before the shutter is pressed.  Style consists of a combination of sub-conscious, instinctive and very deliberate decisions about how things should appear.  Perspectives and angles, use of light and shadows, textures, shapes, repetitive lines, depth of focus (called "depth of field") and framing are all stylstic considerations.


For the purpose of this lesson, we will concentrate on the latter concept; framing.  Composition is more about where in the frame the various elements are placed.  Composition is all about how these elements react not only with each other, but with the frame itself. 
 

RULE OF THIRDS

Photographers use a guideline called the
RULE OF THIRDS
.  This universal rule says that before pressing the shutter, one should draw imaginary lines on the frame.  The frame is divided into three equal portions (or slices) both vertically and horizontally.  This creates nine equal sections.  Focal points such as a person's eyes or any other important content should be placed in one of the four intersections created by crossing these lines rather than placing them inside any of the equal sections.  See the examples below:
Rule of Thirds Horizontal Divisions, © 2009, Stephen J. Kristof

 

Cocoa Beach Pier, © 2005, Stephen J. Kristof
Improper Horizon Line
At first glance, this photo appears somewhat attractive, but could it be that it is the subject matter itself that is attractive and not the photographic composition?  Look at where the horizon line is and how it cuts the image in half.

Title.

Cocoa Beach Pier, © 2005, Stephen J. Kristof
Proper Horizon Placement
This is a proper placement of the horizon line.  The blue sky is, indeed, beautiful, but it is also very plain and quite similar to the ocean.  As such, the horizon is on the top horizontal thirds line.




The guide to the right shows a rule of thirds division to make three equal vertical slices.  The dividing lines are yellow.  Again, the idea is that important elements of your photo (or the primary focal point) should NOT be placed in the middle of any of the three slices.  Rather, these important elements should be placed along one of the yellow dividing lines.  This reduces the chance of weighting the frame too far toward the top or bottom; it also eliminates the chance of symmetry or "slicing the image in half" by placing things along the middle third.

When shooting a human subject, you should strive to avoid placing their face right smack dab in the middle slice; this creates symmetry which generally only works when your subject's face is perfectly symmetrical.  Less than 5% of the general population have symmetrical facial features; most models have symmetrical facial features, which actually compliments a center-weighted headshot.  For the rest of us, the center-weighted headshot is a really bad idea.


The illustration to the left shows a rule of thirds division to make three equal horizontal slices.  The dividing lines are yellow.  The general idea is that important elements of your photo (or the primary focal point) should NOT be placed in the middle of any of the three slices.  Rather, these important elements should be placed along one of the yellow dividing lines.  This reduces the chance of weighting the frame too far toward the top or bottom; it also eliminates the chance of symmetry or "slicing the image in half" by placing things along the middle third.

A general rule of thumb for landscape photography is that you avoid placing the horzon in the middle third, as it creates symmetry which is uninteresting to the eye.

 

Rule of Thids Demo, © 2005, Stephen J. Kristof



As you can see, this horizon line does not follow the rule of thirds advice.




As you can see, this horizon line does not follow the rule of thirds advice.

Rule of Thirds Demo, © 2005, Stephen J. Kristof
See how the horizon is now along the top rule of thirds line?  This could have been placed along the lower yellow line, but it all depends on what's happening in the sky.  Had there been beautiful blue sky perforated by puffy white clouds, perhaps a lower horizon would have been a better idea.




Rule of Thirds Vertical Divisions, © 2009, Stephen J. Kristof


Using this rule as a guide for shooting portraits is very important.  In most cases, your subject will have a more attractive appearance if shot with their face turned very slightly to the left or to the right, rather than facing the lens square-on.  There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and you should try to experiment with ALL angles and facing directions.  However, professional photographers and photo critics around the world accept that the face should be placed along one of the middle "thirds" vertical lines to achieve an imperfect balance, which is more interesting to the eye.  If the head is facing toward the left of the frame (even if only very slightly), the eye on our right be placed along the right vertical line.  This means that there will be less room behind the head and more room in front of the direction they are facing.

Similarly, if the head is facing slightly to the right of the frame, the eye which is on OUR left be placed along the left vertical line.  Again, there will be less room behind the head and more room in front of the direction they are facing.  See below for some visual examples of this.
Picture
Picture
The illustration of a horizontally-oriented portrait above has correct rule-of-thirds placement.  Take a look at the yellow rule-of-thirds lines on the right.  The top right intersection is a correct placement for the subject's left eye (the eye to our right).  If she was facing even very slightly toward the right, her right eye (the eye to our left) would be somewhere near the top left intersection.  If your subject is facing fully toward the lens, then you will need to decide on which side to leave a little more room.  In making your decision, you may consider what else is in the frame and whether it is plain, complimentary, distracting or may possibly vie for attention.
Picture

As shown in the vertically-oriented illustration to the left, when your subject is facing slightly toward the right side of the frame, try to put her right eye (to our left)generally close to the top left intersection.


Remember that you can change the direction your subject is facing by moving where you and your camera are as opposed to asking your subject to move.  This is a good idea, because it looks more natural than posing which may look and feel artificial and contrived.



What if you have two portrait subjects in one frame or a subject and another object such as a tree?  You will also want to avoid symmetry by putting your subject on one intersection and another object, subject or focal point on the opposite side.
 



Click HERE to get to Part 2 of this Composition Lesson

You are about to learn more about how to work with lines, curves, rhythm and shadows in order to create visually enticing photos and "eye candy"!





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