Unicorn Photo Academy Guide to Amateur Photography (Seven): Composition and the Rule of Thirds

 It might look like Cupcake the Unicorn is in a magical fantasy land, but in fact this is just in our neighbor's bushes!

It might look like Cupcake the Unicorn is in a magical fantasy land, but in fact this is just in our neighbor's bushes!

Composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements or 'ingredients' in a work of art, as distinct from the subject. It can also be thought of as the organization of the elements of art as according to the principles of art.

So what is composition in photography? Basically, it is the art of composing an image through framing--how you decide to arrange subjects within your viewfinder in a pleasing manner. Now, before we get into it, artistic composition follows “Pirate Code” like Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean. Meaning composition rules are “more like guidelines than actual rules.” Composition is very subjective, so in the end, you make the rules.

The most common and basic rule of composition is the “Rule of Thirds.” It works by imagining the image in nine equal parts by applying a 3x3 grid onto it with two evenly spaced vertical lines and two evenly spaced horizontal lines. Many 2-dimensional fine artists follow this rule and will physically draw the grid onto their canvas before working in the subject matter. Typically, your horizon line should rest at the top horizontal line, and your subject should rest at any intersection point to create visual interest.

Below are is an image with the grid over-laying the image so you can see how the rule of thirds was applied.

 Good boy, Bullett! In this image, part of his body is on the left line and the top horizontal line is near the horizon.

Good boy, Bullett! In this image, part of his body is on the left line and the top horizontal line is near the horizon.

Now, here are a few I took that deliberately break the Rule of Thirds. As you can see, the dog’s portrait is smack dab in the middle of the frame which seems random and not as visually interesting. In cases like this, you can usually crop an image over to one side to fix the composition, but try to avoid cropping if you can as that will affect image quality.

 Ooops, that's awfully centered!

Ooops, that's awfully centered!

 He's smack dab in the center of the grid! However the horizon line is almost perfect!

He's smack dab in the center of the grid! However the horizon line is almost perfect!

 How handy is it that the crop tool has a grid in thirds!?

How handy is it that the crop tool has a grid in thirds!?

 Much better!

Much better!

Some entry-level cameras even have a mode where the grid can be shown as an aid on your shooting menu (such as the Nikon D3000 & D5000 series). The rule of thirds is a great compositional guide for every beginner photographer, but as you learn the craft and grow your skills, you may find that you’re bored by applying the Rule of Thirds to every photograph you choose. You may create your own compositional practices, but here are a few great go-tos that I’ve found work well when composing an image, especially if you’re just starting out with photography:

  • Keep it simple. Don’t overthink your composition. You’ll get a feel for what looks interesting versus what looks dull as you practice shooting.

  • The simpler the shot, the bigger the impact: We’ve all seen pictures that are too busy. Deliver a clear message to your viewer without muddying your subject matter with too many elements.

  • Fill the frame and always get as close to a subject as you can when shooting in the field.

  • Avoid having your subject smack dab in the middle of the frame--you see that photo of the dog up above…

  • Look for interesting lines: Horizon lines, curvy streets, textures of lines--these are an element that can guide the viewer's’ eye in a creative way. These especially work well as “leading lines” if they head a certain direction such as towards the horizon, towards the subject, or towards the viewer.

  • Horizontal lines can evoke stability and calmness in an image, whereas diagonals can seem disruptive and energetic and illustrate movement and force.

  • Negative space is key: Yeah, fill your frame, but if your image looks claustrophobic, you may want to give your subject some breathing room.

  • Pay attention to your background. Is there a tree behind your subject’s head? Yeah, you may want to not have that happen or they may look as though their head is being impaled by a stick or a tree is growing from your head (although, if you’re a surrealist, that may work for you).

  • Have an eye for color: If you are photographing a person in the dead, brown landscape of November or early spring, you may want to advise them to sport a colorful wardrobe so they don’t become part of that boring landscape. Color catches the eye.

  • Break the rules. DO IT.

My last point is very important, and I can’t say it enough--how you compose images is up to you. If you don’t know where to start or you’re wondering why an image might not be working for you, sure, apply some of the “rules.” But shooting should be fun, creative, and not restrictive. Take risks, play, and see what you come up with. I say this in every single entry for this series, but I can’t say it enough: We all start somewhere.

Sincerely,

The Girl in the Unicorn Pajamas

PS: Use the hashtag #UnicornPhotoAcademy if you’re following and shooting along with this series.