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You don’t take a photograph, you make it. – Ansel Adams
In our last entry we learned that placing the subject at one of the four primary points of impact within the scene would greatly enhance the ease of viewing by way of good composition. We introduced the “Rule of Thirds” as a classic example of guidance by drawing an imaginary template from which to establish the point of impact.
With that lesson reinforced, is there any particular reason why we couldn’t also have a Rule of Fifths or Rule of Sevenths? No; not at all. With that having been said the point behind these “Rules” is simply to provide the beginner with the tools to make an informed effort to move the subject from the centre of the viewfinder.
We must now be aware of the supporting components that will aid in subconsciously drawing us into the picture. Think lines, more specifically think of diagonal lines.
The diagonal line will offer a suggestion of movement. To see how we can use diagonal lines to improve our composition we should first review the work of the great masters. If one were to do a web search looking for “Rembrandt and The Night Watch” one of his most inventive works should appear.
One’s first impression of the work is to notice how there are three primary subjects in the work: the two gentlemen at the front centre and the girl in the background. If you reflect on your first reaction —and be honest—did you not immediately draw your eyes to the two lightest coloured persons in the work: the Lieutenant and the girl? That is because our eye will intuitively be drawn to the brightest part of a picture by default.
Most importantly, look at the almost over-indulgence of diagonal lines. Everything in the picture leads from tallest on the outside to shortest on the inside. Study the lance, the muskets, the drum and the pennant; they all draw our eyes to the centre of the picture. Similarly, look at how Rembrandt has chosen to portray the other people in the picture; by drawing an imaginary line across the tops of their heads you can envision a diagonal line starting on the outside and receding downward to the centre of the picture.
Now, let’s advance the clock some 300 years to the great portrait of Winston Churchill by master photographer Yousuf Karsh. This photo can also be located by a web search.
Notice how Karsh has very purposefully positioned Churchill’s hands on a hip and chair back. By default this raises the shoulders and creates triangles on both sides of the body; triangles are little more than three diagonal lines that join with the other. Because Churchill is wearing black, and with further darkroom burning, our eye is forced to follow the outside lines of Churchills forearm, biceps and shoulders until we are eventually drawn right into that remarkable face.
From these two examples by master artists we can learn how to use diagonal lines in our photography to draw the viewer toward our ultimate subject. Once we start to move away from the subject those diagonal lines should draw us right back into the scene yet again. Successful art will hold you in the scene by not allowing your eyes to escape.
By studying and understanding the master portrait artists we can learn their compositional technique and apply that equally as well to landscape and nature photography. Good composition is good composition; it really is that simple.
And remember, if you are having fun then you are doing it right.
Postscript: In keeping with the flavour of the artists (including other photographers) copyright I will ask the reader to reference the images that have been suggested as opposed to my posting without license. Thank you in advance for understanding.