As a photographer, it’s your job to lead the viewer through your image. You accomplish this by using the principles of composition, which is the arrangement of elements in the scene that draws the eye through your image and holds your viewer’s attention. As the director of this viewing, you need to understand how people see, and then use that information to focus their attention on the most important elements in your image.
There is a general order at which we look at elements in a photograph. The first is brightness. The eye wants to travel to the brightest object within a scene. So if you have a bright sky, it’s probably the first place the eye will travel to. The second order of attention is sharpness. Sharp, detailed elements will get more attention than soft, blurry areas. Finally, the eye will move to vivid colors while leaving the dull, flat colors for last. It is important to know these essentials in order to grab—and keep—the viewer’s attention and then direct the eye through the frame.
In Figure 5.21, the eye is drawn to the bright flowers in the bottom of the page. They are also the sharpest and most colorful objects in the image, which helps to focus attention on them as the main subject. From there, the eye moves to the less colorful and slightly out-of-focus house in the background. Finally, the view is moved to the sky and dark trees, which then leads back to the flowers. The elements within the image all help to keep the eye moving but never leave the frame.
Figure 5.21 The composition of the elements pulls the viewer’s eyes around the image, leading from one element to the next.
ISO 200 • 1/500 sec. • f/5.6 • 55mm lens
Rule of thirds
There are, in fact, quite a few philosophies concerning composition. The easiest one to begin with is known as the “rule of thirds.” Using this principle, you simply divide your viewfinder into thirds by imagining two horizontal and two vertical lines that divide the frame equally.
The key to using this method of composition is to have your main subject located at or near one of the intersecting points (Figure 5.22).
Figure 5.22 If you laid a rule-of-thirds grid atop this image, you would see that I composed the shot so that the fence line runs along the bottom third and the cabin is near the bottom-left intersection.
ISO 100 • 1/60 sec. • f/14 • 35mm lens
By placing your subject near these intersecting lines, you are giving the viewer space to move within the frame. The one thing you don’t want to do is place your subject smack-dab in the middle of the frame. Doing so is sometimes referred to as “bull’s-eye” composition, and it requires the right subject matter for it to work. Using bull’s-eye composition is not always wrong, but it will usually be less interesting and may not hold the viewer’s focus.
Speaking of the middle of the frame: The other general rule of thirds deals with horizon lines. Generally speaking, you should position the horizon one-third of the way up or down in the frame. Splitting the frame in half by placing your horizon in the middle of the picture is akin to placing the subject in the middle of the frame; it doesn’t lend a sense of importance to either the sky or the ground.
In Figure 5.23, I incorporated the rule of thirds by aligning my horizon in the top third of the frame and the group of cacti near the bottom third. In doing so, I have created a sense of depth in the image. By selecting the correct focal length for the lens (18mm, in this instance) and the right vantage point, I was able to place my horizon line so that it gives the greatest emphasis on the subject.
Figure 5.23 Placing the horizon of this image at the bottom third of the frame places emphasis on the sky and clouds above.
ISO 100 • 1/250 sec. • f/5 • 24mm lens
Because a photograph is a flat, two-dimensional space, you need to create a sense of depth, as mentioned earlier, by using the elements in the scene to create a three-dimensional feel. You accomplish this by including different and distinct spaces for the eye to travel: a foreground, middle ground, and background. By using these three spaces, you draw the viewer in and render depth to your image.
The lake in Northern Carolina shown in Figure 5.24 illustrates this principle well. The grassy area at the bottom strongly defines the foreground area. The lake is a great middle area that provides transition from the foreground to the background. The small mountain, trees, and sky complete the image by adding some distant depth to the scene.
Figure 5.24 The grass, lake, trees, mountain, and sky all add to the feeling of depth in the image.
ISO 200 • 0.8 sec. • f/16 • 26mm lens
ISO 100 • 1/50 sec. • f/8 • 24mm lens