Learning to See, Part IX

Learning to See, Part IX

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.


How many diagonal lines can you find in this image of Leo?

How many diagonal lines can you find in this image of Leo?

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.


There are several more triangles that are less obvious. Can you find them?  The point is that you should be looking for composition elements in your photography until it becomes an intuitive process.

There are several more triangles that are less obvious. Can you find them? The point is that you should be looking for composition elements in your photography until it becomes an intuitive process.

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.

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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.'

Some Older Comments

  • George April 14, 2013 10:14 am

    Good job with this Dale. I agree with you completely with the need to help beginners learn the concepts of composition is critical. So very, very few amateur photographers have the intuitive ability to "see what looks good" through the viewfinder or even in what is a good composition in the scene. Understanding how to use the elements to control the viewer's eye and emotion lends to much greater consistency in getting the shot and the viewing effect they are striving for.

    This series would make a good ebook.

  • gnslngr45 March 22, 2013 05:40 am

    Whether contrived, spontaneous, or complete "luck" - I learn from these things that "work." I can tell you there are many many things I notice in my best photos that I was never aware of when I took the photo. Maybe a subconscious thought - but never could I have said at the time "I did that because..."


  • ccting March 20, 2013 11:20 am


    this is what the art people doing nowadays... a reverse engineered math model..

  • Dale Wilson March 20, 2013 01:52 am

    Let's not be so hasty, Dana.

    According to a live interview on the release of his book “A Fifty Year Perspective”, Karsh explained that after Churchill was positioned for the photo he then went up and respectfully removed the cigar from the Prime Minister. In Karsh’s words: “It was a spontaneous act on my part. It was intuitive. His expression, although not planned on my part, fit the need of the hour.” (Interview with Bob Bishop, June 1988)

    Plucking Churchill’s cigar had nothing to do with the pose and everything to do with the expression. As a student of art history you would understand the mantra of portrait photographers – pose, light & refine.

    However, let’s not confuse the issue and the point of this series. It is written with the intended audience being the beginning photographer. Only by learning the so-called accepted rules of composition (or rules of whatever) can we then successfully break them.

  • Dana Andrews March 20, 2013 12:57 am

    Ha ha ha, Bulls*it. Karsh himself wrote that the reason Churchill has that pose was because Yousuf had just taken Winston's cigar from him. Fun Fact; there was another picture taken a few minutes later that shows Churchill smiling. Yousuf liked that picture better but the editors thought the first one showed 'indomitable spirit". Thank god for editors.
    I find this kind of art analysis helps us understand why a picture works but it is more an understanding while you are creating. You will drive yourself crazy trying to compose with all these rules.
    The basis of all these considerations is contained in the Principles and Elements of Style. Anyone going pro needs to take studio art classes to really learn and be able to apply them.

  • Paul Parkinson LRPS March 19, 2013 09:39 pm

    Can you please publish this series of articles as an ebook? It's brilliant.

  • Mridula March 19, 2013 03:35 pm

    And I understand next to nothing about paintings :(


  • Chris March 19, 2013 12:48 pm

    It's kinda funny. The more I study photography, the more I learn about painting, and vice versa. After all, photography is "painting with light"!

  • Sherri Stone March 19, 2013 07:45 am

    Great information! Gorgeous lion:-)