Not only the technique I important in order to achieve a good picture. Although usually a clear and sharp image is necessary for a good picture, it’s not all that is needed. Taking a picture is like telling a story: there is something behind it that we want to transmit. And as it happens in literature, knowing the language well is necessary to transmit it clearly and in a passionate way, avoiding boring essays. The same principle is applicable in photography.
Knowing the main rules that our eyes and brain follow allow us to create more appealing images. Knowing how our eyes move and what our mind expects is the way to twitch our compositions into a dynamic image. Of course, some people claim that those rules are made for breaking them. Those people can be classified into two groups: experienced people who know them and have practiced them until their assimilation, and those who don’t want to learn them and just take photographs wildly. The first ones use and take advantage of their knowledge to increase the quality of the pictures, and decide to break them because they know exactly how and why they are doing it. The latter ones cannot take any decision, and even if it’s true that they achieve good pictures, it is usually due to a combination of good luck and a good eye for looking at things (and even if they don’t know the rules, many times they use them without thinking about them, and can be found if the picture is analyzed).
This is why is important to know the rules and practice them until they are assimilated by the brain as something natural. Knowing them will allow us to get better pictures, but also we will be in condition to know when to avoid anyone of them to get a better result. If you know you can “forget” anytime, the opposite is not usually true (at least in the reasonable time-span of a photographic session).
Rule of the thirds:
This is the more popular and common rule to follow on photography. It states that if we divide the length of both sides of the frame into three equal parts, the most attractive points of interest of the picture are the lines that divide the frame and their intersections. This rule is so important that many cameras include optional guides that show those points, and can be activated in Live View mode.
This rule is not interpreted strictly, but as a guide. It is not necessary to include all the important parts of the scene in the thirds, or to force the composition into them. Sometimes it works just with most of the elements following the rule, or perhaps just the most important. On the other side, it is not necessary for the elements to be exactly on them, they can just be close enough for the eye to be comfortable with them. Of course, the closer they are the better, and if they move apart of them, is better if the displacement is towards the center of the image, as they will be closer to the golden ratio, which is also attractive to the eye.
This rule is the reason that when taking a landscape picture, the horizon should be aligned with the upper or lower third of the picture, and not the center. Choosing between them is a matter of which element is more important: the land or the sky. If some other element is present, like a person or a building, they can be aligned to one of the lateral thirds in order to increase the strength and the appeal of the image.
This rule can be broken when constraining the composition to these points makes our composition to lose an important element. Also, sometimes, another kind of composition might work better for a specific scene (see the Symmetry example for one of those).
An easy way to see the thirds is using the crop tool in Photoshop. In the upper menu you can select View> Rule of Thirds. This way the lines and intersections are drawn and you can adjust a cutout of the picture to complain with this rule.
This picture of the Holy Week in my City obeys the Thirds Rule. The girl in the front is aligned with the right vertical third line (specifically, her right eye is in the intersection of the right vertical third line with the upper third line). Also, the woman far in the back is aligned with the left third line. All the candles are concealed on the lower third section of the picture, never crossing to the central third. Finally, the woman in the middle is aligned to the center of the frame (specifically her mouth). All this ordering transmit a mood of order and clearness to the picture.
When we take a picture, we can assign each element a weight, according to their apparent size and the subjective importance in the scene. Big elements and important ones usually are considered to have more weight. This rule states that when possible, we should make our picture balanced, distributing the elements in the frame in a way that their weights are compensated. For example, if we have just a beach ball in the sand, we can put it in a thirds intersection if we have anything else around to show. If we don’t, a good point would be the center, as this way the picture is balanced. Placing the ball in any side without anything else on the frame would decompensate the weight of the frame, making the eye to give more important to this side and forgetting the other.
If we have two elements, we should place both of them in different sides, as this way their weights get compensated. If we place both of the on the same part, the former effect happens, even more noticeably. for more than two elements, their location should be one that mostly compensates their relative weights, so every part of the image get approximately the same interest from the viewer.
