I have recently been asked to explain the different rules of composition, so I thought I would do it here so it is available for everyone.
When we talk about rules of composition in photography we most naturally think of the rule of thirds, but there is actually a few others too, the golden ration,the spiral, diagonals and the triangle.
To explain these I will show you images with these rules applied, but before that I need to explain, the lines themselves are where the eye will normally travel too, the intersection of the lines is the “sweet” spot and is where your main object should be and where your 100% focus should be. Remembering that these are really guidelines, not rules, so if the image doesn’t fall into the sweet spot then still aim for the main object to be on one of the lines.
An example of this is with the rule of thirds, look at the landscape below, the horizon is on the lower line of the rule of thirds and then the point of interest, the houses on the jetty are at the intersecting point. The horizon where it is, helps to balance the image and the “sweet” spot draws our eyes to the buildings and then our eyes naturally follow the leading line of the jetty itself to all the other points of interest. Composition is about more than just ratios so have a look at my other posts on the other rules of composition.
The most well known rule, the rule of thirds, this is like a game of nought and crosses with the image divided into thirds both vertically and horizontally and you try to put your horizon on either the bottom third line or the top third line, this creates a much more appealing composition than the horizon in the dead centre. Now a word of caution here, these are more like guidelines than rules are so can be broken:) For example, with reflections it is often better to have the horizon in the middle, so these are guides, not hard and fast rules.
These rules or guidelines, came about by evidence that the human eye is naturally drawn to the intersection of the lines when the image is divided into thirds, the same applies for the other ratios. Also if the horizon is placed on either the bottom or the top line then the image is much more balanced.
The next rule which is similar to the rule of thirds is the Golden Ratio. In this one the lines are slightly closer together than in the rule of thirds. These sections that are roughly 1:1.618. (See image below)
The next composition rule is the triangle rule. This is often used in portraiture photography. The objects of interest are on mainly one side of the image, with the point of the triangle being the main focal point. Here you can see the pen tip is on the tip of the triangle and the book is angled along the diagonal of the triangle and finally the hands follow the other line of the triangle.
Then we have the spiral rule of composition. This is one that is not used a lot, but when it is it is very effective.
You will notice the curve of the petals starts the spiral and the tightest part of the spiral draws your eye to the in focus area in the centre of the flower.
The final main rule is the rule of diagonals.
You will notice that the girls body follows the diagonal and the eyes are at the junction points leading your eyes here. This is usually used when there is no horizon in the image and you are using leading lines that are on the diagonal. The main focus areas are along the lines and at the intersecting points, not in the middle, However if you look at the image above you will see that by putting her eyes on the intersecting points the rest of her face falls into the middle, thus the confusion.
Here is an overlay of 4 of the rules. From this you will notice that the sweet spots (the red dots) are quite close to each other, making for an overall sweet area. The red dot at the top that doesn’t appear to correlate with an intersecting line is where the spot would be if the spiral was inverted.
To choose which rule to use, look at your subject, does it have a horizon, can the image be divided up into three sections, does it fit with rule of thirds or golden ratio, then use one of these rules. Is it a close up of an object or a portraiture shot. Portraiture shots usually use the rule of thirds, golden ratio or triangle rules. To use the spiral rule your image needs to have lines or objects that follow a spiral pattern.
The composition ratios are not just as to where the objects fall, the intersecting points are where the focus should be. That is why I have put the girls eyes at the intersecting point as her eyes are the point that needs to be 100% in focus.
Photo composition is one of the important ingredients in making a great photograph. How you arrange the objects in a scene, where you want the eyes to focus on, what emotion you want the image to convey all contribute to the overall success of the image.
Will it tell the story as you see it? Will it have impact? Will that impact be positive or negative? What emotion does it show? Is it just a picture documentation of what is there or is it a creative art image? All these things are brought about by the way you use the rules of composition.
There are many other areas of composition we also need to remember, but I will cover those in another post.
If you have any questions please comment below and feel free to share it with your fellow photographers.