The age of the digital camera has brought with it an absolute explosion of people interested in photography. And, along with that, an explosion of people experiencing extraordinary frustration because the photographs they take just don’t seem to measure up visually, and they can’t quite seem to figure out why. Well, I’ll tell you why: Because a lot of these new to new-ish photographers haven’t learned basic rules of photography and composition.
So many people these days appear to be laboring under the idea that they can go out and spend some money on a digital camera and start taking amazing looking photos that will impress friends and family with the visually indistinguishable nature between them and examples of photographs shots by the world’s top pros — even through they’ve never bothered to learn what ALL of the world’s top professional photographers have learned: The very basic rules of photography and composition.
Are you one of these people? Have you had an interest in photography — enjoyed taking pictures — thought to yourself at some point that you should go out and get a “professional camera” so you could take amazing looking photographs that look like the images professional photographers take, only to discover that for some reason your pictures don’t actually look anywhere near as good as the ones you’ve seen taken by professional photographers? And, you just can’t figure out exactly why? Well, I’ll tell you why. For one thing, if you spent less than about $3,000.00 on JUST your camera body (that’s not including a lens), then you didn’t buy a “professional camera.” It’s a mistake and a misconception that a lot of inexperienced hobbyist photographers make. In today’s market, you can not buy a professional level camera for less than about $3000.00 for just the body — that’s what the very cheapest ones are going for right now. Just because your camera looks like the ones the pros use, doesn’t mean it is a camera a pro would use. What you likely bought was an entry-level (beginner) dSLR, or an “enthusiast” level dSLR if you spent more money.
But, that’s not the main reason. A skilled, professional photographer is capable of creating stunning pictures on the cheapest piece of junk camera you can find. As a good friend of mine, who happens to be a very successful pro-photographer, is fond of saying:
If your pictures suck, it’s you! It’s not the camera.
The main reason that your photographs don’t seem to measure up is because you’ve never learned, or have failed to master, the basic rules of photography and composition. Every pro — and I do mean EVERY pro — at some point in their photographic lives has learned the basic rules of photography and composition. It’s a fundamental part of developing your talent. Before you can move on to advancing your skill and talent as a photographer to an area where your photographs are consistently spectacular, you must — and, I can’t stress this enough — you MUST — learn the very basic rules of photography and composition! If you don’t, you’ll never advance. Everything you’ll learn later — no matter how far you take your photographic skill — will require you to be familiar with, and will be built upon, your understanding of the very basic rules of photography and composition.
So, as a starting point to get you off and running in your quest to become a better photographer and learn the basic rules of photography and composition, I’ll share with you some of things you need to know.
Basic Rules of Photography and Composition:
The fundamentals of composition
The rule of thirds:
Probably the most important of the basic rules of photography and composition is the rule of thirds. Learn it! Know it! Live it! To understand the rule of thirds, visualize the image you’re taking as being divided equally into nine separate segments inside your camera’s view finder. So, there are three horizontal rows and three vertical rows, all of equal size, all equidistant apart from each other. When you look through your camera’s view-finder, you should actually try to visualize this grid superimposed on top of the image you’re seeing:
See the grid in the image above? That’s the rule of thirds, and it’s probably the most important rule of the basic rules of photography and composition. The rule of thirds simply says that wherever those lines intersect with one another on the frame, that is a point of power — so to speak. Placing your subject on one of those points will maximize visual impact in your image. If the image is such that it’s not practical to place the focus of attention in the image on one of these power points, then you should try to place it somewhere along one of the lines — that’s the next best option. A VERY common mistake that amateur photographers make is to place their subject directly in the middle of the photo. Almost nothing looks more amateurish.
The human mind is naturally drawn to the center of whatever its looking at — including your photos. If you place your subject at the center of the image, it has the effect of forcing the viewer to absolutely ignore everything else in the photo. The brain barely processes any of the other visual information in the image. Placing your subject on one of the points, or lines, of power, forces the viewer to experience the entire image as a whole. This is one of the the most fundamental tenets of the basic rules of photography and composition that you must learn — the rule of thirds.
Using the rule of thirds is a great way to add visual impact to your photos. It’s one of the basic rules of photography and composition that EVERY professional photographer knows inside and out. However, you still must be careful with it. Sometimes when composing your photographs in accordance with the rule of thirds, it’s possible to create a loss of balance in your image. If your main subject is positioned off to one side of the frame and there really isn’t anything of interest in the rest of the photograph, your image can look quirky and bothersome. Sometimes doing this intentionally can be used to great effect — it’s part of being an experienced, skilled photographer: knowing when to throw out the rules. And, that’s something that just really can’t be taught. It comes with experience and practice.
