Rules. When you were a kid, you hated them. You probably still hate at least some of them. For all the good that rules do in our world, they have the ugly side-effect of stifling freedom and individual creativity. And what is photography but a way to express creativity and artistic freedom? There shouldn’t be any “rules”!
Actually, photography rules are kind of like pirate code. More what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules. They are there to provide guidance, but if you need to break them you should do so without regret. Let’s take a look at 18 of the more common composition rules (okay, guidelines) to improve your photography.
You hear photographers talk about composition all the time, but what exactly is composition and how is it different from subject? Simply put, composition is the way that elements are arranged in an image. Composition includes all the elements in a photo, not just the primary subject.
The human eye tends to prefer images that have a certain sense of order, while it tends to reject images that are chaotic. That’s the basic difference between good composition and poor composition, though it’s obviously a lot more complicated than that when you move past the basics.
In order to develop a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in photographic composition, it helps to learn the “rules” and practice following them. And there are a lot of rules. You’ve probably heard of at least some of them, but they are worth repeating. Remembering, of course, that these are really more guidelines than actual rules.
The rule of thirds
The king of compositional rules! Any photographer who does more than just take snapshots knows something about the rule of thirds. The basic theory goes like this: the human eye tends to be more interested in images that are divided into thirds, with the subject falling at or along one of those divisions. Many DSLRs will actually give you a visual grid in your viewfinder that you can use to practice this rule. If yours doesn’t, just use your eye to roughly divide your image with four lines into nine equal-sized parts, then place your subject at the intersection of those lines. For example, when photographing a person it is generally better to position him or her at the right or left third of the frame rather than directly in the middle.
The Golden Ratio
And now to confuse you even more, enter “the golden ratio.” While the rule of thirds divides your scene into equal thirds, the golden ratio divides your scene a little bit differently, into sections that are roughly 1:1.618. Unless you are a mathematical genius or at least a whiz, you’ll probably need to see this visually:
As you can see, instead of being evenly spaced as they are in the rule of thirds, golden ratio lines are concentrated in the center of the frame, with roughly 3/8ths of the frame in the above part, 2/8ths in the middle and 3/8ths at the bottom. This idea has been around for centuries – millennium, really, and can be found in many of the great classic works of art. Of course I have given you a very oversimplified version of this idea. There is also a golden section rectangle, which looks like this and is based on a very complex mathematical formula:
With the idea being that a perfectly composed image should follow the lines in this rectangle.