Learning to See, Part VIII - Digital Photography School

Learning to See, Part VIII

Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.  –Edward Weston

 

To some photographers composition is an innate process, whereas to others it is a life-long learned challenge laden with frustration. Regardless of which category you find yourself, good composition is a learned skill that will enhance the overall aesthetic appeal of the end result.  While I subscribe to Weston’s notion, I also believe we first learn to crawl before walking.

Our challenge is to learn how to use diagonal lines, contrast, simplicity, point of interest, and so on to allow us to translate the three-dimensional scene being photographed onto a one-dimensional plane while retaining the original perception of depth and movement.

The first rule that we must accept is that there is no right way to take a picture. Regardless of the subject matter, you should always analyze your picture to ensure it answers the question: Does this picture satisfy my reasons for having made the exposure in the first place?  Should your answer be yes —congratulations.  If not — why not?

The art of making a photograph can be broken down to its most basic and elementary form: Placing the point of interest in the most satisfying position within the frame to achieve the desired result. It really is that simple; everything from this point forward will evolve by way of personal technique.

The first photographic rule that must be learned, and adhered to from this day forward, is the use of a tripod. It is unquestionably the most valuable piece of ancillary equipment you can have at your disposal. Only when your camera is firmly grounded with the flexibility and advantage of controlled movement can you then start to accurately study the scene in the viewfinder, thus ensuring all elements are properly placed in the scene prior to making the exposure. There have been many articles and reviews written on the multitude of tripod models available, please defer to those that are easily located by doing a web search.

By recognizing that we want to photograph a particular scene or subject, we have also admitted to having identified the point of impact within that scene. Perhaps it is a lazy fox in big landscape, a detail of some mammal, a grey wolf peering from behind a tree, or perhaps the snow-capped mountains in some distant vista. Where we place that identifying feature within the viewfinder will unquestionably enhance the final impact of the image.

One of the very first rules of thumb to be learned in composition is the utilization of the ‘Rule of Thirds.’ Essentially the viewfinder is divided into nine equal spaces by placing two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Where these lines dissect each other will create the four ‘Points of Impact’ within the frame.

Canada’s easternmost province of Newfoundland has the southernmost population of arctic hare in the world.  This fellow was located atop Gros Morne Mountain, and the photo was captured with little regard for composition. With uncontrolled animals (non-zoo setting) just get the shot first,and then concentrate on refining the image with the next frame. With gained experience you will soon find yourself intuitively placing the subject at the correct ‘Point of Impact’ as indicated here with red circles.

Canada’s easternmost province of Newfoundland has the southernmost population of arctic hare in the world. This fellow was located atop Gros Morne Mountain, and the photo was captured with little regard for composition. With uncontrolled animals (non-zoo setting) just get the shot first,and then concentrate on refining the image with the next frame. With gained experience you will soon find yourself intuitively placing the subject at the correct ‘Point of Impact’ as indicated here with red circles.

Regardless of subject matter, by placing our primary point of interest in one of the four ‘point of impact’ locations within the frame we will dramatically improve the dynamic and aesthetic appeal of the picture.

What I would like you to do now is locate simple subjects in your backyard or neighbourhood park. Do not try to make complex pictures, but just a single subject on a plain background – perhaps a solitary tree against a sky background. While employing the “Rule of Thirds” place that tree, or other chosen subject, in each of the four “point of impact” locations. For the fifth photo of the tree, place it in the centre of the viewfinder. Which photo do you prefer and why?

Once this hare heard the mirror-slap on my medium format camera (Pentax 67) he was gone faster than a … well, shot at rabbit. Fortunately, due to the large film size I am able to crop the image and place the ‘Point of Interest’ (the hare) in the most pleasing ‘Point of Impact’ within the frame. When we are working with “living critters, including people” we will usually want to focus on the eyes and frame the animal in such a fashion to leave room for them to “look into the frame.”

Once this hare heard the mirror-slap on my medium format camera (Pentax 67) he was gone faster than a … well, shot at rabbit. Fortunately, due to the large film size I am able to crop the image and place the ‘Point of Interest’ (the hare) in the most pleasing ‘Point of Impact’ within the frame. When we are working with “living critters, including people” we will usually want to focus on the eyes and frame the animal in such a fashion to leave room for them to “look into the frame.”

