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14. Rules, Principles and Techniques of Composition
So now we are on the creative side of things and you can relax.
Things will be much easier to understand now and all the technicality is behind us.
What we’ll be paying attention to now is an aspect of photography which is referred to as composition.
In simple terms, composition refers to how different elements in a shot are placed, like where the subject comes in the frame, which angle is used to take the shot, how does the background look, etc. It’s basically the look of your shot and the different elements that affect that look.
The key to being a good photographer lies in learning the manual mode but the key to being a brilliant photographer lies in developing an eye for an imposing composition.
That’s because manual mode is just science. Everyone gets good with it after some time.
But developing an eye for a good composition is art and can actually take more time and practice.
But just like any other skill, it can always be learned.
Though there can be endless number of rules and principles when it comes to composition, I’ll be talking about the ones that really make a difference and are absolutely essential for achieving great looking shots.
So let’s get started with the first rule.
The rule of thirds is perhaps the most popular rule when it comes to photography.
It’s a must that you go through this rule not only to understand the rule itself but also to learn one of the most fundamental and important shooting techniques called focus and recompose. It’s a technique which will form the basis of how you shoot.
First I’ll explain you what rule of thirds means in a technical manner and then I’ll tell you my own way of following of it which is very easy to understand.
Look at the picture below:
You can see the picture has been divided into nine parts by a grid formed by four lines.
What rule of thirds says is that the focal point of your shot should lie on one of the four intersecting points that are formed by these lines. These four points have been shown by the little green circles in the shot above.
A focal point basically refers to the point where your focus point lies. So it’s that part where you exactly lock the focus using the focus point.
Till now we’ve always had the focus point in the centre of the frame because that’s where it is by default.
Now if your focal point has to lie on one of the intersection points, you have to be able to move the focus point.
We’ll soon see how we can solve this problem of moving around the focus point. Actually, we won’t be moving around the focus point at all. We’ll be instead moving the camera but we won’t be talking about that till we know more about rule of thirds.
So coming back to the rule of thirds, the above way is the hard way of understanding rule of thirds.
The easier way to understand rule of thirds is that we have to avoid putting the subject in the centre of the frame every time and instead, start putting them on the left or the right side of the frame.
It’s one of the tendencies of beginners to put the subject in the centre of the frame in every shot.
Rule of thirds says that it’s aesthetically better to put the subject on the sides.
For instance, look at image below:
In this image above, you can see that I’ve shot the man by keeping him on one side in the frame and not in the centre. Just try to imagine him in the centre of the frame. You’ll realise that if he was in the centre of that sloping hill, the whole shot would look unbalanced.
An unbalanced composition immediately looks causal and poor to the eye of the viewer. For instance, look at the shot below:
You can see that the space behind the crow looks a bit of a wasted space and is making the shot look unbalanced.
If I crop the shot, I can make it look balanced again by putting the crow on one side, like shown below:
This shot immediately looks better as there is no unnecessary negative space around the subject.
The best way to understand rule of thirds is by looking at images. So let’s have look at a few more images that follow rule of thirds. When you are looking at these shots, try imaging how the shot would look like if the subject was in the centre:
You can see that the shot looks aesthetically pleasing and balanced with the cup of coffee on one side and not in the centre.
If the girl is put in the centre, the whole composition would look unbalanced.
In this case, if I put the buck in the centre, the composition will look very unbalanced because first of all, there will be too much clutter towards the right hand side as both the tree and deer will be very close. Secondly, there will be unnecessary negative space on the left hand side.
Here I’ve placed the bird using rule of thirds.
Something similar here as the last shot.
In this shot, if I put the bird in the centre, there will be a lot of unnecessary negative space behind its back. When shooting living things, always remember to give more space towards the side that they are facing.
The diya has been placed using rule of thirds. Had it been in the centre, the composition would look unbalanced.
In this shot I have given space on the right side as that’s where he was looking. You’ll soon be seeing another shot of this man where rule of thirds is not used.
The man has been placed in the frame using the rule of thirds.
The crying child has been placed using the rule of thirds.
Now if you’ve been watching all these shots carefully, you’ll notice that most of them have one thing in common – and that is that the subject is not the only important part of the shot. The background is important too.
