Beyond the Rule of Thirds
November 7, 2006 8:12 AM   Subscribe

I need help learning the rules of composition for photography or fine art. What makes a good photograph? What makes a bad photograph?

I want to become a better photographer, but most of the threads I've seen on the subject here and here relate mostly to the technical aspects of photography, f-stops and the like, rather than how to compose a phoitograph. Not that it matters, but I have a DSLR with a 22-80mm zoom.

I understand the rule of thirds and leading lines, but I need a more formal understanding of composition in general. What are the basic rules of framing and composing a photograph? What should I be looking to balance or unbalance? Colors? Sizes? Shapes? What are the basic do's and don'ts?

A google search just reveals bits and peices, but I can't tell what are some photographers subjective opinions, and what are considered the "rules" or guidelines to be followed.

Are there agreed upon rules of photographic or fine art composition? Are there any web resources that articulate these rules? Any classic texts? I've checked , for example, but his descriptions are very informal and subjective.

The advice is generally to take a lot of pictures, but I'd rather take a lot of pictures while training my eye rather than taking a lot of pictures that reinforce bad habits. I'll break the rules after I learn the rules.
posted by Pastabagel to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 106 users marked this as a favorite
The "rules" of composition, like positioning the main point of interest 1/3 of the way from the top or center, can be taken from fine art sources, but here's one interesting element that looks bad in painting yet looks good in photography: positioning shapes in the frame, like the corner of a table seen obliquely, so that its corner is exactly aligned with the edge of the frame.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:22 AM on November 7, 2006 [3 favorites]

Learning to See Creatively: Design, Color & Composition in Photography by Bryan Peterson

Photographic Composition by Tom Grill and Marc Scanlon

posted by caddis at 8:27 AM on November 7, 2006

I would highly suggest Ansel Adams' series of books on the subject: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. Say what you will about Adams' work, but he was a master of composition. The first book will probably be of most use to you, though the second will as well, and the third will be handy when you start printing your own work.
posted by The Michael The at 8:28 AM on November 7, 2006

Best answer: Great thread. I'm favoriting it already. Since you haven't found "rules" and I haven't either, I have to say that there isn't a book specifically with all the answers (although I thought that about Photoshop for years and then low-and-behold, I found Professional Photoshop. I hope if I'm wrong, the info is linked here. C'mon mefi photographers!)

To be formalist about composition:

Draw a box. Put a dot in the center of the box. Everything is at rest. Put the dot ANYWHERE else but the center and you percieve a story. That the dot wants out of the box. That the dot is cowering in the box. Put a red dot in there and you have a conflict. If it's there with dots, it's there with photographic elements too.

I've found the rule of thirds is good...but things seem to work better when they're a little bit closer to the edges. Still, I tend to use it like this: put interesting points at the intersections. If that's not exciting enough, put it more to the edge; if it's too disjointed, move it closer to the center.

Looking for a book, I found this page on Geometry in Composition. It looks damn good & I'm gonna read it as soon as I finish typing all this up. Skimming it, it seems to say to look for these shapes: Diagonals, Triangles, Archs, S-Curves. That could be a really good shortcut. Take a "roll" of film, lock yourself in the bathroom, shoot all the diagonals you can. Then shoot all the triangles you can, etc. Training myself to see the rule of thirds helped me so much, I could easily see how this could help too.

Three quarter view painted portraits almost ALWAYS have the eye thats further back on the center line. Do that. Citation

You also might want to read up on the Constructivists.
posted by Brainy at 8:32 AM on November 7, 2006 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The books I referenced above are great, and preferred over simple articles because of all the examples they contain of great composition. They are not rule based as much as explanations of how to use form, color, contrast, light, mood, etc. in composing great pictures. Here is a compendium of free articles on the web to get you started though.
posted by caddis at 8:38 AM on November 7, 2006

I was just going to add that the page I took that one article from is actually just one of many, but caddis just happened to mention it. So I second
posted by Brainy at 8:40 AM on November 7, 2006

Luminous Landscape is a good place to start for lots of things, but they also have an essay section which you can scan for articles on composition or the art oh photography in general.
posted by spicynuts at 8:42 AM on November 7, 2006

22 comic panels that always work
(Generally, what works for comics works for photos.) I think the most difficult part of composing photography is forgetting what your eyes are seeing and thinking only of what the camera is seeing. Forget everything that is not in the viewfinder frame, forget the noises and smells of the place, forget the day you had and the journey you took getting there, and forget the depth you are seeing and remember everything will be flat in the end.
posted by Cranialtorque at 8:42 AM on November 7, 2006 [3 favorites]

I think you're looking for hard rules where none exist. Even the rule of thirds is merely a shorthand - there may be circumstances where you want the object of interest closer to the center or farther out towards the edge.

