Photography Composition Rules for Great Photos

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THE BEAUTY OF PHOTOGRAPHY

How can you make photos pretty? Just by learning the basics, applying techniques and good photography composition rules.

Photography is rather different from the rest of the arts, a professional photographer once told me.

To become very good at arts, you need a lot of raw talent. But not for photography.

For those of you who are low on self-confidence with the “creative juice” part, don’t sweat it.

All you need for photography is to learn some rules to make things look good.

I never thought myself to be a creative too, and the best “art” that I can draw are stick figures.

I picked up photography for fun, I learnt the basics, and before I know it, friends around me are liking my photos.

If a guy who can only draw stick figures is getting some recognition, I believe everyone else can do the same… maybe even better than me. 😉

So let’s get on with the basics.

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Section A
Composition Rules

Section B
Composition Basics

Section C
Balance

Section D
No rules

Closing
What’s next

 

SECTION A : THE COMPOSITION RULES

Let us start with composition rules, for they are the easiest to learn and apply.

But note, these are just rules of thumb. Not rules to follow strictly.

Use these to help you compose better photos, not restrict yourself.

A1) RULE OF THIRDS

How to use : Draw 4 lines and break your frame into equal thirds. Try to put your chosen subject along the interacting lines. Easy?

How it helps : When you place your subject on the gird, the rule of thirds will supposedly help you to balance the weight of elements. That will result in a more balanced, and pleasant looking photo.

A2) GOLDEN RATIO / GOLDEN SPIRAL

How to use : Something like the rule of thirds. You will want to remember that spiral pattern, and put your main subject near the “eye of the storm”.

How it helps : There seems to be a lot of science behind the spiral frame. But simply put, as it spiral inwards, the importance increases. As long as you design your photo by placing the most important subject in the middle, magic happens.

A3) RULE OF ODDS

How to use : Things are better in odd numbers. 3 oranges, 5 pears, 7 jars.

How it helps : The odd numbers placement will break the weight balance. Supposedly again, this makes things more interesting to look at… which I disagree. Since even numbers and mirror effect can be interesting too.

A4) SYMMETRY

How to use : Self explanatory, shooting into mirrors and reflections work too.

How it helps : Most people love symmetry, reflections and mirror images. Proven by history and studies.

A5) PATTERNS

How to use : Just find things with repeating textures and patterns.

How it helps : When things repeat themselves, a certain harmony is formed. It will be interesting to break patterns too. A drop of red in a sea of blue maybe?

A6) NEGATIVE SPACE

How to use : Positive space in photography is deemed as “space for your subject” in the frame. Negative space offers a different perspective. Have a lot of space for the surroundings, and a small spot for your subject.

How it helps : Have a break from the “usual” photography. Offers something different to your viewers.

A7) LEAD LINES

How to use : One of the most common and powerful composition rule. Lead your viewer to where you want them to see.

How it helps : This is really the basic building block for composition. When you learn how to put things in your photo, you will keep your viewer’s interest a lot longer.

A8) FRAMING

How to use : A frame in the photo frame. Include a window frame, door frame, or nature rock formation frame in your photo. Welcome to frame-ception.

How it helps : Frame in a frame. How can one not be interested?

 

SECTION B : PHOTOGRAPHY COMPOSITION BASICS

This is going to be pretty boring.

But if you want award winning photos, you will need to master the 3 basic factors in composition.

  • Colors
  • Lines
  • Shapes

Yep, those are the most basic, most ancient studies that have been done by our ancestors long before photography.

Thanks to our ancestors, we don’t have a lot of guessing to do. Just apply the rules, and they have been proven to work for centuries.

B1) PRIMARY COLORS

The first thing you need to know about colors is the RGB color system – That is red, green and blue.

The RGB Color System (source : Wikipedia)

These are the 3 primary colors, and how it works is pretty simple.

  • When all 3 colors are absent, it’s black.
  • When all 3 colors are present, it’s white.
  • Mix red and blue, you get magenta.
  • Mix green and red, you get yellow.
  • When blue and green are mixed, you get cyan.

So it’s basically all about mix-and-match the 3 basic colors to produce other colors.

Another fact that you have to know is that, most modern electronic equipment adopt this color system – That is how your camera, smartphone and computer work.

B2) CMYK COLOR SYSTEM

I won’t go deep into this one.

But for you guys who are into professional printing and works, just know that most professional printers use the CMYK color system instead.

That is cyan, magenta, yellow, and “key” – The “key” simply means black.

So if you want accurate color prints, you will want to find out more about the CMYK color system.

B3) WARM, COLD COLORS AND COLOR TEMPERATURE

Warm and cold colors. You will hear these very commonly in photography.

