As a marketer, one of my main jobs is creating or reviewing layout.
Websites. PowerPoint slides. Brochures. Email campaigns. Basically…everything. And not only is it important that your layout adheres to a consistent look+feel across the company, but every piece is improved by effective presentation.
Why am I good at this? Because I run a photo club. And the basic rules of taking a good photograph are the same rules for creating good layout.
Here’s what I say about The Basic Rules of Composition in my photography tutorial guide:
The single most important item that distinguishes between taking pictures and making pictures is composition: the pleasing selection and arrangement of subjects within the picture area. Some snapshots may turn out to have good composition, but most good pictures are created.
The topics here are guidelines for good composition. As you practice you’ll discover that well-composed pictures can often take careful planning and sometimes patient waiting. But on the other hand, these guidelines become part of your thinking when you’re shooting, and soon even your quick snaps will improve as a result. The guidelines we’ll cover are:
- The Rule of Thirds
- Avoiding Mergers
Remember also that rules are made to be broken. Often the most arresting images break the above in some fundamental way. But in order to know when to break the rules, you first need to learn them.
The first and perhaps the most important guideline is simplicity. If a picture is too cluttered, the viewer’s attention will be divided. Look for ways to give the center of interest in your pictures the most visual attention. One way is to select uncomplicated backgrounds that will not steal attention from your subjects.
Compose your photograph so that your reason for taking the picture is clearly seen. Arrange other parts of the picture area in such a way as to complement what you choose to be the center of interest. Also, consider how much of your subject you should include and whether to photograph horizontally or vertically.
You can simplify your pictures and strengthen your center of interest by selecting uncomplicated backgrounds, avoiding unrelated subjects, and moving in close. If you want to make your center of interest even more dynamic, place it off center in your frame. Generally, pictures with subjects directly in the center tend to be more static and less interesting than pictures with off-center subject placement. Hence…
The Rule of Thirds
The center of a frame is not a comfortable resting place for the eye. Moving the subject of interest off-center forms a more dynamic image.
You can use the rule of thirds as a guide in the off-center placement of your subjects. Before you snap the picture, imagine your picture area divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The intersections of these imaginary lines suggest four options for placing the center of interest for good composition. The option you select depends on the subject and how you would like to present it.
You should always consider the path of moving subjects and, generally, leave space in front of them into which they can move. Also apply the rule of thirds to the placement of the horizon in your photos. Horizon lines at the 1/3 or 2/3 line are more powerful than a center position.
Pay attention to lines in your photo, they play an important role in composition. Lines can be actual lines from a road or fence, or from an arrangement of objects. Diagonals, leading lines and S curves are all useful elements.
Lines that are horizontal or flat tend to be peaceful and reduce the excitement of a photo. Diagonal lines make a photo have a feeling of action or excitement. Movie producers sometimes twist the reality of their scenes by tilting the camera to throw the balance off, which makes viewers feel the tension or action.
Leading lines are used to draw our eye into the photo. A path leading into the distance, through the subject, or towards a center of interest pulls the viewer into the image creating a connection with the photograph.
And always keep your eye out for the most graceful line used in composition called the S curve. Rivers or winding roads are great examples.
Achieving good balance is another guideline for better picture composition. Good balance is simply the arrangement of shapes, colours or areas of light and dark that complement one another so that the photograph looks well-balanced, not lopsided.
Balance is pretty tricky to describe without pictures to illustrate it, but try to imagine that two couples are standing on either end side of an object. They are evenly balanced, so this is a classic example of symmetrical balance.
Nonsymmetrical balance consists of placing differently sized subjects at balanced spots in the image. In general, this type of balance is more interesting to look at than symmetrical balance.
Another guideline is framing. Framing can be used both for balance and to add a sense of depth to an image.
Foreground framing adds depth. Consider a picture that is shot through a doorway or window – it immediately establishes perspective with the subject. But don’t stop at four sided frames, you can frame a single edge and still add as much impact. Consider shooting over a hedge (bottom frame) or from under a tree with the leaves hanging down into the picture (top frame), or including the edge of a pillar (side frame) – they all add impact and depth.
Subject framing adds balance. This is the inclusion of objects close to the subject that “complete” the balance or theme of the image. A rider framed by two horses is more powerful than a rider standing alone, as an example. Look for things like trees, animals and any other object to surround the picture
No matter what subject you choose as the center of interest or to balance or frame, you should watch out to avoid mergers…
A merger is when two separate objects appear to become one, usually occurring accidentally. Mergers happen when a subject appears to have something growing around it in the background. The classic example is people standing in front of trees, thus appearing to have a tree growing from their head.
Remember: we see things in three dimensions, so it’s easier than you might guess to focus our eyes on the principal subject only and not see that background at all. However, you can be sure that the photo will show mergers clearly, so look for plain backgrounds before you pose your subject.
There are also border mergers – this is when we chop off some of an object leaving a bad feel to the image. Most notable here is when we cut people in half or trim their heads or feet. To avoid border mergers, line your eye up squarely behind the viewfinder and adjust the picture format to leave a little space around everyone.
Near mergers may not be quite as objectionable, but they can steal attention from your center of interest. Near mergers are objects or lines that are just too close to the principal subject.
Back to Marketing
These days, it doesn’t take much to be an average photographer. Even the tech inside your iPhone can turn a point and click into a reasonably acceptable image. But a photographer doesn’t want to take “reasonably acceptable” pictures. We want to make breathtaking images.
And as marketers, we don’t want “reasonably acceptable” layouts. We want to make an impact.
The basic rules of composition will easily take you from good to great. Going beyond that takes a bit more effort (and practice). I’ll post more to help in future.
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