Have you ever seen an image and it just draws you in where others you think, oh, cute kid…and move on? The difference between the two can be many things, but an interesting composition can make the viewer stick around and stay for a while. On occasion all the stars align and you may get a wow photo without trying, but to increase the odds, it’s worth learning some basic composition skills. Keep reading to learn a few do’s and don’ts about composition for the beginner photographer.
Composition is all about where you place your subject, secondary subjects, and environment in the frame of an image. It all matters. In a strong photo, it’s been well thought out. Everything in the frame has a reason for being there. And objects that draw a viewer away from the story or feeling or ambiance is clutter. Now, does that mean that every image should be neat and pretty and perfect? Absolutely not! The environment is just important as the subject when telling the story and if the environment is messy, it should most definitely be included. But how the photographer views the scene and what she decided is frame worthy are important too.
Let’s go over one the most basic of compositions. If there were only ONE composition that I could teach, it would be this one, the rule of thirds. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a simple composition! Sometimes, less is more!
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is probably one of my most often used compositions. It pleases the eye, invites the viewer to look a bit more around the frame, and is just an easy go to. But! There are a few rules to apply to put your viewer at ease. It sounds pretty simple, but it can go wrong pretty quickly too.
- The right vertical third is the way to go. Why you say? I am not prejudiced toward the lefties, but in the East, we read from left to right, so the most comfortable place to put a subject along the thirds is the right. We naturally scan an image left to right, so it just makes sense. It’s psychology, I guess. If your scene plays out in a way that the left is the only way, that’s okay!!!! Just remember in post processing that you can flip your image to make it stronger. Second image places on the right thirds is much more visually pleasing. The negative space gives a little breathing room, and isn’t so “in your face”. Some artists may intentionally go for the “in your face” feeling, in which case a center placement would be a great placement for the subject.
- Place horizons on a horizontal third. Is the sky amazing? Put the land on the horizontal lower third to allow the sky to take center stage (metaphorically speaking). Is the land stealing the show? Place the horizon on the upper third. Do you have sand, sea, sky? Watch the lines and place them on the grid in a way that seems natural. Place your primary subject where the lines dissect, keeping your horizontal lines in mind. It isn’t exact science, it is art. Do what your heart tells you.
I have two subjects in this image. The most important subject is the connection going on in the right. I might even consider cloning out my son in white, if I decide to put this in an album. My husband & son cross at the lower third and right vertical third, and the horizon is roughly at the lower third horizontal. One more thing this image has going for it is the trail of seaweed that lead your eyes to both subjects. This is called a leading line. That’s a whole different post 🙂 In this image, notice there is a horizon made by the sea, and there is also a “horizon” where the foreground meets the sea. In cases like this, do your best and choose the best possible scenario. I liked how the flowers form the bottom third of the image and the sky roughly a third, so I chose to put the flowers on the bottom third, and the sea ended up in the near middle. I think the rock slightly off center is balanced well with the light house though. There are so many beautiful things going on here, that the horizon of the sea doesn’t cause me any alarm. Use your gut! Another way to have framed this image would be to have taken a portrait shot instead of landscape..but it didn’t work for me in real life because it cut off part of the big rock formation.
- Leave your subject room for action. If your subject is running from left to right, leave room for him to run into…same goes for left to right. The image can always be flipped horizontally in post processing in order to make for a more pleasing flow. Left to right gives off the more easy breezy feeling where, right to left gives the viewer a feeling of against the grain…but that is a little more advanced. For now, just shoot was looks good in your gut. I recently posted an image on Instagram (you can follow me by clicking the IG slider at the bottom of the blog) of my son up to hit during a baseball game. I placed him on the left third. I know. It breaks rule number one. Well, anyone that knows me will eventually realize I’m not much of a rule follower, photographically speaking. In this case, it makes sense. Just follow along. I placed my son and the catcher on the left so that the ball had a place to go! If I placed him in the center, that would be kind of boring….if I placed him at the right, it would look awkward as well, as he would be looking out of the frame, which makes the viewer wonder, where is he looking…what is he looking toward….a whole host of questions…even when the answer is obvious. But, in this image, I was anticipating my son hitting the ball and it moving camera right. It works. Rules broken and all.
- Crop in post processing to improve your composition. Lightroom has built in crop tools to help you place your subject along the thirds. In Lightroom, click on the crop tool, and simply press the letter O to change the crop guides. It will cycle through several guides including the rule of thirds. Place your subject along the intersecting points for the best composition.
What is your favorite basic composition? Do you have questions about the rule of thirds? Fire away in the comments! I’d love to help you.