Learn the rules of “good” image composition and learn how to use them. Then you can best decide when to break those rules to your advantage. In the long run you’ll enjoy photography more when you learn to compose images that suit your own sense of the aesthetic. The act of capturing a particular image composition is a lot like writing an entry in a book that’s all about you. You decide what goes into the picture and you decide where it goes and why.
If part of your motivation is to convey a message to other people then you’ll have to learn the language of images. Images are composed through application of the ‘elements of design’. Keep in mind what I say elsewhere in this book about studying the works of the master painters. They knew image composition and how to make one picture speak volumes. In many cases they spent days and weeks completing one painting so they had to pack a lot of message into that one effort. What a different world that seems from shooting a picture in 1/1000th of a second.
Through your images you will attempt to engage ‘the mind’s eye’ of your audience. The fact is your audience will be human and the human mind has some predictable and limiting ways to interact with images. Learn the details of that process and you’ll know how to make pictures that communicate.
The good news is if you read some of the rules and then you review samples of the pictures that you’ve already taken you may discover that you were following the rules before you knew them. There’s a good reason for that.
Selected Rules of Composition
a. If you have a portrait of a person and it appears they are looking out at something then give them some space in the picture to help indicate that fact. If you have a moving object in your picture give it some space to be moving into. That’s the Rule of Space.
b. In your mind draw a tic-tac-toe board on the entire area of your picture. As a result you have divided your picture into thirds with 3 columns across and 3 rows from top to bottom. Focus upon the lines. The mind prefers that you place your main subject along one of those lines. Better yet place your subject where 2 lines intersect. That’s the
Rule of Thirds.
My sailboat picture does well by this rule by dividing the land and sky along the length of the bottom line. I came close to placing my main subject, the sailboat, at the intersection of two lines in the bottom right thirds. Also, in regard to the Rule of Space, I gave my sailboat room to travel.
c. The human mind will allocate more focus toward an image that has one strong center of interest or that has 3 objects that work together to form a center of interest. Not 2 and not 4. That’s the Rule of odds.
d. In most cases you will want to keep your images as uncluttered as possible, Why put in unnecessary elements that only serve to detract from your subject?
e. Balancing Elements – in this case your main elements could be one large object to the left and two small objects to the right. All these elements are away from the image center. In a visual sense when all objects are considered they could be seen as balancing each other in a way that brings a higher sense of equilibrium.
These are examples of the rules of composition. If you find that they help you take better pictures then you may want to research more of them.