Rockwell makes one of the best points possible in why your camera does not matter. "The only reason I have a huge lens in my photo on my home page is so I don't have to say "photographer" or "photography." The lens makes it obvious much quicker than words. That's what visual communication is all about: thinking long and hard to make your point clearly and quickly."

In composition, lighting, color and all other choices only one goal is paramount: communication. I personally think this is a great shot; I bought a print. But does adhere to the rule of thirds? This one arguably does, but when your eyes move to the object at the upper right in the compliant quadrant - her eyes - you're immediately drawn to see what she's looking at, the latch which is in the middle, not on one of the 4 mythical points.

Part of why that succeeds is lighting and color. The first KW shot is 2/3 deep blackness and forces your gaze to the eyes. The lock photo is much brighter in the spot that will subsequently draw your eyes to the darker region, meaning you look in the right point in order to have your gaze directed.

Maybe you'll make the argument that these are the rules you'll break once you learn the rules, but my point is that there aren't that many rules and certainly there aren't any where you'll get The Right Picture - if not the Great picture - if you just follow the rules every time. This is not a calculus integral with a demonstrable right or wrong. This is shooting hoops, where you will throw ball after ball and not know if you succeeded until you've taken the shot. (ha!)

If you want an Exercise to follow, you need to follow that basketball metaphor and drill on the one rule. You've got the one rule: communicate and evoke (get the ball in the net). You've got the one rule of thirds guideline (feet shoulder width apart, rise slightly on your toes, follow through). Now you need to stand in the gym and shoot, shoot, shoot.

This is art, not science. Developing your vision and your eye for what makes a shot is taking enough shots to get an instinct for what that little section of the world looks like on film after the shot. You live in a fortunate time where you can shoot and crop after the fact much more easily than ever before.

This is my long-winded way of saying I don't think you need to worry about developing 'bad' form and that I don't believe there are any other 'rules' you need to concern yourself with following.
posted by phearlez at 8:46 AM on November 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best advise I can give is to immerse yourself in good photography.

Any time I take a photo (or go to design a web page/brochure/wall hanging) I visualise what it will look like. Frame it in my mind. If it looks crap in my head (or through the viewfinder) then I don't proceed.

If it looks good then I start to consider the other options... lighting, focal point, colour etc etc.

Practice and absorbing youself in the art will work wonders though. Take a photo. Look at it. If it looks shit, why? If you think it looks great but someone whose opinion you value thinks it is shit, why?

oh, and I second caddis suggestion:

Learning to See Creatively: Design, Color & Composition in Photography by Bryan Peterson
posted by twistedonion at 9:00 AM on November 7, 2006

Another really good idea (or something that's helped me) has been to crop in Adobe Lightroom. There's a beta available now. When you crop it gives you Thirds guidelines, so you get to interactively see how different placements work. It's really opened my eyes (and made my picture better).

I wouldn't disagree with phearlez, but I would caution against saying that one rule is good enough and the rest comes with time. Yes, if you practice enough you might hit upon the other principles that help your art work, but why reinvent waste time chipping to an octagon wheel when the round one has already been invented?

Of course slavish adherence to the "rules" makes your work predictable. But so is any song with a I-IV-V progression, doesn't mean great things haven't been done with it. And if you're gonna be practicing, it might as well be with stuff that will have a pretty good chance of being decent.

Maybe take some time to do simple exercises like the ones I suggested. Go slow. Let the principles absorb. Maybe shoot diagonals for a month. Make that your life. Say "the way to get better is to put diagonals in my shots". Sure, all your pictures will look similar, and when you run out of ideas on a day, shoot regular, but make that one principle your job. Then when you start to "see" the diagonals in your work (and others) when you didn't even notice them while taking it, move on to the next. This might seem like it's extending 4 shapes into a career, but I guarantee you, by the time you really get comfortable with all these, you will be in a position to know exactly where to go next.

