Or: Why It's Good To Break The Rules
Photographic composition and style are essential aspects of creating visually appealing and meaningful images. However, there are many myths and misconceptions about what constitutes good composition and style, and how to achieve them. In this essay, I will explore the fundaments of photographic composition and style, and debunk some of the typical tropes that are often presented as rules.
What is Photographic Composition?
Photographic composition is the arrangement of visual elements within a frame. It involves deciding what to include or exclude, where to place the main subject and other objects, how to balance the different parts of the image, and how to create a sense of depth, movement, and harmony. Photographic composition is not a matter of following fixed rules, but rather a matter of applying principles of design, aesthetics, and communication. Photographic composition is influenced by the purpose, context, and audience of the image, as well as by the personal preferences and style of the photographer. Photographic composition is a creative process that requires experimentation, practice, and feedback.
There are many compositional elements that can be used to enhance an image, such as lines, shapes, space, colour, texture, symmetry, contrast, and framing. There are also many compositional techniques that can help guide the viewer’s eye and attention, such as the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, the rule of space, leading lines, patterns, and negative space. However, these elements and techniques are not fixed rules that must be followed in every situation. They are rather guidelines that can be adapted, modified, or broken depending on the context and intention of the image.
What is Photographic Style?
Photographic style is the expression of the photographer's personal vision, mood, and message. It involves choosing the colour, tone, contrast, lighting, angle, perspective, and editing of the image. Photographic style is not a matter of copying or imitating others, but rather a matter of developing one's own voice, identity, and signature. Photographic style is influenced by the inspiration, emotion, and intention of the image, as well as by the influences and references of the photographer. Photographic style is an artistic process that requires exploration, discovery, and refinement.
Some Style and Composition Myths Dispelled
Rule of Thirds
This technique involves dividing the frame into nine equal parts by two horizontal and two vertical lines, and placing the main subject or points of interest along these lines or at their intersections. The idea is that this creates a balanced and dynamic composition that avoids placing the subject in the center of the frame.
But by placing the subject in the centre, you can create a powerful or symmetrical image that draws attention to the subject. Sometimes, placing the subject off-center can create a sense of tension or imbalance that conveys a certain mood or message.
The rule of thirds is a useful tool to start with, but dispense with it quickly and broaden your mind as you go further into developing your style and voice.
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The Horizon Must Be Straight
You must always align the horizon line with the edge of the frame to create a level and stable image. This avoids tilting or distorting the image and making it look unnatural or unprofessional.
However, sometimes, tilting the camera to make the horizon diagonal can create a dynamic and exciting image that conveys a sense of action or movement. Sometimes, distorting the image can create a creative or artistic effect that enhances the style or message of the image.
Keeping the horizon straight is a good practice to follow in general, but experimenting with different angles and perspectives creates different possibilities for creative expression.
Certain Focal Lengths for Certain Applications
Certain types of photography demand certain focal lengths. You should choose a lens with a specific angle of view and magnification to suit the subject matter and style of photography. For example, wide-angle lenses are often used for landscapes, architecture, or environmental portraits; telephoto lenses are often used for wildlife, sports, or close-up portraits; macro lenses are often used for insects, flowers, or details; etc. The idea is that this optimizes the quality and clarity of the image and avoids distortion or aberration.
In contrast, using an unconventional focal length can create a unique or interesting image that challenges the expectations or conventions of photography. Sometimes, using a different focal length can offer a different perspective or story that reveals something new or surprising about the subject.
Using certain focal lengths for certain types of photography is a helpful suggestion to consider, but don't let it discourage you from exploring different possibilities and combinations.
The Subject Must Always Be Sharp
You must make sure that the subject is sharp. Focus on the subject: use a fast shutter speed and/or a small aperture to ensure that it is in focus and free from motion blur. This makes the subject stand out from the background and captures it clearly and accurately.
Counterpoint: making the subject blurry can create a soft or dreamy image that evokes a certain emotion or atmosphere. Making the subject blurry can create a sense of motion or speed that implies action or movement. And making the subject blurry can create an abstract or artistic image that invites interpretation or imagination.
Making sure that the subject is sharp is a good technique to use in most cases, but experimenting with different levels of focus and blur is a valid technique and tool to have in your repertoire.
Always fill the frame with your subject
You must ensure that the subject fills as much of the frame as possible. Crop or zoom in to eliminate any empty or distracting space around your subject. This makes your subject more prominent and impactful.
By contrast, leaving some space around your subject can create a sense of context, scale, or isolation that enhances the meaning or mood of the image. Often, including some elements around your subject can create a sense of connection, interaction, or contrast that adds interest or complexity to the image.
Filling the frame with your subject is a good technique to use in some cases, but don't ignore the potential of negative space.
Always use natural light
You must use the light that is available and avoid flash at all costs. Avoid artificial light sources such as flash or lamps and rely on natural light sources such as sun or moon. This creates a more realistic and flattering image that preserves the colours and shadows of the scene.
In practice, using artificial light can create a more dramatic or creative image that emphasizes or modifies the features or mood of the scene. In fact, using artificial light can create a more controlled or consistent image that compensates or corrects the limitations or variations of natural light.
Using natural light is a good practice to follow in general; don't forget though the possibilities of artificial light.
Photographic composition and style are important aspects of creating visually appealing and meaningful images. There are many associated myths and misconceptions about what constitutes good composition and style, and how to achieve them. Some of the typical tropes that are often presented as rules are the rule of thirds, keeping the horizon straight, using certain focal lengths for certain types of photography, and making sure that the subject is sharp. All are tropes and none are fixed rules that must be followed in every situation. They are rather guidelines that can be adapted, modified, or broken depending on the context and intention of the image.
Photographers should not be limited by these tropes, but rather use them as tools to explore their own creativity and expression. At some point, when you develop your photographic voice, you are going to find situations where none of the rules matter because the image you have in your mind, and in front of your camera, doesn't fit in some neat box.
Go for it. Take the shot.