The first and most basic rule of composition is: The Rule of Thirds
When we pick up a camera and point it at something, or someone our natural inclination is to point directly at the thing or person that we are looking at. This is great for making sure of our subject, but it just doesn’t look great. Our sense of perspective seems to be jarred by something dead center in an image. Perhaps it’s too direct, too ‘in your face’ – whatever the reason we just don’t seem to like it in an aesthetic sense. It tends to make us look away, or try to look past the subject. As with any rule, there are some notable exceptions to the rule, but these have a good reason and will be covered in a later article.
Here’s a great example of a picture taken dead center – the subject is in the middle horizontally and the horizon is in the center vertically. When we look at it our eyes naturally go to the middle of the image and stop dead, we don’t ‘see’ the rest of the image. The central placement stops us in our tracks.
Consider this image – the same shot, just cropped differently. I’ve filled the space with text to illustrate the point – when the subject is off center there is room for the eye to wander, to move into the image, in this case, to read the text. The horizon to has been placed lower in the image which allows the eye to move past the beach and on to the horizon and clouds beyond.
A simple method for improving composition is called the ‘rule of thirds’. Basically, this tells us where to place the subject. Imagine the image being divided by lines 1/3 of the way across and 2/3 of the way across both vertically and horizontally. Place your subject and horizon on these imaginary lines to improve your composition. This is only an approximation: I find that placing the subject or horizon (or both) slightly more towards the center than the exact third works well for me.
Whatever you do, don’t put the subject in the center! Try this next time you’re out on a day trip or holiday. Place your subject on a third, place the horizon on a third and see the difference!
The Second Rule of Composition: Leading Lines
Leading Lines are used to lure the eye deeper into a picture or to an important subject. Straight, curved, parallel, or diagonal lines are all good at promoting interest. Good examples could be roads, rivers, streams, bridges, branches, or fences but there are endless things that could be used.
Third Rule of Composition: Depth
If every element in a photograph is the same distance away from the camera the result can be rather flat. We see and live in three dimensions, but photographs in only two, so we need to pay attention to conveying that third dimension: depth.
The simplest way to convey depth in a photograph is to include a foreground object that adds a sense of perspective to the objects further away. The photograph below uses a single item in the foreground to help the viewer understand the distance between the camera and the mountains in the distance. Immediately a sense of depth is conveyed by the addition of the foreground interest. Combining this rule with the rule of thirds (don’t put the subject in the center) we have the base of the mountains on the top third and the foreground interest on the bottom third.