Composition: The Niggling Rules

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We frequently hear reference to the rule of thirds in our exploits with competitive photography, but rarely do we hear about the other rules of composition in the visual arts.  Rules denote the need for conformity, so perhaps we should refer to them as principles.  Some of these principles, which have evolved over centuries of art, are just as important as the thirds principle.  These rules or principles can be broken, of course, in your originative desires to creative images with impact, but for most of us, we mere mortal, leisure photographers, perhaps it may be useful to know the principles of composition before we break them.

Some say that one principle for success in the visual arts is to ‘keep it simple’ by eliminating clutter from the image, which generally distracts the eye.  This is so important, yet we all end up with some clutter in our images, as we first set out. Know what your subject is and take a photograph of the subject using appropriate techniques.  We all know, for example, that narrowing the depth of field (widening your aperture settings) will throw most clutter out of focus and place your subject in pin sharp prominence in the image.  Do not allow clutter to creep in from the side of your image, either in the background or the foreground, it will draw the eye away from the subject.

Close Call_August 2011
Rule of thirds applied but the chimney and roof on the right are ‘clutter’… nice diagonals give
perspective, curved lines of the craft perceive flow

Having said that, never forget the power of lines, actual or perceived by the viewer, which may attract ones eye to the subject.  A flower stem from the close proximity of an image corner provides a strong lead into the subject and, hopefully, a diagonal which is always pleasing.  Beware lines which do not lead into the subject nor compliment it, they tend to clutter.   Curved lines create flow and straight lines mood and perspective.  Prefer oblique lines to those which are perpendicular, horizontal or parallel.  The latter lines have their place, in say landscape or architectural work, but set them on the thirds, and never show water levels in the oblique!

As a bonsai enthusiast, one will learn one of the fundamentals of composition, geometry and asymmetry.  One learns that triangles are the most aesthetically pleasing shape to the eye and that parallels or symmetry both detract from the way nature intended… both have negative impact on your image.  Triangular formations in an image are powerful.  Square and circular formations are symmetrical.   Avoid symmetry, where you have an even number of subjects in an image, compose them asymmetrically within the frame.

This leads us onto the ‘rule of odds’, another cardinal principle which is just not pushed enough in amateur photography.  Frame your principal subject with an even number of background subjects or complements, making an odd number in total.  Thus, one flower as the principal subject should be accompanied by two or perhaps four other flowers or objects, say leaves.  A single flower alone fits the rule, but when framed by the other two items it may be perceived as being more pleasing to the eye.  Work in odd numbers and you cannot go too far wrong.

Fruit Glasses and Wine_September 2011
Odd number glasses, but even fruit and bottles… would a third bottle help?

The principle of space is so important in portraiture.  Never restrict the space into which your subject’s eyes are looking, which is why one encourages portrayed people (even animals) to look into or near the camera.  That opens up the space.  This principle applies equally to other forms of photography. It is so basic and gives a perception of movement in, for example, action photography… a jumping antelope should have space in front of it, a racing motorcycle must have somewhere to go in the image.  In design this is often referred to as white space.

So we come back to our notoriously repeated rule of thirds, for good reason.  It is probably the most profound of them all, since, in a very obvious way, the thirds principle actually opens you up to all the other rules.  All visual arts are subjective… your images are praised or decried in the eyes of the beholder.  Allowing your images to take on any natural proportions can only enhance them in the eyes of your critics or devotees and you would do well to understand the embedded rules that achieve this.