Photo Composition – Class 1

Casper College, 3/26/19
Instructor: Karel Mathison

Composition is the art of controlling an image’s presentation. Dominant factors include object placement, lighting, color, and focus. Composition is critical to turning an okay photograph into a good one. One can never be a good photographer without a mastery of composition.

This class is conducted differently than the previous one. Rather than being a lecture series, it’s taught through a critique of photos taken by the teacher and students. This critique process highlights some of the key composition rules. My goal in this and subsequent blog entries is to catalog the rules.

Rule 1. Tell a Story

A good photograph is like a good joke. It can stand on it’s own. It’s incumbent on the photographer to capture the story without the aid of an explanatory narrative. Attention must be drawn to the subject and away from unimportant details while providing sufficient surrounding context for the viewer to perceive and appreciate the story.

To tell a story, the photographer must first understand the scene and visualize the story. What’s the goal of the photo? What is to be conveyed to the viewer? What parts of the scene are essential and important to the story? What distracts from the story or is irrelevant? This understanding will guide the composition and application of the rest of the rules.

Rule 2. Rule of Thirds

Presenting important elements off center tends to create a more aesthetically natural feel than centered subjects. It also enhances the image by allowing space for more of the story context.

Offsetting elements by 1/3 of the image’s width and height is the most common guide. The diagram below shows an image divided into thirds by the dashed lines. Objects that are small in the image, like an eyeball, should be positioned at the intersection points. Those that are larger, like a tree or the horizon can be positioned along a vertical or horizontal line.

Rule of Thirds Divisions

If the scene contains a person, animal or object that implies motion, position the object so that motion would carry it more centrally into the photograph. For example, a left facing bird should be positioned on the right. Reversing this promotes the story that bird is attempting to escape having his image taken by flying out of view.

Of course, there are times to ignore this rule, too. One of the more notable examples is when the photograph is attempting to capture a symmetric view. A mountain reflecting off a lake in the foreground might be better positioned with the line of symmetry centered in the image.

Rule 3. Rule of Odds

The rule of odds states that having an odd number of important objects will lead to a more pleasing photograph. Viewers tend to involuntarily identify symmetries in images having an even number of objects. This in turn draws their focus to the spaces between the objects. Since the objects are central to the story, you want the viewer focused on them. Composing with an odd number of objects undermines symmetric identity and retains focus.

Rule 4. Golden Spiral

The golden spiral is a Fibonacci spiral, frequently centered at one of the rule of third’s intersection points, and spiraling outward in any direction. Placing the most interesting objects on the golden spiral disperses them throughout the image in a way that is frequently pleasing to the eye. Although I don’t know the mental processes that are in play, the golden spiral has been empirically demonstrated in numerous images over the years.

Rule 5. Golden Triangle

The golden triangle is another object placement rule that’s proven its success over the years. The golden triangle is created by breaking the image space into three right triangles having different sizes by drawing two lines. The first is a diagonal line connecting nonadjacent corners of the image. The second line is the perpendicular line connecting the first line and one of the other two corners as shown below.

Golden Triangle

Positioning the important objects along these lines can create a naturally appealing photo. This rule tends to most effective with images that have naturally slanting lines, like a roof or mountain.

Rule 6. Leading Lines

Many scenes contain natural lines like the edges of a trail, a river bank, or seams in a wall. Often these lines are nearly parallel lines with converging perspective. Positioning the subject between them will pull the viewer into the image drawing their gaze to the subject. It’s a powerful way to accentuate objects that are important to the story.

Rule 7. Frame in a Frame

Elements in a scene are used to frame those that are most important to the story. For example, a picture may be taken with tree branches arching around the edges of an image and across the top above the subject. This naturally draws the eye to the framed objects. It also provides contextual information. In the example above it clearly shows the type of ecosystem where the photo was taken without detracting from the scene. If the photo is to be hung on a wall, a picture frame will be needed. The frame in a frame opens some unique creative options when the picture frame is selected.

Rule 8. Focus on the Eyes

Eyes are critical when photographing either people or animals. The viewer’s attention is immediately attracted to them. Poorly photographed eyes will ruin any image. First and foremost, they must be in focus. Viewers are not forgiving of out of focus eyes. The image can be further enhanced by setting up the lighting, posing the subject, or adjusting perspective to capture a glint. A glint in the eyes brings life and personality to the image.

Rule 9. Seek a Fresh Perspective

Most photographs are taken from a standing position. A good photographer isn’t after another image that looks like all the others. Seeking alternative angles creates a fresh perspective. When photographing pets, get down on their level. Taking a picture of a person from above or below changes the lighting and introduces new and rarer perspective angles that add a creative flare.

Rule 10. Fill the View Finder

Scenes viewed more closely than normal can be captivating in their detail. This is especially true for things like faces, flowers, and insects. It allows the viewers to see the world in a new way.

One thought on “Photo Composition – Class 1

  1. Livingston, Colleen G

    So that’s why you had 3 horses pose for your backyard photo.

    Dr. Co Livingston | Prof. of Mathematics | Bemidji State University | 1500 Birchmont Dr. NE #23, Bemidji, MN 56601 | Hagg Sauer 362 | phone: 218-755-2843


    From: Roy’s Blog <> Reply-To: Roy’s Blog <> Date: Friday, March 29, 2019 at 10:33 AM To: default BSU <> Subject: [New post] Photo Composition – Class 1

    roylivingston posted: ” Casper College, 3/26/19Instructor: Karel Mathison Composition is the art of controlling an image’s presentation. Dominant factors include object placement, lighting, color, and focus. Composition is critical to turning an okay photograph into a good”


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