 

As you go through this exercise, remember the most important rule in photography: Have fun. If, after all, you are having fun then you are doing it right.

See the Full Learning to See Series

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Dale Wilson is a freelance photographer based out of Halifax, Canada. He has been a regular staff writer for a variety of Canadian photo magazines for 18 years. Wilson has also published or co-published four books and was the photo-editor on the Canadian best selling Canada’s National Parks – A Celebration. His practice concentrates on commercial work and shooting natural history images for four stock agencies. After a 10 year hiatus Wilson will once again be offering eastern Canadian workshops with his teaching partner Garry Black.'

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    A nice exercise for a beginner. I like the idea of clicking a tree, a solitary tree.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2011/10/havelock-andaman-islands.html

  • CDB

    Seriously? You’re trying to get people to consider different composition methods by telling them to use a tripod? That’s like telling people to exercise while tying them to a chair!

    Instead, MOVE! Get up, above, around, below, under the subject. There are only two ways to change your composition…
    (1) aim the camera at something different (including zooming in close or out wide), or,
    (2) move the photographer.
    You can’t move properly to change composition when your camera is on a tripod. Sure, people will stop shooting, pick up the tripod, walk around, plonk it down, look through the ‘finder, and by then have forgotten what the last image looked like. Wondering why all the images look boring and same-y, while never even realising, that the tripod has caused them to shoot from exactly the same height every time.

    Sure, tripods have their uses. I own four. But when I’m trying different compositions, they’re in the cupboard.

    Also
    *two dimensional plane, not one (two dimensions can be a planar picture, one dimension is only a line)!

  • Scottc

    The Rule of Thirds is a “go to” compostion that seldom fails, this is a well written lesson on one of the great basics.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5839249021/

  • ccting

    Excellent. Rule of thirds is orginated from math model. There are assumptions for rule of thirds.. that those who accepted math model will understand. ;D

  • tom – still learning

    i spent 15 minutes taking dozens of photos of flowers on a sidewalk. When i was done, my wife (who is an artist) ask for the camera. She took 1/2 step forward and SNAP – the money shot. I have a lot to learn. i knew the photo was there, just didn’t know how to get it.
    Thanks for the posts.

  • Michal France

    Thank you for your great articles! I follow them from the first and communicate very useful ideas by using a comprehensible language.It’s important especially for beginners!

    Here is my try. At first it was a play with colour spectrum. Orange and yellow on purple background. Also I positioned the main interest in light and the background is in shadow. To emphasise the main object I used the rules of the thirds. All in all I used the ideas from your articles!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/90949112@N02/8541069531/in/set-72157632951778623/

    I’m looking forward to the next article!

  • http://www.ehlers.dk Henrik Ehlers
  • Tom

    I no longer use rule of thirds, not even when describing composition to beginners. Instead I use the concept of offsetting – both for points of interest and horizon lines. As soon as the object is offset, it becomes more visually satisfying. But the photographer need not go chasing after the one-third lines. Composing a shot is a dynamic process with the photographer constantly shifting the angle up-down, side to side, zooming in and out, until the most pleasing or intriguing composition is attained. Even a slight offset can be dynamic and appealing.
    Time to put the rule of thirds (ROT) to bed I say!

  • Duke

    tom, you missed the point. Go back to the Edward Weston quote at the beginning of the article.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    I agree withe everything that is said above, even though you may think some of it is contradictory. This series is about learning to crawl, then walk.
    For those just starting out in photography, the Rule of Thirds is not ROT – it helps you understand about offsetting and placement. And for an exercise such as taking a static subject from multiple viewpoints, a tripod can help increase sharpness, but can also hinder by restricting the possible variations. Although it was only mentioned in passing, the placing of eyes at a strategic point in the frame is critical.
    One thing I think disappointing is the use of a monochrome low contrast rendering for the first hare picture and then comparing it with a full colour contrast enhanced image. And why not show the same image with the hare’s eyes at each of the four points of intersection, to make the point?

  • http://www.dalewilson.ca Dale Wilson

    Bob … you are right on the mark. This entire series is about “Beginners Basics” and the need to learn how to crawl before we run. Only by successfully learning the rules can we then toss them aside and explore our own unique vision and style.

