Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Composition: The Golden Rule of Thirds

I found an free online photography course that I decided to check out, and the first lesson deals with composition, or what makes a photograph a "good" or even "great" photograph? There are many elements of composition (or so I'm finding), but this lesson focuses on the rule of thirds and the "golden ratio" or "golden mean."

First the rule of thirds - imagine your photograph as a tic tac toe board
i.e. divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. If you don't follow here's a diagram:

Now imagine this tic tac toe graphic is placed over your photograph. Proponents of the rule of thirds claim that the important aspects of your photograph should be placed along these lines (vertically or horizontally) or where the lines intersect. The idea is the rule of thirds will help you compose an image that presents more energy and tension than if you simply centered the subject of your photo.

The simplest example - one that I think most photographers have done - is the quintessential beach photograph. You know, a lovely beach sunset photo. We've all done it. So according to the rule of thirds, most of us have placed the horizon (where the sea meets the sand) right in the middle of the photograph. But for a more visually interesting photograph, the horizon should track one of the horizontal tic tac toe lines instead.

As for the "golden ratio," two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio between the sum of those quantities and the larger one is the same as the ratio between the larger one and the smaller To clarify:

Only kidding - I promise you do not need to know any complicated mathematical equation to get this concept. The idea behind the "golden ratio" is that application of this ratio results in aesthetically pleasing art, architecture, etc. This ratio is found throughout nature - the full discussion of this is outside the scope of this post (that, and I want to get the good stuff - the photos...)

Going back to the tic tac toe graphic, the "golden ratio" applies to the intersecting lines of the tic tac toe board:

So today I took a stroll along the beach and tried to apply both of these concepts to some photographs. This first one is a photo of the Seal Beach pier, with the horizon (basically) right smack in the middle:

And here's one with the horizon in the bottom third of the tic tac toe graph:

I definitely like the second one more, but that's just my humble opinion. I like how much more of the sky you see in the second photograph, although I do wish the pier was more towards one of the intersecting lines
a la the "golden mean."

Here's another example - I saw these street signs as I walked back from the beach:

So for the second picture I came in closer on the signs (the focal point of the photograph) and alligned the signs with the right vertical of the tic tac toe graphic. I also tried to put the signs at one of the intersecting points:

I love the top sign - essentially if there's a huge earthquake the residents of Seal Beach are screwed. Good times...

Let me know if these composition ideas work for your photos - I'll try to post some more examples this week as I practice more. Ideas for you moms with cameras out there would be to photograph your little munchkin off center, closer to those "golden mean" zones - see what you think.