In this case, the lever rule applies. The equilibrium between two objects is increased with the distance between them. If we have two element of the same weight, they should be placed symmetrically around some point (usually the center of the picture). When one of the elements weights more than the other, the former should be placed closer to that point of symmetry than the latter. This way the extra distance given to the small one gives more compensating power to it.
The force of this picture resides on the close perspective. Both the mother and the child are opposed in the frame, each one occupying one side of the picture, leaving the center free. As the child is lower in size, the picture is taken closer to her in order to increase her apparent size. This way both figures get their weights compensated.
When composing a picture, if we arrange the objects to form a repetition pattern, the eye will be more attracted to it than to the isolated objects. If arranging them is outside our control (surely you won’t be able to re-arrange the pyramids of Giza, and if you can I would like to know how) you can still get advantage of this rule. Sometimes positioning the camera in an specific angle can align the objects into a pattern (e.g. a line, a triangle or perhaps an amorphous cluster but with some recognizable repetition). In any case, groping similar objects to increase order is a good way to captivate the brain.
A special case of this rule is when the pattern extends outside our frame. The brain tends to compensate this fact imagining that the pattern extends outside the picture, forming a larger figure than the one seen. For example, to make a crowd of people look larger, just align them to one of the frame borders. The brain will be happy to assume that there are more people outside that they weren’t captured. The same is applied to buildings, cars or any other object. If a repeating pattern approach to the border, the brain will try to expand it outside.
The picture has two elements to catch the viewer attention. One is the color; the other is the repetition of the pattern with a little variation between them. Having the same element repeated catches the attention and increases the interest. The variations in color and volume of the liquids include enough differences to avoid becoming boring. If the frame had been cropped in a way that half of the two lateral bottles were out of the picture, the brain would have interpreted it as a longer succession of vials, continuing out of the frame.
This is perhaps the golden rule; the one that most people know because is intuitive: Arrange the main elements of the picture in a symmetric way using as many symmetry elements as possible. If the objects are symmetric around the center of the picture, good. If they are also symmetric around a plane, better. If you can find many symmetry planes in the same picture, the brain will probably be ecstatic. The more elements you can arrange, the better the picture will result.
But although this rule is very popular, it is only seldom used. This is because it has a dark side. In the same way that the brain is delighted when it sees symmetry, is also repulsed when it sees an image almost-symmetric-but-not-perfect. Even the slightest imperfection in symmetry will make the brain reject the picture. This makes this rule easy to understand, but very difficult to apply. It usually requires good planning and most of the times even some retouching and adjusting afterwards. This is the reason why this rule is only followed when the scene really requires it.
As an example, think on a landscape. As stated before, the rule of the thirds is the one that is usually applied. But imagine that you are taking a picture of a very high mountain, reaching the sky, and the image is perfectly reflected on a lake with the surface perfectly still. This is a case when going for symmetry is beneficial, as the horizon makes a perfect plane of symmetry for the image. Care should be taken to make the horizon perfectly horizontal and to allow both the mountain and the reflection to enter the frame. If any of those two points are not perfectly achieved, the brain will refuse to accept the image. On the other side, if we can arrange the mountain to be mostly symmetrical also around a vertical plane that cuts it in half, the image will gain even more strength.
Apart of the gaze, the interest in this picture resides in the symmetry between both lateral sides. The central axis divides the picture in both almost identical halves. If the picture had a little more space on any side it wouldn’t work. Also, the picture was taken from a frontal perspective. Any lateral movement changing the perspective, even slightly, would have destroyed the symmetry, spoiling the composition.
Those are the most important composition rules. The best way to learn them is to practice, to take pictures applying them and analyzing your own pictures and many other to learn why they do/don’t work. In the next post, I will talk about some other rules, perhaps not so important, but that can make the difference used on the right moment.
Do you have anything to add to those rules? If so, please comment so we can increase the value of this explanation.