Tag Archives: composition

Rule of thirds or rule of thumb?

The great photographer Edward Weston suggested that “following the rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial cliches”.  Read any book or magazine article about composition and you will be presented with a selection of accepted ideas which are claimed to improve your composition; the rule of thirds, the golden section, using leading lines, diagonal lines, balancing the image, symmetry, using patterns and frames…the list continues!

They are all intended to help you to compose the image in a way that is appealing to the eye and indeed, they do have a proven track record.  For example, the Golden Section is based on Leonardo da Vinci’s investigation of our ideas about beauty and harmony and uses principles that can be seen in art from ancient civilisations.  Using these tried and tested formulas is inevitably mechanical to start with, rather like learning to drive a car.

But with time and practice it becomes more instinctive, and my question is, how do we then distinguish between photographing what we see and photographing what is attractive as a result of our subconscious application of one or more of these principles? Or indeed the deliberate misuse of one, such as the deliberate placement of a subject too close to the edge of the frame to create tension?  Once learned, are these ‘rules’ inevitably leading us into pictorial cliches and hampering our creativity?  Suggestions welcome…

Hip to be square

Over the last couple of weeks I have been musing on the importance of shape on the impact of the images we create.  Do you prefer to use landscape or portrait style?  Most images are recorded as some form of rectangle, but what about other shapes?

There is, of course, one shape that is now seeing a resurgence in popularity through the rise of apps such as Instagram; the square format.  I am becoming quite a fan of the square format and when I am checking out potential new acquisitions for film cameras it is often the promise of a square negative that tempts me to hand over my hard-earned cash.

A square feels balanced.  It needs no up and down, no left or right.  A square has a solidity about it; it is a very centred shape.  In Samkhya philosophy, the earth tattva is represented by a yellow square, and this yellow square is also incorporated into the symbol for the root chakra, muladhara, which is associated with the earth element and grounding. The symmetry of a square adds to this sense of weight and earthiness.

Creating images in a square format is quite different to working with rectangles.  Some compositions lend themselves to being square.  The symmetry of a square works brilliantly with symmetrical subjects that fit neatly inside its boundaries.  A daisy would be the perfect example here.  This composition creates a sense of calm, alluding to feeling centred and grounded, as the subject is fully contained in the frame and appears comfortable there.

Squares also work well with close up images in which the frame only depicts part of the subject, leaving the parts outside the frame to the viewer’s imagination.  Although the grid created by the rule of thirds does not seem to work quite as well in the square format, another favourite of mine is to layer the image horizontally, using 3 or more bands of interest in the composition.

If I am working with the intention of creating square format images using a DSLR, or other camera that records rectangles, I find it easiest to judge my composition by adopting a portrait orientation.  I can then crop the file to a square in post processing.  If you find it hard to judge, there is always the option to tape up your viewfinder or rear screen so you can only see the square shape in the first place.  This way you can shave a little off each side, which means your focussing points are still central in the viewfinder.  Some newer cameras also offer a variety of file shapes that can be created in camera.

As for me, I think square is the future!

Are you a tall or wide person?

Most modern cameras encourage the photographer to record images in landscape format i.e. an image that is wider than it is tall.  The way the strap attaches to the camera and the position of the grip means that this just seems like the most natural way to hold the thing.  When the view is indeed a landscape, the width of the frame can accentuate the impact of the scene in front of you and the potential for longer, horizontal lines can create a calming effect that seems emotionally well-suited to looking out over some majestic scenery.  For a more edgy scene, points of interest can be placed close to the borders of the image, generating tension by playing them off against the space on the other side.  Sometimes I find myself doing this without thinking, and take pause to consider why this approach is attracting me today.

Sometimes though, turning the situation on its head can create a very different shot.  Using portrait orientation for the same scene might give greater impact to the foreground or enhance a sense of depth or height which is lacking in landscape format.  Horizontal lines now stack up to accentuate this idea and give a very different feel to the image.  In short, the orientation we choose for the image has a significant effect on the visual and emotional impact of the picture we create.  I find turning the camera around to use it in portrait orientation is not a problem, but I know others who find this awkward without attaching a bulky battery grip to the camera first.  The natural tendency then, can be to use landscape orientation automatically, even when the image might benefit from a step outside of that box to use a different format for the image.

