Composition guidelines to position your subject

This is the fifth post of a series of publications in which — from different angles and perspectives — I’m addressing the topic of composition.  

This series includes posts and videos that can be easily located by using the tag “learning-composition” either in the search box above or by directly clicking on the tag name at the bottom of this post.  Also, here is a link to the entire series so far.

In the first post of this series I introduced the concept of composition, then in the second and third post I talked about using lines and forms as actual elements of the composition. In the fourth post I explained why simplifying your composition is important in order to convey your vision. So, in this fifth post I’ll explain how to apply some rules of composition intended to position your subject into the photograph frame.

Probably one of the most important decision when it comes to composition is to figure out where in the frame you should place your subject.  Well, there exist some rules that will help you to first of all balance all elements within the frame, and second to create a sense of order to allow the viewer making sense of your image. Let’s see what those rules are.

Rule of Thirds
Figure 1. Points of interest according to the “Rules of Thirds”

Rule of thirds is probably the most common technique used by photographers in order to achieve balance in the photograph composition. So, the idea is to divide up the image using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines equally spaced in the frame. The intersection of these four lines creates four “points of interest” (see figure 1), so placing the subject in the vicinity of any of these points will create a sense of balance without making the composition boring think about a landscape whose horizon line is in the middle of the image, boring, right?

Rule of Thirds Example
Figure 2. Image using the “Rules of Thirds” as placing subject rule.
Rule of Thirds Example 2.png
Figure 3. Image using the “Rules of Thirds” as placing subject rule.

Probably the question in your mind right now is: well, in which one of the four “point of interest” I should place my subject? that’s a  fair question, whose answer is “it depends”. For example, if you want your subject to be the first thing the viewer discover (see image in figure 2) probably the left side points are the most adequate ones — remember in this part of the planet we usually look at an image from left to right — however, if you want the viewer to “discover” your subject and meanwhile discovering it probably provide some context (see image in figure 3), then the points in right side of the frame would be the right place for the subject.

Goden Spiral
Figure 4. Different “points of interest” according to how the Golden Spiral is oriented.

Golden Spiral has been used as a composition tool for visual artists for probably thousands of years. In the opinion of many artists using the golden spiral as the element to place the main subject can result in a much more dynamic and natural composition — you can find the golden spiral in many natural formations like nautilus shells, human fingerprints, galaxies shapes, hurricane formations, etc. That’s probably the reason why many times people refer to it as the “divine spiral”, or the “divine ratio”.

Golden Rule Example
Figure 4. Image using the “Golden Spiral” as placing subject rule.

In geometry, a golden spiral is a logarithmic spiral whose growth factor is φ (Phi), the golden ratio. Now, if you’re not a math person probably this definition won’t help,  but as photographer a graphical representation like the one in figure 4 is probably more effective. The “net net” is that trying to place the main subject in the vicinity of one of the four “point of interest” suggested by the different orientations of the golden spiral will help you to achieve a more dynamic composition.

Now, which of the four “points of interest”, well just apply the same logic explained above for the rules of thirds. 

Figure 4 illustrate an example where the “Golden Spiral” was used to position the subject: the kid’s hand.

Golden Rule
Figure 5. Points of interest according to the “Golden Ratio” rule

Golden Ratio a.k.a. The Phi Grid is in fact a variation of the Rule of Thirds explained above, however there is an important difference, instead of dividing up the frame into three equal parts — a 1:1:1 ratio — the Golden Ratio is applied dividing the frame into three sections resulting into a grid whose ratio is 1:0.618:1 (a “divine proportion”). In which one of the four points of interest you should place your subject? it is just a mater of applying the same logic explained above for the Rules of Thirds. 

Golden Ratio Example
Figure 6. Image using the “Golden Ratio” as placing subject rule

Finally, putting the subject in the right place in order to improve your composition is not always a trivial work. When you place the subject in one of the points of interest dictated by either the Rule of Thirds, The Golden Spiral, or the Golden Ratio you also have to consider how the other elements in the frame relate to  the main subject. 

One of most interesting ways to make the main subject and the other elements in the frame “work” or “play” together in a more dynamic way is to use a triangle-based composition — where variations of the main subject placing rules we just reviewed here can by applied. Actually, I started introducing the concept of triangle-based composition -— more from a generic perspective — in one of the previous posts of this series (see Using shapes in photography composition), but given the importance of the topic I’ll go deeper on this subject in the next post.

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