Also, I would argue that what really makes this picture great is that there is so much tension between the eyes and their placement. Take any photo and crop it so the eyes are in that position and there will be so much tension. We're hardwired to see faces in electrical outlets, we're definitely gonna see motivation in a face's position in a rectangle.

On preview, sorry phearlez, I seemed to have used you as a catalyst. No disrespect meant to your position.
posted by Brainy at 9:03 AM on November 7, 2006

I want to become a better photographer

What KIND of photographer? Fashion, Photojournalist, Art, Wedding, what?

Based on your questions, you seem to be flailing about with no clear goal, while looking for easy, by the book instruction on how to be creative. Yet you're ignoring the most basic thing, which is to take lots of pictures. Before digital came along it wasn't uncommon to see photo majors at school shooting 15 roles a week easy.

What interests you? Take a picture of it. See how it compares to mastersof that style/subject/genere.

Also, a common tatic when learning to draw is copy the masters. I suggest you do the same with photography, at least at first.

Finally this comment was of yours was interesting:

but I need a more formal understanding of composition in general.

I disagree, I think you need to get your nose outta the books and start shooting. You're getting to hung up on "rules" Every damn rule in art can be broken.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:33 AM on November 7, 2006

It's important to understand basic rules of composition so that you can selectively depend on them without having to think hard about it -- that interferes with your concentration.

I doubt there's a photography or design program which doesn't teach composition through rules and process. I also can't think of one that will pass you if you are still stuck on rules and processes in your final work.

That many great photos conform to the rule of thirds does not mean that the photographers were working with it in mind. Calling it a rule is misleading: It's an observable pattern.

Being stuck on rules leads to misunderstanding what's good and why (that link is satire, btw). Aesthetic quality is not easily generalized.

Ultimately what's more important than understanding principles of composition, contrast, and so on is understanding why they work. And that comes from practice, criticism, and study. Find works to admire, and learn why they're admirable, and what becomes applicable to what you do will trickle in.
posted by ardgedee at 10:04 AM on November 7, 2006

This doesn't exactly answer your question, but I've learned to be a much more critical judge of photos by following this flickr group for a while. People vote to save or delete each photo. People are brutally honest and extremely critical. I started out liking many of the photos that were deleted. Now I am able to see details in a photo that I never noticed before.
posted by kdern at 10:21 AM on November 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

This book (along with a few years of drawing classes with a great teacher, which is the "practice" component of the equation) really made me "get it" w/r/t composition. He analyzes compositional forces, beginning with a dot on a white field, and increases in complexity until he is breaking down the compositional characteristics of rennaisance and contemporary paintings. And he's a helluva writer too—never gets too dry.
posted by lovejones at 10:24 AM on November 7, 2006

I'm going to break away from the rest of these folks, with their rules/no rules jibber-jabber, and say that you should read books about printmaking and layout design. Reading Principles of Two-Dimensional Design (which I can't seem to find to tell you the author), which was written in the '40s and does almost everything through different paper cutout shapes, is probably more helpful than any book on photography for teaching basic composition.
You can also just make a rectangle of the aspect ratio you shoot in and play with taking it around and aligning things as you'd frame 'em. You should get a basic sense of foreground/middleground/background and thirds like that.
posted by klangklangston at 10:56 AM on November 7, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all your very helpful and insightful answers. is going to be a huge resource.

I want to clarify, I didn't just get a camera - I have taken many many thousands of photos over the last few years.

So I've started to see that some things work and some don't, but this seems to me to be the long way to go about it, and there are a lot of things that seem to fall flat that I can't figure out why. Every great painter seems to have learned the fundamentals and is a good classical artist - even Pollock and more modernist painters whose work on first glance appears not to obey any rules. They learn the rules, and then then learn when to break them and why and what it means when they break certain rules.

It's funny that Brainy should mention diagonals, because I happend to be shooting a subject that has a lot of them. I showed a painter (hence the "or fine art" in the post) who I greatly admire the shots, and she noted that the diagonals shouldn't pass through the corners of the frame. Now that it's been brought to my attention, it sticks out like a sore thumb - "that's why a lot of those shots look odd", etc. But I could have shot for 50 years before I realized they looked odd because the diagonals went right into the corner. I went back, and shot the exact same subject with the same lens from the same spot, at the same time of day, all settings the same, but moved it in the frame a bit, and it sort of "pops". It looks more like a shot of real life than something that was assembled peicemeal into the frame.

