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  Composition Guidelines

All human brains are wired much the same. Certain things catch our brain's attention, because our visual cortex "fires up" when these features are present. (Warning! Warning! Boring scientific discussion approaching!) Some are obvious: color contrasts (red rock, blue sky) make the brain pay attention; repeating units (the spires of Castle Valley) really get the neurons going; and to bring every axon in the occipital lobe on-line, nothing beats seeing an eyeball. Other "brain preferences" are more subtle. Your visual system likes to gaze on diagonal lines longer than vertical or horizontal ones. Within a frame, your brain prefers its interesting subject be located off-center.

Use the "rule of thirds." Draw two lines horizontally to divide the picture into three strips. Now draw two vertical lines to divide it into three columns. Any point where these lines intersect is the ideal location for the main visual interest of your picture.

The "rule of thirds" says that dominant objects are more visually interesting if they fall around the intersection of lines dividing the photo into thirds vertically and horizontally.

In this photo of Gary climbing up the Slickrock Trail, his body falls on a vertical "third" line, and the head is at an intersection with a horizontal "third."

But imagine if Gary were at the same place, heading downhill. The photo would seem claustrophobic. This would violate our "open up a space" principle, discussed below. 

Here the sky, background, and foreground each occupy one-third of this photo of Poison Spider Mesa. But on the right-to-left orientation, I chose to frame Gary a bit inside the line of the "left third." This makes Gary a more compelling subject than the vista.

Mentally, move the biker 1/2 inch to the left (further away from the center of the photo). See how the clouds, canyon, and rocks dominate the picture? Still a good photo, but a different "story" or feel.

Get down and shoot up. The lower viewpoint brings the horizon into the picture. You may be able to isolate your subject from nearby distracting details.

For this photo, I'm lying on the sandstone with the camera pressed against rock, to get the maximum upward angle of the lens. This puts the Matt against the sky above Bartlett Wash, for a dramatic effect.
But you shouldn't always "get down." For this photo of Matt and Jackie on Tibble Fork, I needed to show that the trail angled downhill. So I climbed onto the uphill side of the trail, stood on tiptoes, and shot from higher than eye-level.

By shooting from above, it demonstrates the downward angle of bike and trail.

Make use of diagonal lines. A line or path is most visually interesting if it runs diagonally through the picture.

This photo is dramatic, not just for the omygosh difficulty, but also because the chute and the biker's path cut a diagonal through the photo. (Note: Mike also obeys the "rule of thirds" as he descends the Toilet Bowl at Bartlett Wash.)

Try to put any line (including the rock-sky border) on a diagonal, if it makes sense. For example, a row of fence posts appears best, not facing the camera straight-on, but angling up and away.

Open up a path. In your picture, anything that moves needs a path to continue that action. And anything with eyes needs some open space to look at. Imagine the photo above with the biker at the LOWER LEFT third. It wouldn't look "comfortable." Each actor in your photo needs more space ahead of them than behind them.

Provide a sense of scale. For most photos, a familiar object such as a person or bike provides a "handle" by which the viewer can understand the picture. For example, you wouldn't know this is a "little dog" if she were all alone in the photo. Here Dominic provides a "sense of scale" relative to Jackie and the spruce trunk.
People add interest. Although the trail up Cottonwood Creek on the Three Forks Loop is a very nice ride, the "mountain vistas" are not awesome (by Utah standards). I wanted to show what the canyon looked like, but from every angle I could shoot, it was a Yawner. So I aimed the camera in Matt's direction while he was waiting for me to finish fumbling with the camera. Now the photo has some visual interest, and I've shown what the canyon looks like.

Look for the unusual. Odd shadows and highlights can be used to make the picture more interesting. Usually you shoot across or away from the sun; but sometimes the best photo will be shooting straight towards it. Look for unusual poses or camera angles. The shock of recognition -- when seeing a common subject in an unusual way -- can make your pictures more powerful. Experiment.

Please go on to the next lesson!

All photos and text on this website are
copyrighted works of Bruce Argyle.

Photo Basics

Composition Guidelines

Shooting Landscapes

Taking Action Photos

Flowers and Detail Photos

Pictures of People

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