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Getting Over the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio

There is a wealth of information on the internet about composition—endless blog posts about visual rules, geometrical concepts, and photos with all kinds of lines and shapes drawn over them to the prove the point. But all of this information focuses on the ‘what’ of composition rather than the ‘why.’ A photographer must stop and ask themselves: ‘why even bother following visual rules?’

Disclaimer: Should You Even Read All This?

First, a brief note on who this article is meant for… If you’re already well-versed in photography and have strong ideas about composition, then you might see my ideas and start having a debate in your head with me, calling me all sorts of names. And that’s okay! So, if you’re still interested in then what you’ll find is a compilation (of sorts) of concepts that I’ve picked up here and there throughout the years. I’ve filtered and digested them in my brain until I’m sharing them with you now. And so, the only ‘authority’ from which I state my ideas is my own. I do hope to shake up how you think about composition. If that sounds interesting you, please read on!

 

Diagonal lines convey a sense of motion, sympathizing with the actual motion of the woman and her yellow dress flowing through the air.

Doing Away with Abstract Geometric Concepts

Geometric ideas like the ‘rule’ of thirds, golden ratio, and others I won’t list here, are merely arbitrary concepts. Yes, the golden ratio is a mathematical construct, and it appears sometimes in nature. But more often than not examples of the golden ratio, such as galaxies and snail shells, are not in fact the golden ratio but rather one of many other mathematical ratios. The point is that in the end, it’s just about numbers and shapes, and bears no real meaning or emotional content. And in any case, who goes out there with a ruler and compass, measuring out ratios while composing their shots? Anyone? It’s only something we can do after the fact, and then go ‘ah yes, you see how the golden ratio is present in this image?’ It’s similar to the English major over-analyzing literary prose. Patterns can be found anywhere if you have the time to look for hours at a still image. But how do these abstractions help us when we are actually shooting in the field? They don’t.

Now, there certainly are simpler and more readily ‘functional’ concepts out there, the most famous one being the rule of thirds. Honestly, is a ‘suggestion’ of thirds at best… definitely not a ‘rule’ of any sort. Though easily applied in the moment, it’s even more arbitrary than mathematical ratios. Why thirds? Why not fourths, or fifths, or sixteenths? It’s a concept that can be used but when used for its own sake it misses the point (but more on that later). In the end, it’s a mere shortcut that works some of the time. But why does it work when it does? First some basic concepts…

 

An extreme case of ‘tension’ and ‘isolation’ induced by the narrow space and the subject’s position close to the edge of the frame. This is intended to give a feeling of being ‘trapped,’ as a Tokyo office worker might feel.

Now Some Composition Basics, and I Mean Really Basic

I’m sorry, I just bashed abstract concepts and now I’m going to expound abstract concepts. Don’t get me wrong, some abstraction and conceptual rules are unavoidable, in particular when discussing composition and framing. However, these concepts should be grounded in the frame of a camera as well as in the human perception of images—more psychology than mathematics. With that in mind, the most fundamental concept of composition (in my opinion, so if you disagree, that’s okay) is very simply put as ‘less is more.’

About as simple as an image can get.

One can’t help but look at the circle.

What I mean by this is that the simpler a photo is, the more impact is given to the elements that remain in the frame. The simplest image would be a single color, full frame. Bam… you know exactly what to look at it. It might be boring, but the visual focus is 100% clear to the viewer. Now add something right in the middle of the frame, perhaps a red circle, smack-dab-in-the-middle. Again, simplicity leads to a perfectly clear understanding of where the eye should rest. Almost anyone presented with the image described above would look immediately at the red circle. This is obvious.

There is one other place in the frame that might have nearly as much impact as the center—the extreme edge, and especially the corners. If we place a circle half-in and half-out of the frame, anywhere along the edge, this circle will very strongly draw the eye’s attention. There is something about ‘leaving’ the frame that is a bit eye-catching, like an itch that wants scratching. It induces… tension.

A bit uncomfortable here.

Ah, much better… a sweet spot.

I’ll explain tension in more detail later, but for now, know that one way to introduce ‘tension’ is to put subjects away from the center and towards the edge, especially the corners. And this is why the rule of thirds often works. Those places in the frame where the third lines intersect happen to be at a ‘sweet spot’ between the center and the corners. But there is nothing special about that spot. And it’s only one way of many to introduce ‘tension’ into a photograph (but more tension later).