    The reason for the monochrome was to allow the red circled “Points of Impact” to stand off the page without competition.

    Your point about showing the hare at all intersections is valid and an oversight on my part. Ironically it is something I show in the classroom and discuss. The learning curve of one-way dialogue of blog entries is not without its challenges. Thank you for reinforcing the need for good communication on the writers part.

    As the writer of this series I do find it somewhat frustrating that several respondants offer valid input; but they are overlooking the primary audience – the beginner. The beginning photographer does not need the confusion of differing theories, they want the support and nurturing of the photo community on what will hopefully be a life-long pursuit of enjoyable picture making.

    There will be lots of time to debate the diluge of colour theories or inverse square of light. In the interim let’s just have fun; if after all, you are having fun the nyou are doing it right!

  • Abhay

    Lately I have been seeing close ups with head cut and frame down till bottom of the neck. I would like to understand this composition. Am I looking at it the wrong way.

  • George

    Tom,
    Great series of articles. My only wish is that instructors of photography would quite calling the Rule of Thirds as a “rule” or “guideline”. I think it is a dogmatic disservice to beginners and advanced photographers as well. What seems to happen is that instructors give one side of the concept completely ignoring the other (as you have here). That is that elements of an image that fall near the intersections of the Rule of Thirds grid (or more accurately at any of the Golden Ratio impact points) lends “harmony” to a scene. Deviation from those impact points adds “tension”. We are not “breaking a rule” when we center a subject, we are bringing attention to it in a disconcerting way. Try this: Find a picture of a rattlesnake looking directly into the camera; crop it in accordance with the Rule of Thirds; crop it a second time with the head (or eye) dead center. Which makes you feel the greater anxiety.

    Also, when we talk about the Rule of Thirds we usually miss talking about all the other Golden Ratio impact points based on the same mathematic ratio: Golden Spiral, Golden Triangle, Golden Arc, etc. Why is it so difficult for the instructors to teach the Golden Ratio CONCEPT ? It will do wonders to open (instead of confine) the student to the concepts of composition.

  • George

    I meant to address that previous comment to Dale not Tom. Sorry.

Some older comments

  • George

    April 14, 2013 09:28 am

    I meant to address that previous comment to Dale not Tom. Sorry.

  • George

    April 14, 2013 09:24 am

    Tom,
    Great series of articles. My only wish is that instructors of photography would quite calling the Rule of Thirds as a "rule" or "guideline". I think it is a dogmatic disservice to beginners and advanced photographers as well. What seems to happen is that instructors give one side of the concept completely ignoring the other (as you have here). That is that elements of an image that fall near the intersections of the Rule of Thirds grid (or more accurately at any of the Golden Ratio impact points) lends "harmony" to a scene. Deviation from those impact points adds "tension". We are not "breaking a rule" when we center a subject, we are bringing attention to it in a disconcerting way. Try this: Find a picture of a rattlesnake looking directly into the camera; crop it in accordance with the Rule of Thirds; crop it a second time with the head (or eye) dead center. Which makes you feel the greater anxiety.

    Also, when we talk about the Rule of Thirds we usually miss talking about all the other Golden Ratio impact points based on the same mathematic ratio: Golden Spiral, Golden Triangle, Golden Arc, etc. Why is it so difficult for the instructors to teach the Golden Ratio CONCEPT ? It will do wonders to open (instead of confine) the student to the concepts of composition.

  • Abhay

    March 22, 2013 09:31 pm

    Lately I have been seeing close ups with head cut and frame down till bottom of the neck. I would like to understand this composition. Am I looking at it the wrong way.

  • Dale Wilson

    March 18, 2013 11:13 pm

    Bob ... you are right on the mark. This entire series is about "Beginners Basics" and the need to learn how to crawl before we run. Only by successfully learning the rules can we then toss them aside and explore our own unique vision and style.

    The reason for the monochrome was to allow the red circled "Points of Impact" to stand off the page without competition.

    Your point about showing the hare at all intersections is valid and an oversight on my part. Ironically it is something I show in the classroom and discuss. The learning curve of one-way dialogue of blog entries is not without its challenges. Thank you for reinforcing the need for good communication on the writers part.

