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Composition Rule #5: Use contrast to emphasize your subject

One way to differentiate your main subject from the rest of the elements in your photo is by using contrast to give your main subject more prominence. You can use color, texture and shape to distinguish your main subject from the other elements. If your main subject has more contrast than the other elements in the scene, it tends to draw the viewer's eyes towards it.

Contrast can be achieved by having drastic difference in color or tone between the main subject and the background or supporting elements. The color wheel (as shown) will give you an idea of which colors are, when combined together, have the most contrast. Generally, opposite colors from the color wheel will give you the most contrast. For example, red and green, yellow and violet. It doesn't have to be exactly opposite colors, red and yellow, blue and yellow give really good contrast as well. As long as you combine light against dark, you generally would get good contrast.

Color Wheel for Contrast
Figure 1: Color Wheel for Contrast

The example photo is Figure 2 shows you how using contrasting colors draws the viewer's eye to the main subject. I was at the park with my son and he went inside this play tube and I took a picture of him inside the tube. The color of his shirt was the same as the color of the tube so it blended perfectly with the background but the color of his face and his black cap provided the much needed contrast that distinguished him from the yellow background. Also, the small hole in the tube provided another contrast to the background and added another supporting element to the story of this photo - my child was at the playground inside this yellow tube and looking outside this small hole. It was a fun day!

Using Color for Contrast
Figure 2: Use Color for Contrast

Exceptions to the Rule

Just like any rule, there are always exceptions. The 5 composition rules I've described in this lesson are not absolute rules that you have to follow on all of your photo composition. You do not have to use all 5 rules in one photograph. You can use one or combine 2 or 3 if it adds to your main purpose which is to emphasize your main subject. If there is one thing I would like you to learn from this lesson, it is this: If the composition rule doesn't add value to your main purpose of putting emphasis on the main subject, then it is probably not a good idea to use it.

Other Composition Rules

There are of course many more composition rules to learn. All I've shown you in this lesson are basic composition rules to introduce you to the concept. Other composition rules will be taught in future lessons.

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Assignment 3.1: Using Composition Rules to emphasize your Subject

For the rest of the week, I would like you to spend time taking photos using one or more of the 5 composition rules I have discussed in this lesson. Make sure to practice each rule and take a lot of photos. As always, experiment... discover... this is the only way to learn.

Assignment Instructions

  1. Set your camera to Aperture Priority Mode, Shutter Priority mode, or Manual Mode. It is your choice. Use whatever you are comfortable with.
  2. For this exercise, make sure to set your exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) correctly to get a properly exposed photograph. See Lesson #1: Understanding Exposure if you need a refresher course about exposing photos correctly.
  3. Look all around you and with the 3 basic guidelines in mind, compose your photograph making sure that your main subject dominates the scene. Analyze the scene and figure out which one of the 5 composition rules discussed in this lesson is most appropriate to use. If you feel that you can use 2 or more composition rules at the same time then do it.
  4. Using the same scene above, take photos of the scene using the following composition rules:
    1. Dominant Subject Rule, if possible. If you main subject is at a distance then this may not be possible.
    2. Rule of Thirds.
    3. Focus on Subject using shallow Depth of Field.
    4. Frame your subject, if possible. This may not always be possible because some scenes may not contain any framing elements.
    5. Use Contrast, if possible. Again, the scene may not contain enough contrast between your main subject and the supporting elements.
    View each photo and ask yourself this question: Does the composition rule work for this particular scene? Why? Analyze and come up with your own answers.
  5. Lastly, download your photo and view it on your computer. Review each photo you took and analyze which composition rule works and which ones doesn't. Show your photos to friends and family and ask them what they think of it? Where they able to identify your main subject right away? How were they drawn to the main subject in your photographs?

Project 365 or 52 Week Project for the serious hobbyist

If you are really serious about learning photography then I highly recommend that you try Project 365 or 52 Week Project. Both of these projects are great ways to practice and learn photography. For more detailed information about these projects and how to start, read my Project 365 or 52 Week Project blog. I have carefully organized a Weekly Theme Suggestions for this project to coincide perfectly with our step by step Lesson Plans.

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