So following rule of thirds is a must when the background is important in a shot too. Because having a background in a shot means that the subject will get some space. To fill this space aesthetically, it’s better to put the subject on one side rather than in the centre.
So what are the exceptions to rule of thirds?
Going by the last point, one of the exceptions to rule of thirds are shots where you fill the frame, i.e. shots where you’ve zoomed into the subject so much that the background is not playing an important part.
For instance, look at the two shots below:
You can see that in the first shot, enough of the background is in the frame. So it’s essential that the monkey is put in the frame using rule of thirds.
But in the second shot, you can see that we have filled the frame with the monkey and hence, there isn’t really any room for the background to show. In such cases, it’s okay to let the subject be in the centre.
Let’s see another example:
You just saw this shot before:
Here I’ve placed him using the rule of thirds because the background is also important. But let’s look at another shot of the same man:
Here I’ve gone closer to him and almost filled the frame with the subject. The background is not as important in this one as the previous shot. Hence I can choose to ignore rule of thirds. Though even in this shot I have given some space on the right as I like to give some space towards the side in which the subject is gazing. But even if I crop the space on the right and place him centrally, it would be fine.
Another example typical portrait shots, like the ones below:
In these shots you can see that the subjects are almost completely occupying the frame and very little of the background is visible, so it’s ok to place them centrally.
Let’s look at a few more shots where the subject(s) has filled the frame:
Another exception is when you have a shot where the area around the subject is symmetrical or similar. In such a case, you can put the subject in the centre. For example, look at the shot below:
In the shot above, you can see that I have placed the cigarette using rule of thirds. But since the background is exactly the same everywhere, I can easily place it in the centre too and it will still look good. Another shot that falls in the same category is the one below:
Have a look at another shot:
In this shot, I could have placed the Buddha idol in the centre, but the only thing that prevented me from doing so were the rocks that you can see in the background behind on the left. Those rocks have made the background slightly non-symmetrical. If the rocks behind did not exist, then the whole background would be roughly be the same and it would have allowed me to put the idol in the centre. But because the rocks are present, I put the idol on the right to balance things out.
Let’s look at some shots where the subject is in the centre because the area around it or the background behind it is symmetrical or uniform in nature:
To sum up, where ever you see a lot of negative space (space around the subject), which is not symmetrical or similar, use rule of thirds.
The Technique of Focus and Recompose
There is one problem in following rule of thirds.
Let’s say we have to take a shot like the one below which follows the rule of thirds:
So we get the above composition in frame and are ready to take the shot. But by default, our focus point is near the centre of the frame, like shown in the image below:
So if we lock focus right now, the camera will focus on the background and not on the cup, and you’ll end up getting an image where the background is sharp and the cup is blurred, like the one below:
So how can we avoid this?
One way out is that you can move the focus point using the keypad on your camera, as we have seen before.
You can use it to move the focus point over to the cup, like in the image below:
Then you are ready to take your shot.
But this is a very slow way of doing things.
While it’s okay to use the keypad to move the focus point in situations where time is a luxury, situations that demand quick shooting capabilities won’t allow you that much time.
So a better and a much quicker way out is to use a technique called as focus and recompose.
Let’s see how this technique works.
Watch the video below to see what to do. Alternatively, you can read the description too.
Video 19: The Technique of Focus and Recompose
- What you do is that you start out shooting with the cup in the middle, just like you have been doing up till now. So to start off, here’s what you should see in your screen:
- You can see that the focus point is in the centre on the cup. What you should now do is lock focus on the cup by half-pressing the shutter button, just like you’ve been doing up till now.
- But now instead of pressing the shutter button all the way down to take the shot, what you do is that you first move the camera to the right side so the cup comes on the left. While moving the camera, make sure you haven’t released the half-press on the shutter button. You should see the following image in your screen:
- Now press the shutter button all the way down to take the shot. You’ll get a shot with the cup in focus, exactly how we wanted it like the image below:
The cup came out in focus because you locked focus on it and then recomposed. The camera retains the focus wherever you initially lock it. And since you keep the shutter button half-pressed, it doesn’t have to focus again.
That’s why the technique is called as focus and recompose.
You can see how much quicker it is than having to move around the focus point using the keypad.