I will say that shooting this many pictures, several thousand of which are god awful even to my untrained eye, and having them in one digital repository, has been instrumental in getting me over the technically obseessive phase of it - am i using the right aperture for the light, did I over or under expose, etc., do I need a different lens, blaming the equipment instead of myself, etc.

Shooting a lot and constantly and never deleting anything and obsessing over shots that looked awesome but at full rez turn out to be blurry has taught me a lot about (a) my particular camera, and (b) how different kids of light behave when reflected etc.

Thanks, all for the comments and keep them coming. This is great.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:11 AM on November 7, 2006


Maybe a photo class or two? They can be great for critiques.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:45 AM on November 7, 2006

Pasta, I have to say that the way you put it speaks to me so much. If art is just subjective then there's nowhere to go, we're perfect already! And if we're not perfect, what makes us different than the greats? What would be the small changes that a great photographer that we don't?

I floundered in Photoshop for years before I learned how to color correct. It was a 3 page pdf that showed me the light. My quality increased geometrically after that. The worst part was, I hadn't even known there was an answer out there.

Art is considered voodoo by most. "It's good but who can say why? Just keep shooting until your percentage increases." I really and truly think that is on par with creationism.
posted by Brainy at 11:50 AM on November 7, 2006

I enjoy Radiant Vista's Daily Critiques, wherein various shutterpros comment on publicly submitted photos. Scroll through the archives and pick shots that look like yours.

The critiques themselves are short movies (downloadable in QT, WM, or iPod video format); they're generally interesting, to the point, and usually encouraging.
posted by rob511 at 12:26 PM on November 7, 2006 [2 favorites]

Brainy - I disagree. Art is purely subjective, but the informed judgement is always more valuable.

Sometimes the mechanics are pretty easy to dissect -- for example, in music, where being an informed listener allows you to not only appreciate complex, sophisticated work, it gives you the ability to articulate why. In visual art, it's more challenging, because we can comprehend a work in terms of arrangement, tonality and structure, and still come up short on why one works and the other doesn't.
posted by ardgedee at 12:36 PM on November 7, 2006

It can be learned. Don't be discouraged though, some people are just naturally better at framing a shot. My wife is great, I struggle. I'm better than her on the technical side though.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 1:31 PM on November 7, 2006

Best answer: I learnt a huge amount about what works and what doesn't work from taking part in competitions on People comment on your photos and let you know how you might have composed/lit/post processed your photo better.
It's really tempting to think that there's some secret list of rules and guidelines which will make us an amazing photographer, but it doesn't really work that way. However, there are general guidelines. Some of mine are:
Make people (or animals) look into the photo rather than out of it if they're on the edge.
Try not to crop through people's joints. Don't chop hands in half. Hands are very expressive, be aware of what they're doing.
Focus on eyes.
Quality of light is everything, you can tell if someone is a good photographer by the way they use light in their photo.
Always be aware of the background. Poor quality snapshots usually have backgrounds that the photographer didn't think about. Make sure the background is simple.
Good composition is usually simple. Don't have too much happening in the photo.
Light areas in the photo are where the eye settles. Make use of this to lead the viewer's eye.

I could go on for ages... perhaps I'll have a think about it and post some more on my website at some point!
posted by BobsterLobster at 6:21 AM on November 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is a great book on (photographic) composition. Unfortunately it's out of print. If you don't want to cough up $40-odd dollars for it (which, frankly, is a bargain compared to prices in the past) then look for it in the library.

It's a really great resource with lots of examples. It covers practically every aspect of composition.
posted by sevenless at 12:27 PM on November 8, 2006

Well, I have finally had a chance to take a look in my bookshelves. In addition to the two books mentioned above, please don't forget Photography and the Art of Seeing,
by Freeman Patterson. It is perhaps the best of the lot. The most likely to jump start creativity and improve composition.

By the way, based on this thread I bought a copy of Design and Expression in the Visual Arts by J. F. Taylor mentioned by lovejones above. It is quite a thorough treatise on the subject, unlike the others being mostly words. It cost me $1 used, although the shipping killed me.
posted by caddis at 2:43 PM on November 12, 2006

Response by poster: I've ordered the books that caddis and lovejones recommended, but I also found this:
Norman Rockwell on Composition
which may prove useful.

I'll update this thread until it closes for the benefit of anyone who asks about this subject in the future. Thanks, everyone.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:49 PM on November 15, 2006

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