When starting out in photography, we often become obsessed with the technical. Choosing the perfect camera or lens becomes a month-long research expedition and mastering exposure and the camera’s settings can feel like the most pressing task, but this focus on the technical can distract from the artistic and creative. For some of us, the artistic side can feel much more daunting, expressing yourself creatively may not come naturally, but much like the technical, knowing the rules and applying them is what takes our photography to the next level.
Rule of Thirds
The very first rule of composition you must understand and master is the Rule of Thirds. When making pictures, this is where we all start. The Rule of Thirds says that if you divide your frame by two horizontal lines and two vertical lines, your subject should fall on the intersection of these lines (see above).
After you have grasped the basics of this rule, then you can expand upon it. Add a second subject that falls on a different intersection. Add in the horizon or use leading lines to point from one subject to another. The horizon line is of particular importance. When taking a landscape picture most of us will divide the frame in half with the horizon, however, if you adjust your frame, moving the horizon line to the top or bottom horizontal line will create a more interesting and compelling picture. Add in another element, such as a person or a building, and your picture has become even more attractive (see the picture below). The more elements of the frame that you put on these lines, the more interesting your picture becomes.
Now that you have successfully incorporated the rule of thirds into your photography, you will want to use your composition to emphasise the subject and grab the viewers attention. One of the most effective ways to do this is using Leading Lines. When we look at a picture, we approach it the same way we approach a book. Our eyes start at the top left corner and work its way down to the bottom right, leading lines are patterns and often literal lines that subconsciously instruct the eye how to look at or “read” the picture. These lines can draw the viewer into exploring the image more and going straight to your subject.
While leading lines can direct your eye on how to read the picture, Framing can prevent the viewer's eye from leaving. Framing is one of the most basic compositional techniques; however, it is also one of the most effective. By using the environment to add a frame around all or part your picture we are directing the viewer's eye to stay in the picture a bit longer. Where it should slide off the side, the eye hits this visual wall and bounces back into the picture to see what it missed and discover the beautiful picture you have created.
Using framing in landscape photography is often a useful way to simplify your frame and get rid of pesky Negative Space. Negative Space is how we refer to empty sections of a picture where nothing exciting is happening, sometimes this is a wall or the ground, but most often it is a grey, textureless sky. While framing is a great solution, it will not work for every situation. Finding an interesting item to fill that empty space adds a greater sense of atmosphere to your picture and can tell us more about the environment. Notice in the picture below how the lamp fills the empty part of the sky adding an extra element to a picture of Notre Dame as well as adding more context about the environment.
Filling the negative space most often will requiring using another, often difficult, a compositional technique called Layering. Layering involves using subjects in the fore-, middle- and background to populate the scene. This technique is incredibly useful at creating an interesting and complicated scene in the photograph; however, it requires managing multiple subjects at the same time, and if just one is in the wrong place it can ruin the entire picture. This level of difficulty is also what makes creating pictures with many “layers” so rewarding. When you capture a moment and see every subject is perfectly placed it can feel like you captured a truly unique moment.
Breaking the rules
Once you have mastered the techniques of composition and feel you can handle any situation, it is time to break the rules. I am a big believer that every rule of composition is meant to be mastered and then broken. Finding a scene where you can perfectly centre the subject or leave lots of negative space to convey a sense of the emotion in the scene and is a great way to make a unique and compelling photograph. The same can be said for the exposure. Making a picture too dark to create drama, or too bright to convey heat are common rule-breaking techniques that can make your photographs “technically flawed” and more powerful for it!
Think of composition the same way you approach the technical. Research different styles to find the ones that speak to you. Some photographers become obsessed with leading lines, others with layers. Personally, I love breaking the rules, putting my subject in the centre and organising the picture around them. Not all my pictures are this way, likely, not even the majority, but it is a creative challenge I set for myself that keeps me inspired and trying new things. So set yourself a challenge and go out shooting, you will be amazed at what you can create.
Author : William Lounsbury
William is a photographer at Aperture Tours and leads tours in Paris. A professional photographer specialising in photojournalism, William enjoys to get off the beaten track and shoot spontaneous moments as they are presented to him.