by Rick Allred
photos © 2011 Rick Allred
Experienced photographers eventually figure out the secrets of good composition, which is one of the key factors to creating good images. But if you don’t want to wait 10-20 years to learn it the hard way, here’s a short-course introduction to some basic rules of photo composition. Actually, I like to call them “guidelines,” because rules are meant to be broken!
Keep Things Simple
Simplicity is what I come back to when I get visually overwhelmed. Break the scene down to a simple subject (one or two things) and a simple background. Watch out for busy backgrounds. Shooting up may give you a clear sky. Shooting down may give you a background of just grass, sand, etc. Moving around your subject may give you a simple background that you didn’t see at first. Getting close may also simplify things.
Balance and Symmetry
Keep the frame evenly weighted. This can be a balance of light and dark shapes, object, etc. Watch for scenes that need an anchor to keep the images from feeling “off.” Compare the three car images below. The top photo might feel a bit “off” as there is no tire to hold up the back end of the car. Including part or all of the rear tire gives the car – and the image – more stability. How does each photo “feel” visually to you? Keep this in mind with subjects like vehicles, benches, posts, etc. You can also add tension to an image by deliberately leaving out a supporting element. Bending the rules with intention can work well!
The Rule of Thirds
Mentally divide your viewfinder or screen into thirds both vertically and horizontally. Place your subject near one of the intersections. And keep the action moving INTO the frame. Or, if breaking the rule works to create a specific mood, let the action go out of the frame. For landscapes, place the horizon line near the upper or lower third of the frame. Having the horizon line in the lower third will emphasize the sky. Placing it in the upper third will give more attention to the landscape. You decide which one is more important: the sky or the ground. If you can’t decide, shoot it both ways. You can also try the horizon in the center. Each will express the scene differently.
ABOVE: Top image is a diagram of the Rule of Thirds. In the photo, guess where her head is in the frame… that’s right: at a perfect Rule of Thirds’ position. (There are also “leading lines” at play – see next.)
Leading Lines, Geometric Shapes & Patterns
Use leading lines to lead the viewers’ eyes to your subject or through the image. Diagonal lines are very dynamic. Having three subjects that are in a triangle formation works really well to keep the viewer’s eyes in the image. Geometric shapes can be graphically interesting. Patterns can be visually pleasing but may cause the viewer’s eyes to bounce all over the image. Creating the “pattern with a glitch” effect can enhance patterns. Adding in a subject to break up the pattern allows the viewer’s eyes to rest on the subject occasionally instead of darting around the pattern non-stop.
ABOVE: Top image shows simple and clean geometric shapes. In bottom image, the trash can is the interesting “glitch” in the pattern.
Framing and Creating Depth
Use objects in the foreground to frame the main subject. This creates depth in the image and focuses the viewer’s eyes toward the back subject.
ABOVE: The fence frames the distant skyline.
Mergers & Mishaps
Beware of objects and/or colors that distract from or compete with your subject. These objects are usually in the background. We’re typically so busy concentrating on our subjects that we don’t notice conflicting things in the rest of the frame. Many times, a step to the left or right will correct conflicting objects or colors. Therefore, watch your backgrounds and move around if necessary! (You can also use mergers on purpose to add some humor to a photo – see photo below!)
ABOVE: Oops! The classic “tree sticking out of head” mishap.
About the Author
Rick Allred is a professional photographer, artist, and photo educator based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Rick shoots fine art portraits and teaches week-long workshops in the basics of digital photography, Photoshop and camera flash at the well-known Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. He also runs his own Photo Vacation Workshop once a year bringing photographers together to practice and explore their passion for photography at interesting locations such as the White Stallion Dude Ranch near Tucson, Arizona, and a small villa in Assisi, Italy. Rick is a patient and generous instructor, providing an environment where people can tackle technology with ease. Rick’s web site is www.rickallredimagery.com.