  • Warm colors are simply shades of orange, red and yellow. They generally project the feel of arousal, warmth and stimulation.
  • Cool colors are shades of blue, purple and green. They generally project the feel of calmness, cool and relaxation.

That’s it. We are just “classifying” colors into 2 main schools.

Why do we do that?

Because warm and cold are the most commonly re-occurring colors in nature.

The next term that you need to know, is closely related to warm and cold – color temperature.

Color temperature (source : Wikimedia)

Is temperature not used to measure heat? So what the heck is color temperature!?

I am going to leave the rocket science out, since this is all about photography and not science…

Simply know that color temperature ranges from warm (orange) to cool (blue), measured in Kelvins.

B4) HOW TO USE COLORS

Now for the million dollar question – How do we play with colors in photography?

There are probably endless ways to work with colors, but I shall put in a few good examples and inspirations from Flickr.

Mono color attack : Use only one very striking color (like red or yellow) and fill up nearly the entire frame. This is very punchy and you can be sure it attracts attention.

flower_0180
Photo by EyeSnap Photography

It’s a rainbow! : Use a colorful splash of colors. Be careful not to over-saturate though. It may look simple, but most newbies end up with “a vomit of colors”.

Color Run
Photo by Jessie Hsu

Color Contrast : A striking colored object, against a dull background… or the other way.

Still colorful
Photo by Bill Wilcox

B5) MORE STUFF ON COLORS

For you guys who are interested in more color studies, it goes way deep.

But if you are really interested, here are the links for the adventurous.

B6) LINES

Onto the next element.

Lines tend to be a little more abstract, and some beginners might face trouble “spotting” lines in composition.

But lines are everywhere, and you just have learn how to spot them.

Let’s dive into some examples.

B7) HOW TO USE LINES

Horizontal Lines : Generally casts a feeling of stability, broadness or vastness. Good for wide angle horizons.

Vertical Lines : Generally adds a sense of height to your photo; Tall and strong, but has a tendency to “separate” the frame. Compose vertical lines with care.

Diagonal Line : Tends to add perspective to the photo, also adds a sense of depth to the photo when used correctly.

Curved Line : Human eyes tend to follow along these lines. Use these to lead your viewers to something interesting. E.g. river to sunset, or road to a building.

I know, it’s not easy to think “in terms of lines”.

But being one of the basic blocks, lines are what makes a photo great or meh.

My advice will be, start with simple horizons, trees and buildings first. They are the best horizontal and vertical lines makers.

Challenge yourself with diagonal, curved or combine them when you are comfortable.

B8) SHAPES

The last element, and shapes are even more abstract than lines.

Get it right, and it will give your photo a good sense of structure, organization and harmony.

Set it wrong, and you photo will be in a mess.

B9) HOW TO USE SHAPES

Circle : Circles are generally attention grabbing, especially when the photo is entirely flat and there is one big spot. It’s like screaming “I am here”! A huge flower in the frame, or the sunset. Sounds familiar?

Squares and Rectangles : Generally gives a feel of structure and well-organized. Please do take note that when squares and rectangles occupy a huge part of the photo without anything else, it will appear very flat.

Triangle : Triangles are also rather attention grabbing. At the same time, it has that “look this way” effect when used correctly.

 

SECTION C : BALANCE OF ELEMENTS

Now that you have all the rules and basics in mind, there is something else you need to know.

Composition is not about putting all the elements into one big pot and stir.

Hard to fully explain in words. But if you take a close look at most photos, you will notice that photos are not a roller coaster mix-and-match of many rules.

It is about putting things into the right places to make the photo look good. It is about balancing the elements, and using them in creative ways.

Not easy for beginners to fully understand this.

So best place to start – study photos online, and look at how the professionals balance their elements.

 

SECTION D : THERE ARE NO RULES

Here comes the end of the lesson, and it is time to do the old kung fu flick – there are no rules.

By that, I mean that you don’t always have to follow these composition rules in photography.

Break the rules when you must, there are no “it must be composed this way” to begin with.

Keep in your mind that every photo is a statement, regardless if the rules of compositions are applied or not.

So if you have an idea or concept for a good photo that defy the rules, just go ahead with it.

No one will arrest you for breaking the composition rules. 😆

 

WELL DONE, WHAT’S NEXT?

You have survived the long tutorial!

I know this is a lot to absorb in a short time. Composition may be difficult at first, and there is literally no way to master it overnight.

What worked for me is looking through photos online, and study why certain photos attracted me. I then try to copy, and improve on the elements.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the amount of information here.

Give yourself time and try to adopt the composition rules one at a time.

Photography composition is like riding a bicycle, you will only catch the gist of it when you apply it more.

Lastly, strange as it may sound, the more you apply the rules, the more you should know when to break them.

That is also where the challenge comes, when everyone is applying rules, you break it to stand out of the crowd.

So go out, have fun, and shoot more.


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