But, in almost all cases, you’ll want to make sure that your image is well-balanced. Think of your picture like a set of scales. Is there too much weight on one side so that the scales will tip? If so, you’ll want to add a little weight to the other side to achieve a somewhat even balance. Take a look at the photo below:
Notice how the photographer has placed the foreground subject well off-center, doing an excellent job of increasing dramatic effect in the photo. However, the image is perfectly balanced due to the inclusion of bridge. Try to imagine the same photo without the bridge — the composition is the same except that perhaps only a large, empty field exists where the bridge is. Wouldn’t the placement of the foreground object look silly and out of place? Wouldn’t the entire image look “unfinished” (for lack of a better term)?The image composition would most likely look like a mistake on the part of the photographer. This is why achieving proper balance in your photos is a very important part of the basic rules of photography and composition.
Nature is full of symmetrical patterns. They’re all around us, and the human mind seems to be hard-wired to recognize symmetry as beauty. Scientific studies have been been done that conclusively show that the more symmetrical the features of a person’s face are, the more attractive they’ll be considered as to the vast majority of people. Symmetry adds visual appeal. That is one of the most important of the basic rules of photography and composition. Look at the photograph below:
A truly remarkable photograph captured by a truly skilled photographer. Notice the symmetrical patterns of the arching structure. Now, try to imagine this photograph if it were to appear exactly the same in every aspect except without the presence of the structure. It would probably still be a somewhat ok photograph — but the above image is much more than just ok. The symmetrical lines add interest and beauty to the image.
If you want to master the basic rules of photography and composition, you need to train your eye to constantly be on the look-out for, and to recognize symmetrical patterns. If you have your camera with you, you always want to notice symmetrical patterns and be ready to snap a shot. From now on, whenever you go outside — whether you have your camera with you or not — keep looking around you — taking account of your surroundings — with the notion in mind of recognizing patterns of symmetry. The more you do this, the more such patterns will just jump out at you, without you having to make an effort in trying to recognize such patterns.
Prominent, Leading Lines
The human mind has a natural tendency to want to follow prominent leading lines. This quirky aspect of human behavior is likely a hold-over from our jungle dwelling days, where a prominent, continuous line cut into the brush of a field told us either that a tasty, four-legged potential meal had recently moved through the area, or that a nasty predator that we probably didn’t want to meet-up with had. A natural instinct to visually trace these types of lines in our environment probably increased our ability to track prey and avoid predators. And, we still seem to posses, to at least some degree, this very instinct. It is for this reason that incorporating prominent leading lines in your imagery is one of the basic rules of photography and composition.
In the photo above we see that the photographer has done an excellent job of incorporating a very prominent leading line in his photograph. In fact, he has made the leading line the very subject of the image. This has the effect of actually pulling the viewer through and into the photograph. Chances are, when you first saw this image, the first thing that happened is that your eyes followed the white line from the front of the image all the way through the photo to the back. This is a natural reaction that occurs in almost everyone who views such a photograph. The prominent, curved leading line ads an appealing sense of fluidity and gentle motion to the image.
The photographer responsible for the above image chose to make the leading line very prominent in that particular image. And, it works well in that photograph, and serves to illustrate the point being made here. But, it’s important to point out that incorporating such lines doesn’t always need to be done with such prominence. Sometimes the most effective use of such elements are the most subtle — almost unnoticeable. The viewer experiences the pulling and motion effect caused by the presence of the leading lines in a purely sub-conscious capacity.
Point of View
Practically every single minute of every single day of everyone’s entire life, they look upon absolutely everything they see in the entire world from of a point of view that ranges from about four feet above the ground to perhaps a little over six feet above the ground — depending on the person and what they happen to be doing at the time. That isn’t a very great a range. People are VERY used to seeing things in this way. So, one of the easiest, and at the same time most powerful, of the basic rules of photography and composition that you can use to add interest to your photos is to give the viewer a point of view that they aren’t used to seeing.
In the above photo you are seeing a person as you don’t normally see people. How many times in your life have you looked at another person? How many times have you looked at another person from a similar angle as is depicted in the photo above? An unusual point of view in your photographs can do a lot to instantly add interest. When photographing a subject, take the photo at normal eye-level while standing. Then, try taking the same photo while lying on the ground with your camera as close to the ground as you can get it. If you can, try to climb up high onto something and take the photo from that point of view. Compare each of the photos. I think you’ll be surprised at how much an unusual angle can add to the impact your photo has. Using interesting and unusual points of view in your photos is one of the most easily implemented of the basic rules of photography and composition.
If you don’t have a lot of experience with photography it’s close to a certainty that you’ve taken photos at some time wherein, the moment you clicked the shutter release, you were sure you’d captured a truly exceptional image. But, when you inspected them later at full size, you were disappointed that the images weren’t nearly as dramatic as you had expected them to be. And, as much you examine them in order to try and figure out why, the reason why the image is so lackluster eludes you. There’s a good chance that the problem may lie in the fact that the subject is lost in the background. It’s a mistake that a lot of inexperienced photographers make, and unless you know something about the basic rules of photography and composition, it won’t occur to you that that is what the problem actually is.
