The 12 Tips of Christmas - Part 3

This past Christmas, I posting 12 tips to improve your photography on my Facebook page ( As Facebook has limited room to post, I'm expanding those tips in this blog. Stay tuned for all twelve tips (some by themselves and some combined), and if you want even more, join me for one of my photo courses!

The Twelve Tips of Christmas

Tip # 10 - Use composition rules

"There are many, many useful rules for helping you compose an image. The easiest of them is the Rule of Thirds. Imagine a Tic-Tac-Toe board on your image and place horizons and subjects at the intersections of, or on those lines. It will make your images more interesting. Have your subject face towards the larger space in the image so they are looking into it instead of out of it (which is just confusing for the viewer)."

It is said that "rules are made to be broken", and these rules are just these kind of rules. In fact, breaking them can sometimes be fun and make for some very creative photographs. But like any discipline, you need to get the basics down before you can move on, and learning some basic rules of composition can make a big difference to your photos.

Like the virtuoso piano player, who can improvise a masterpiece, but had to start by learning scales and where to properly place their fingers, great photography comes from learning a few simple rules and practicing them over and over again.

While there are many rules for composition, I am going to touch on a couple of the more popular ones. Once you have mastered these, be sure to continue looking into more and more rules.

The Rule of Thirds

The girl in this image seems in the middle,
but her eyes are actually on the upper left
intersection point and she is looking
into the image.
Probably the best known and most widely used composition rule is the "rule of thirds". It has been around since the 1700's and is simple to use. You simply imagine a tic-tac-toe board on your image - some cameras even let you place this grid on the screen so that you don't even have to use your imagination.

To make your photos better, when you look at your subject, place them at one of the intersections, or along one of the lines. If you are taking a portrait of a person, place their eyes on the upper line at one of the intersections and have them face into the center of the image.

The concept being, your eyes tend to naturally go to these intersection points rather than the center of an image, and an image composed in this way appears to be more balanced to your viewer.

Let's say you see a nice lamp you want to take an image of. You aim your camera,focus and click the shutter - nice image, right?

The lamp is nice, but it doesn't seem very interesting. 

Now, apply the rule of thirds to the image and place the lamp on the lower left intersection.

You can also place the post along one of the third lines (see the image with the grid), using it also in the composition.

The image of the lamp becomes more interesting (well somewhat more interesting, it's a lamp after all).

The Golden Mean

There is another rule that is very similar - the Golden Mean.

The Golden Mean, or Fibonacci curve, occurs naturally in so many places. Probably the most recognizable is the nautilus shell when cut in half, but there are lots of other examples around us.

Because it occurs in so many places, it is a very recognizable pattern that naturally draws our attention. If the lines in your image follow the same pattern, it will feel more familiar to you, even if you have never seen it before.

You may have noticed that the beginning of the spiral approximately lies at the top left intersection of the rule of thirds. The difference here is that the beginning of the spiral is the main subject or point where you want the viewers eyes to be drawn. Placing parts of the image along the curve will draw the viewers eyes along those lines and to that point. It also creates a pleasing, balanced and attractive image.

Leading Lines

Another common composition rule is "leading lines". In this case, you use lines in your image to lead your viewers' eye to the main subject of your photo. While the lines themselves can become part of the overall composition, they serve the purpose of moving your eyes to the real subject.

This can be tricky as these lines are often objects which can dominate the photo and take away from the overall picture - roads, fences, etc - so be careful they do not attract too much attention on their own (unless that is your intention - after all the rules are made to be broken, right).

Other Rules

There plenty of other rules of composition and when you have mastered these three, I would encourage you to look them up - the internet is full of material on each of them:

- Balancing Elements and Depth
- Visual Weight, Symmetry, Patterns and Texture
- Viewpoint
- Cropping and Framing
- Contrast and Colour

Each rule can be used to enhance your image in its own way. All or most of them can be used in combination with others; for example, the rule of thirds can be used in the same image as colour and symmetry.

The rules themselves do not make your images better, but using them correctly will improve how subjects in your image appear, making your pictures much better in the process.

Remember, keeping the rules improves your photography, but breaking them can sometimes make your image more interesting, so have fun and experiment.

Read more on any of the other Tips:

Part 1 - Get to know your gear
Part 2 - Use your camera tools
Part 3 - Use Composition Rules
Part 4 - Tell a Story, and Keep it Simple
Part 5 - Put yourself in a good spot, Be creative
Part 6 - Change it up, Make it Unique
Part 7 - Get the shot quick, be brutal and show your best work

(c) 2013 Gary Scott - Gary's Lens Photography


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