It’s been a while since I last wrote a piece and I’ve realised I might have been overly focused on technical posts so far. If you remember well, I had started this blog making reference to the fact that photography consists of both technique and art (vide this post). So to compensate, I will start off a series of posts that discusses the ‘artistic’ side of taking photos. After all, it’s one thing knowing how to fiddle with all the knobs and settings, but it’s another altogether knowing how to produce a result that is pleasing to the eye and considered ‘artsy’.
Now, before you accuse me of anything – a proviso is in order. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, (whoever they may be) – and I have to say I agree. What I find beautiful might be an inch away from being rubbish to you, and vice versa. However, there are some “rules” in the world of art that are worth sharing and taking a note of. Then, whether you make use of such “rules” or not depends on your preferences and photographic style.
A second proviso is the fact that the so called “rules” are indeed NOT rules, rather, guidelines or accepted best practices. Do not feel like ALL your photos should conform to any of these rules, heck, do not feel like ANY of your photos MUST do so. However, I reiterate what I stated above – it is generally accepted, in artistic circles, that photos displaying ‘adherence’ to such rules are better received than those that aren’t.
So, provisos over, here’s the long and short of it: (1) know about the rules, (2) know when to use them, and (3) know when you have to break them! And there you have it, a three part series seems to be developing as I type…
Know about the rules…
There are many so-called “rules” in photography, but none other more famously touted as “the rule of thirds”. So what’s this all about? In a nutshell, the rule states that points of interest in a picture, (read, what you want to emphasise), should fall on the intersection points of four imaginary lines drawn as a grid over the photo; with two equally spaced vertical lines and two equally spaced horizontal lines making up the grid. Each partition (vertical / horizontal) should contain one-third of the whole image, hence the rule of thirds.
The imaginary lines should divide the image up into nine segments as follows:
The semi-transparent black lines are the lines that make up the “imaginary” rule of thirds grid. Notice how I composed the shot in such a way to place the fly’s eye and the golden bubble at the top-left third intersection point.
In most cameras, you can activate an on-screen grid that is based on this rule to help you compose your photos. If you never knew why you needed that grid, then now you know!
Should you use this rule? I would recommend doing so – particularly with some subjects such as portraits, landscapes or photos of animals. Using this guideline to compose your shots helps you create photos that, generally, better place the subject within the context of the surroundings. Without regard to this compositional guideline, people tend to ‘naturally’ gravitate towards placing the subject bang in the middle of the photo. Whilst this is common, it is not considered artistic as it tends not to facilitate the viewer’s “roaming” around the photo. When the subject is central, viewers are almost being “asked” to look at the centre and nowhere else, whilst placing the subject slightly to one side (by placing the emphasis on a third-intersection point) tends to invite viewers to look at the rest of the image more readily. Try it out and see for yourself!
Some tips associated with the rule… Generally in portraits and images where eyes are visible, it is common to place eyes on a third intersection point. However this should not be regarded as a hard and fast rule – there are moments where a centrally placed face is an effective tool to “capture and hold” one’s attention, for example, if you want to portray an air of assertiveness stemming from the character. The central positioning would send a message to the viewer saying “do not look elsewhere”, very much in line with the message of assertiveness being attempted.
In landscapes, the rule of thirds is used to assist composition on more than one front. First off, it is common practice to place foreground interest on a third intersection point (generally bottom right or bottom left). Secondly, the horizon is generally placed on one of the horizontal lines making up the grid – central positioning of the horizon (dividing the image in equal parts) is not considered artistic in most cases (although, as ever, there are exceptions). For a practical example, consider the image below:
Here, I placed the bench on the bottom-right intersection point (imagine the lines), and the horizon is placed on the bottom horizontal. (I used the bottom horizontal here since there is more interest upward of the horizon, as opposed to below it. This gives more space in the image to more interesting stuff, that is, the sky itself).
By using the rule of thirds, I wanted to create an image whereby the viewer feels compelled to sit on the bench and take in the view of a beautiful sunset sky. This was achieved by placing the principal point of interest, the foreground bench, at the bottom right. Starting off from there, the viewer’s eyes are directed out towards the sunset on a right-to-left direction.
Note: Always note the direction of “travel” in your images and place subjects accordingly – for instance, in this image, the bench would have looked awkward on the left hand side, if presented at the same angle, as it would theoretically be looking OUT of the picture. On the other hand, given the bench is on the RIGHT here, if you sit on it, you’d be looking INTO the picture. Hence the placement of the bench on the bottom-right third.
So let’s recap, to close off this first post in the series.
1. Visually (or using the grid in-camera) divide the scene in front of you into nine-segments using two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines.
2. Line up key subject aspects on third intersection points (e.g. foreground interest, person’s eye, the heads in a couple’s shot, etc).
3. Horizons should be on the top or bottom third, depending on where the most interesting aspects are.
I hope this has been helpful and interesting to read. I will do my best to keep this series going, possibly even beyond a three-part series… There are, of course, other “rules” to present but that will be another time.
Now go and try this out!