I have to say that I do like to stray away from the norm that camera manufacturers present us with.  Perhaps I am just awkward!  My digital images often just feel too long relative to their height and I frequently find myself cropping files to less extreme rectangles, such as 10 x 8, or trimming a touch off the ends to give me 7 x 5.  Of course, this can be a bit tricky to visualise in the camera, as you have to imagine how well the composition would look once you have cropped the image.  Some cameras now offer the option to select different proportions for the image file but if yours is not that clever there is always the alternative of using live view and taping up part of the rear screen to restrict it to the shape you want.

Going out with the intention of creating images in a specific but atypical shape is quite an interesting challenge in its own right.  It really makes you address your approach to composition and involves you more deeply in the process of creating each image so that the subject matter harmonises with the chosen image shape.  A new way of opening your eyes!

Rectangles, rectangles, as far as the eye can see

Many film cameras were intended to create a negative in which the length was one-and-a-half times the height, so we had 6x9cm, 6 x 4.5cm and more recently 35 x 24mm.  Modern digital cameras tend to keep to the same proportions with a full-frame sensor being equivalent to 35mm film and smaller sensors scaled down from there.  There were also the large format film cameras that recorded rectangular negatives, such as 10 x 8” that are not quite so extreme.

But why all these rectangles?  Why not round (lenses are round, after all!), oval, square, panoramic?

For centuries, the golden rules of composition have encouraged us to create rectangular images, whatever the medium we use.  The Golden Mean is based on a series of numbers identified Leonardo Fibonacci in the 13th century AD.  The Fibonacci series can be observed in the spirals of a flowers petals or a seedhead, in cones and the arrangements of leaves on a branch.  It is utilised in the spiral of shells and the branches of conifers.  He realised that this absolute ratio that appears throughout nature, when adhered to, is not only an efficient way of ordering structures but also gives pleasing proportions to the resultant design.

The Fibonacci ratio of 1:1.618 has been used widely by painters and sculptors since Renaissance times, to enhance the appeal of their works of art.  Using this ratio for painting (or now photography) results in the rectangular shape preferred by camera manufacturers.  The system offers us the golden spiral, golden ratio and golden triangles as a way of placing the most important part of the image in the best place within the frame.  It gives impact to the final composition and somehow the image just ‘feels right’.

So much of our world is rectangular.  You are probably reading this on a rectangular screen, be it your computer, tablet or phone.  I expect you look out through a rectangular window and drive a (more or less) rectangular car.  You write on rectangular paper and read rectangular books. You may sit in a rectangular room or leave the house through a rectangular door to go and sit on a rectangular bench in the park.  Rectangles give us a clue as to which way is up; it is clear that two edges for the sides whilst the others must therefore be at the top and bottom.  Rectangles are safe, comfortable, pleasing to the eye.  Perhaps we ourselves, are a kind of rectangular?

Finding balance

Hatha yoga is all about finding balance.  The word yoga means union or oneness and the word hatha refers to a bringing together of opposites.  Even the word itself is made up of balancing opposites, as ‘ha’ is the sun and ‘tha’ is the moon.  When we feel that we are in balance our lives are more harmonious.  We use the right amount of effort to achieve what is needed but no more.

Balance is also considered to be an important element in visual design.  When we are able to balance the elements within the images it creates a more harmonious feeling in the viewer.  We are born to like symmetry and this is not surprising as so much around us is symmetrical from one side to the other.  Think of your face in a mirror, a leaf, a tree. We can also see balance in asymmetry, if the relative impact of the different objects is more or less the same.  Or perhaps we see balance in the symmetry radiating out from a central point, like ripples in a pond after you toss a pebble into the water.

So just as hatha yoga is intended to bring all parts of our being together in a balanced way, we can also look for balance in the elements within the scene when we explore photography as a meditation.  When you are attracted to photograph a scene when you are out for a walk, consider whether it was the inherent harmony and balance that appealed to you. Sit with the view for a while and consider the concept of balance.  Think of how the whole world is in balance, everyone and everything breathing in and out in a constant exchange that results in a harmonious equilibrium.  A little give and a little take, all part of a greater whole.