All you have to do is just lock focus on your subject, keep the shutter button half-pressed and then move the camera left or right according to whichever side you want the subject to be in, and then press the shutter all the way down to take the shot.
So now you’ll understand how I’ve taken the shot below:
To start off, I had this bird placed in my frame in such a manner that the focus point was on the eye/face of the bird (for living beings, we always focus on their eyes/face). Then I locked focus by half-pressing the shutter button. And then I moved the camera slightly to the left to give some space on the left and put the bird on the right. And then pressed the shutter button all the way down to take the shot. Because I locked focus on the bird’s eye/face, the camera retained the focus even after I moved the camera and since I kept the shutter button half-pressed, the camera did not have to refocus.
The Principle of Shooting Through Obstacles to Add Depth
Adding depth in photography can mean a lot of things but here we’ll be specifically looking at a few techniques on how to make your shots have a three dimensional feel to them so that they:
- Look more imposing
- Don’t look flat
- Appear to the viewer like how things appear in reality
Let’s get started with these techniques:
Deliberately Adding an Obstacle In Front
This is a technique that’s very popular amongst photographers who do candid and event photography, like wedding photographers.
Look at the shot below:
Here I’ve taken a very basic looking candid shot of a man having a conversation.
I could have just gone in front of him and taken this shot too, but I chose to back away and deliberately let the woman whom he was talking to come in the frame on the left.
Because I’m using a low f-stop number (remember aperture and depth of field), the woman’s body has become blurred.
This instantly improves the depth of the shot because these kind of shots look very real to the viewer’s eyes.
They look real because that’s how we are used to seeing things with our own eyes.
For instance, just look anywhere. You’ll notice that even though the thing you are looking at is the sharpest as your focus is on that, you can still see other objects around the thing that you are focusing upon. We are never really looking at only one thing. It’s just that other things don’t appear sharp because we don’t focus on them. Like in the shot above, if you were looking at the man, he would appear sharp to you but you would also be seeing the woman in your line of sight. This is what we are trying to achieve by adding an obstacle in front.
This technique works well with using a low f-stop number so that you can blur the obstacle that you are adding.
Also, in such shots, now you know how you can quickly focus and compose the shot using the focus and recompose technique that we discussed in the previous section. So you lock focus on your subject and then keeping the shutter button half pressed, you move around to compose your shot in such a way that the obstacle you’re trying to add comes in the frame, and then you take the shot.
Let’s look at a few more shots that make use of adding obstacles:
You can see here that the main subject of this shot is the woman in black. There are two obstacles used here. First is a woman that you can see towards the left part of the frame and second is the man in blue on the right just in front of the camera. Do you notice that the man is more blurred than the woman who is on the left? That is because the farther away something is from your subject, the more blurred it will get. It’s the same principle as what applies to the background, as we learned in the chapter on aperture. What is near to the subject will come out sharper as it’s closer to the depth of field.
In this shot, the obstacle that I have used is the blades of grass in front the camera. The hazy look you can feel in front is nothing but the grass which has been blurred because I’m shooting this it f2.8.
A simple looking shot can be enhanced just by shooting through an obstacle. I’ve gone behind a steel gate to take this shot through the gap.
Before we move on to the different types of photography, there is just one little principle I want to share with you.
This principle does not relate to something that you have to do on the camera. In fact it’s about what you should do when you are not using it.
These days, with the advent of the Internet, you can make your whole life revolve around photography.
And if you’re really serious about becoming a good photographer, you should always be “on” when it comes to photography.
Facebook is one of the best tools out there for photographers mainly because of some of the most amazing pages and groups about photography that can do wonders to the pace at which you get better at it.
So I’m going to list down some very valuable Facebook pages that you should like. Liking these pages will fill up your news feed with all the wonderful shots they put up on a daily basis and it makes for great learning because you can take each shot as a case study and learn from it.
Here are some of the pages that you should like:
Fine Art Photography
Digital Photography School
Creative Pad Photography 🙂
Also, try to join as many photography groups as you can and find some more valuable pages and like them. Turn your Facebook news feed into a photography knowledge zone. Remember, photography is one of those rare skills that is mental in nature and can be improved upon simply by gaining more knowledge. That’s one of the reasons why it’s a timeless hobby.
Alright!! Now let’s move on to the different types of photography, starting with landscape photography.