Failing to properly separate the subject from the background can result in a cluttered image that lacks visual impact. Notice in the image above that the subject really can’t get any more separated from the background. The background completely lacks any visual information and the whites of the subject’s eyes are at a level of extremely high contrast in comparison with the background of the image. Those eyes seem to pop right out of the photograph at you. The photographer wanted the eyes to be over-emphasized in order to create maximum visual impact. He achieved this wonderfully by making sure that the subject was separated through contrast from the background and the background wasn’t filled with a bunch of visual information not needed in the image that would only serve to distract the viewer, compete with the subject, and lessen the effect of the photograph.
Of course, separating the subject from the background doesn’t always have to be so drastic. And, there are a number of ways to achieve adequate separation — such as using a shallow depth of field to remove detail from the background, or using fill flash to cause the background to underexpose slightly. The idea is that you don’t always want to completely remove the background — you simply want to separate your subject from it. That is to say, you want it to be immediately clear that your subject is not part of the background. The very definite line where your subject ends and the background begins should be readily apparent.
Of course, there may be times that, due to the message you’re trying to convey through your image, you want a certain level of confusion between your subject and background, but this is something to be used sparingly, and only practice and experience will really be able to tell you exactly when such a technique should be employed. With that said, knowing how to effectively separate your subject and background is one of the basic rules of photography and composition that every photographer must learn.
A Sense of Depth
Conveying a sense of depth of in your photos is another of the basic rules of photography and composition. As with all of the rules, you won’t need to use it every time you take a photo — a big part of being a skilled photographer is simply gaining the experience and know-how that will enable you to know exactly which of the basic rules of photography and composition should be applied to which photo under what circumstances, and which ones shouldn’t. But for some added ‘pop’ in many situations you should try adding a sense of depth to your images.
Adding such a sense of depth can be achieved in a number of ways — either by using a shallow depth of field, (as the photographer has done with the image displayed above) or by using selective focus, or even by arranging the elements in a photograph to give a strong visual sense of a definite foreground, middle and background. That last technique has been employed in visual artwork since long before there ever was any such thing known as photography. Study some landscape paintings done by some of the old masters and try to notice how they used the arrangement of visual elements to imply a real sense of almost three dimensional depth in the two dimensional surface they were working on. Photography and painting are both visual mediums — the basic rules of composition are pretty much the same for each.
Since way back before there ever was such a thing as photography, painters were framing their artwork. It’s a practice that still goes on today, of course. Artwork is usually framed before it goes on display. There’s a reason for this — it separates the work from the outside world. It draws attention and importance to the piece. It tells the viewer: “Look at this! This is important enough to have its own place. To be within its own boundaries. You need to see this!” If you ever put your photos on display for a public or private showing, chances are you’ll end up putting them in frames. But, you certainly don’t have to wait until then. Composing your images using frames that occur in the world around you can do an incredible job of adding real impact to your photographs.
The photographer who created the above photograph has done an exceptional job of composing his image to incorporate a natural frame. It really makes the subject both stand out, and gives the viewer a sense that they are, themselves, actually in that place. The photographer has used an archway of the very ruins that he’s photographing to provide his image with a natural frame, but you can use practically anything. Natural frames are all around. Train your eye to seek them out when you’re taking photographs. You may be able to use tree branches from foreground trees, or just about anything else.
The effect you achieve might be very distinct, as in the photo above, or you may use it more subtly, as has been done in the image below:
Basic Rules of Photography and Composition — Epilogue
The basic rules of photography and composition outlined above are just some of the techniques you really should know and always be keeping in mind when practicing your photography. Go out and shoot as much as you can and always be aware of each of them. Write them down on a piece of paper and take that paper with you when you shoot. With each image you take, ask yourself which of the these basic rules of photography and composition you could incorporate into each shot. Which ones would work best for a particular photo? Which might you be able to forget about for a particular photo?
If you spend some time practicing your photography while keeping each of these basic rules of photography and composition in mind, eventually they’ll become second nature to you. You wont have to actually think about them — you’ll develop your eye to the point where, without you even really noticing it, they’ll end up in your photographs and your images will be the better for it. It’s not the like the top pros are constantly and consciously going over each of the basic rules of photography and composition each and every time they line up a shot — they’ve honed their skills to such a degree, using each of these techniques so much, that fantastic images just comes naturally to them — the basic rules of photography and composition just work themselves into the shots naturally without them really having to think about them most of the time. By practicing the techniques to a point where you become proficient with them, you will just develop an intuitive sense of what makes a stunning picture — an intuitive sense of whether a picture will be stunning or not before you even take it. And, after you do take it and see that it is a stunning picture, if you go back and analyze it in depth, you’ll notice that you somehow managed to incorporate the basic rules of photography and composition without even being conscious of doing so.
But, in order to finally get to that place, first you must learn the basic rules of photography and composition — just as the pros have done. Learn them inside and out — forwards and backwards – upside and down.