So, in short, simpler images are easier to view. As the creator of the image, we can more accurately predict where the viewer will look. The viewer also has a better idea, or at least a more immediate idea, of what the photo is about. Consider a photo with a single person dead center, vs a photo of a many people scattered throughout the frame. Now, this does not mean that simpler photos are always better (take a look at the fantastic work of Alex Webb for an example of exquisite complexity in the frame). It just means, that when creating complex photos, we have to be careful in how we arrange the various subjects in the frame. To this end, simplicity is a very good starting point.

 

Isolation in a frame of static and dynamic lines.

Isolation and tension far in the corner.

The Story Comes First and Composition Should Serve the Story

Alright, so with that most basic idea out of the way, let’s actually get to the real thrust of this article: the ‘why’ of composition. Composition does not exist purely for itself (at least in most photographic genres). How the photographer composes the frame ought to always be subordinate to the narrative intention of the photographer. I say ‘ought’ because often this is not the case. Photographs can fail when arbitrary rules are applied to the composition without any though given to their meaning.

For example, a common ‘rule’ that is followed without question is having the horizon level. A tilted horizon is blasphemy! It goes against everything sacrosanct in photography, and spirit levels everywhere shudder at the thought of a tilted horizon. Yet, we do not ask ‘why’. A level horizon affords the photo stability, a static nature. On the other hand, a tilted horizon can imbue the image with dynamism. Neither is good or bad. Both concepts can be considered when telling your story (and there are other ways to imbue a photo with these characteristics). If we want to portray a mountain as monolithic, immovable, and eternal, then perhaps it should be framed perfectly level (and probably dead in the center). Yet, if our goal is to convey the chaotic motion of a city and give the viewer a sense that the camera itself is moving, then an angled frame can achieve that. Our narrative intent is what should drive our choices when it comes to composition.

 

Chromatic tension synergized with spatial tension.

Composition with the Story in Mind

So, now let’s get into some composition concepts that we can use to help support our intended narrative or feeling for the photograph. The first concept to consider is isolation. Keeping a subject separated from all other objects in the frame can bring attention to the subject, it can also underscore that the subject is strong, weak, big, small, unique, aloof, or any number of other feelings that might be pertinent to the scene at hand. Subjects can be isolated by being placed on neutral backgrounds (a visual concept called ‘figure to ground’) but they can also be isolated using distance in the frame, going even to the extreme of placing the subject in the very corner of the frame. Finally, emphasizing the difference in size of objects in the frame can also evoke a sense of isolation or separation between them.

More static…

More dynamic…

Another narrative concept, which I touched on above, is the ideas that objects in the frame can be static or dynamic. There are a number of ways than an image can appear to be either static or dynamic. Static images tend to have symmetry, straight lines going horizontally or vertically through the frame, and generally ‘squared’ up with the frame itself. Dynamic images, that is images that convey a sense of motion, can be achieved by implementing diagonal lines, or lines that lead the eye ‘into’ the frame (this being an illusion, since the image is, of course, a flat, 2-dimensional surface on which forms are projected). The short of it is that certain compositions evoke a sense of motion or energy (dynamic images), while others evoke a sense of stability (static images). It’s up to the photographer to decide which one is effective in a given context.

Isolation through position and size.

Tension through proximity.

As I already mentioned above, we also have..

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Episode 2 - Long Exposure Compositing - YouTube

So, I turns out I’ve been long dormant on my own personal blog. It’s not that I’m not busy—EYExplore, the company which I have been running for the past 4 years, has been growing and maturing steadily. Our photography workshops have multiplied and improved. And we have taken on a few auteur photographers to create unique and personal photo adventures for our clients. Finally, we have expanded to our first overseas location: London! How exciting!

However, on my personal front, I’ve let the ideas for essays and tutorials for this blog simply pile up. It’s my goal to start publishing them here. The next one is nearing completion and will appear here very soon. I never planned to blog on a regular basis, but when ideas appear, I should write them up and share them here. And that is something I have been neglecting. This blog is meant in a way to be my own personal meditation on photographer—perhaps more so than a set of prescriptions for others, the musings on this blog are reminders for myself.

Anyway, for now, I want to show the second photo editing tutorial video I created for the EYExplore YouTube channel. Please enjoy and feel free to ask any questions in the comments here or on the video page.

More to come soon!

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A couple months ago I made my first video tutorial about how I edit my street photographs. I get lots of questions on this topic so it's my pleasure to finally share my process with those who are interested. This is the first video and, though I've put it off for a while, there are mot to come!

Check it out on the EYExplore YouTube channel.

Photo Editing Episode 1 - Basics & Street Photography - YouTube
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