A well-composed photograph is really a matter of opinion, but there are a few tricks that tend to result in better pictures. That's what we're going to take a look at today.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is the simplest rule of composition. All you do is take your frame and overlay a grid of nine equal sections. This means you split the vertical space into three parts and the horizontal space into three parts. Here's what that looks like:
Generally you want to place important elements where the grid intersects. Here are a few examples:
The intersection points are where the eye tends to go first, so it's useful to place your subject on one of those points. People generally tend to aim for the centre, but that's often less effective.
If you find the rule of thirds a little boring, try composing using Fibonacci's ratio.
Photographing your subject straight-on is sometimes the right choice, but you can create visual impact by moving the camera left, right, above, and below. When you're beneath the subject it often makes them/it appear more powerful to the viewer. Conversely, when you're above the subject it makes them/it appear more diminutive. You can use this to an extreme for a powerful impact, but it's also a very good subtle technique for portraits. Slight positioning above or below the subject can subconsciously imply aggressiveness and passivity (respectively) without being too, uh, obvious...
Additionally, left and right positioning isn't as direct and can often make a photograph feel more honest and candid. When capturing a moment, whether it's staged or not, photographing the subject head-on can often seem a little awkward and end up being less-effective.
Of course, you can also combine different positioning elements to create other effects. Try taking photographs of the same subject from different perspectives and see how people interpret them. This is a good way to understand the effects your choices have on the end result.
Use Shapes and Lines to Draw the Eye to a Specific Point
The viewer's eye doesn't magically end up looking at one of the intersections in the rule of thirds grid, it's just more natural. That said, if you have a reason to draw the eye elsewhere you can accomplish that pretty easily by choosing where you place shapes and lines in your photograph. A shape doesn't mean a literal, detail-less shape, but in the sense that a building could serve as a rectangle. Roads often make nice lines in landscapes. When you're composing your photograph, consider the shapes and lines and where they draw your eye. If they're taking you out of the photograph or away from the primary subject, you'll probably want to consider a different composition. Let the roads lead where you want the eye to go.
Perspective can even make a road straight ahead appear like a triangle and draw the eye into the horizon. Whatever the case may be, make sure your shapes and lines are taking the viewer where you want them to go.
Frame Your Subject with Objects
A subject against a white background can often be simple and effective if you have a good subject. If you have a boring subject, like an ordinary house, a blank background (like a clear sky) isn't going to be very compelling. Instead, try framing your subject with surrounding objects.
Photo by Dan Eckhart
With the house, for example, using nearby trees (or what remains of them) may help. You'll want to make sure the trees don't create lines and shapes that draw your viewer away from the subject (the house), as previously mentioned, but often times they can be helpful in making your photograph more interesting and helping to draw the eye where you want it.
Make Your Choices for a Reason
You don't have to follow any of the "rules" of photography to end up with a good photograph. What's probably the most important is that you make your choice for a reason. When you take a picture and choose where something goes in the frame, know why you're doing it. An example of a rule-breaking image would be to have a person facing left and placing them in the left third of the photograph:
You might choose to do this because you want to draw the viewer's eye away from the subject and make them look at the space behind the subject's head. In the background, something's happening that's slightly out of focus. You could argue that this is a way of depicting a subject trying to remember a past event, or being lost in a half-memory. This may or may not be the most successful way of getting such a message across, but it's a reason to try breaking one of the "rules" you'd generally adhere to when composing a photograph.
If you're just trying to take a pleasing picture, the rules are your friend. On the other hand, if you're trying to convey something with the photograph, figure out how you want to convey it and compose your image accordingly. This may or may not involve breaking the rules, but you increase your chances of ending up with a compelling image if you choose a specific composition for a specific reason.
That's all for today. Tomorrow we're going to look at editing your photos in Photoshop (or another image editor) to improve colour, touch up blemishes, and perform a few neat tricks.