    As the writer of this series I do find it somewhat frustrating that several respondants offer valid input; but they are overlooking the primary audience - the beginner. The beginning photographer does not need the confusion of differing theories, they want the support and nurturing of the photo community on what will hopefully be a life-long pursuit of enjoyable picture making.

    There will be lots of time to debate the diluge of colour theories or inverse square of light. In the interim let's just have fun; if after all, you are having fun the nyou are doing it right!

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    March 18, 2013 06:15 pm

    I agree withe everything that is said above, even though you may think some of it is contradictory. This series is about learning to crawl, then walk.
    For those just starting out in photography, the Rule of Thirds is not ROT - it helps you understand about offsetting and placement. And for an exercise such as taking a static subject from multiple viewpoints, a tripod can help increase sharpness, but can also hinder by restricting the possible variations. Although it was only mentioned in passing, the placing of eyes at a strategic point in the frame is critical.
    One thing I think disappointing is the use of a monochrome low contrast rendering for the first hare picture and then comparing it with a full colour contrast enhanced image. And why not show the same image with the hare's eyes at each of the four points of intersection, to make the point?

  • Duke

    March 16, 2013 02:07 pm

    tom, you missed the point. Go back to the Edward Weston quote at the beginning of the article.

  • Tom

    March 16, 2013 06:10 am

    I no longer use rule of thirds, not even when describing composition to beginners. Instead I use the concept of offsetting - both for points of interest and horizon lines. As soon as the object is offset, it becomes more visually satisfying. But the photographer need not go chasing after the one-third lines. Composing a shot is a dynamic process with the photographer constantly shifting the angle up-down, side to side, zooming in and out, until the most pleasing or intriguing composition is attained. Even a slight offset can be dynamic and appealing.
    Time to put the rule of thirds (ROT) to bed I say!

  • Henrik Ehlers

    March 15, 2013 10:49 pm

    And here's an example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/henrik-ehlers/8346021472/in/photostream

  • Michal France

    March 15, 2013 08:52 am

    Thank you for your great articles! I follow them from the first and communicate very useful ideas by using a comprehensible language.It's important especially for beginners!

    Here is my try. At first it was a play with colour spectrum. Orange and yellow on purple background. Also I positioned the main interest in light and the background is in shadow. To emphasise the main object I used the rules of the thirds. All in all I used the ideas from your articles!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/90949112@N02/8541069531/in/set-72157632951778623/

    I'm looking forward to the next article!

  • tom - still learning

    March 15, 2013 05:59 am

    i spent 15 minutes taking dozens of photos of flowers on a sidewalk. When i was done, my wife (who is an artist) ask for the camera. She took 1/2 step forward and SNAP - the money shot. I have a lot to learn. i knew the photo was there, just didn't know how to get it.
    Thanks for the posts.

  • ccting

    March 15, 2013 01:51 am

    Excellent. Rule of thirds is orginated from math model. There are assumptions for rule of thirds.. that those who accepted math model will understand. ;D

  • Scottc

    March 14, 2013 09:14 pm

    The Rule of Thirds is a "go to" compostion that seldom fails, this is a well written lesson on one of the great basics.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5839249021/

  • CDB

    March 14, 2013 07:49 pm

    Seriously? You're trying to get people to consider different composition methods by telling them to use a tripod? That's like telling people to exercise while tying them to a chair!

    Instead, MOVE! Get up, above, around, below, under the subject. There are only two ways to change your composition...
    (1) aim the camera at something different (including zooming in close or out wide), or,
    (2) move the photographer.
    You can't move properly to change composition when your camera is on a tripod. Sure, people will stop shooting, pick up the tripod, walk around, plonk it down, look through the 'finder, and by then have forgotten what the last image looked like. Wondering why all the images look boring and same-y, while never even realising, that the tripod has caused them to shoot from exactly the same height every time.

    Sure, tripods have their uses. I own four. But when I'm trying different compositions, they're in the cupboard.

    Also
    *two dimensional plane, not one (two dimensions can be a planar picture, one dimension is only a line)!

  • Mridula

    March 14, 2013 06:45 pm

    A nice exercise for a beginner. I like the idea of clicking a tree, a solitary tree.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2011/10/havelock-andaman-islands.html

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