Photography’s Rules of Composition

To make the most of your digital SLR — or any camera — you'll need to take the time to compose interesting pictures. When you photograph a person, place, or thing, put some thought into how you arrange the elements within the frame.

Consider what you see through the viewfinder and then determine what the most important element is — the center of interest. Note that just because the word center is involved doesn’t mean you should place the center of interest in the middle of the image. Use rules of composition to draw the viewer’s attention to the center of interest. Compose the photograph in a way that makes your viewer spend time looking at the image, instead of just giving it a casual glance.

Certain elements can help you create more pleasing compositions in your photos:

  • Rule of Thirds: Imagine that the viewfinder is divided like a tic-tac-toe grid, with nine equally sized squares. The points where the lines of the grid intersect are called power points. Place your center of interest on a power point.

    Composing an image according to the Rule of Thirds — the girl’s eye is positioned on a
    Composing an image according to the Rule of Thirds — the girl’s eye is positioned on a power point.
  • Horizon line: If you place the horizon line in the center of the image, you end up with a lackluster photo that doesn’t look very interesting. If you’re photographing a sunset with billowing clouds, placing the horizon line in the lower third of the image draws attention to the clouds that are your center of interest. If you’re photographing trees reflection on a still stream, placing the horizon line in the upper third of the image puts more importance on the reflection.

  • Straight lines: Vertical and horizontal lines don’t draw the viewer into the picture — you need diagonal lines the viewer’s eye can latch onto and follow into the image. Consider the sun shining behind a forest of tall aspen trees. If the trees and shadows are vertical, there’s little or no visual interest for the viewer. However, if you move to a different location so that the shadows are now diagonal lines, the shadows act like magnets to draw the viewer to the trees.

  • Color: People are attracted to bright lights instead of dark shadows. People are attracted to warm colors (yellows and reds) instead of cool colors (greens and blues). When you look at a scene through the viewfinder, move around until the parts of your image with warm colors align on a power point according to the Rule of Thirds or are at the end of a diagonal line. You can also add a splash of color to an otherwise monotonous image by introducing color. For example, if you’re photographing a girl with brown hair and brown eyes wearing a brown blouse ask her to place a red flower behind her ear.

  • Sharpness: Objects in focus draw viewers’ eyes. You control what’s in focus by the focal length and aperture you use. When you want to attract attention to a specific spot in the image, such as the eyes of a person you’re photographing, put a medium telephoto lens (a focal length that is the 35mm equivalent of 80mm) on your camera, choose a large aperture (small f/stop number), and focus on the eye nearest the camera.

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