INTRODUCTION TO BASIC COMPOSITION RULES: HOW TO FOCUS ON YOUR MAIN SUBJECT

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Home    Lesson Plans    #3: Introduction to Composition

Course Requirements

  1. Before starting this lesson, you should have a basic understanding and know how to operate your digital camera. If you are really new to photography with a new DSLR camera, I suggest you read up on the following articles first.

  2. You should have a basic understanding of how to properly expose a photograph. Refer to Lesson #1: Understanding Exposure if you have not taken the first course or if you would like to understand how to take a properly exposed photograph.

  3. This 3rd course is a continuation of Lesson #2: How to compose a photograph because this lesson delves deeper into one of the guidelines of composition discussed in Lesson #2. So you must read Lesson #2: How to compose a photograph prior to taking this course.

  4. You must have a digital camera, preferably a digital SLR camera.

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Draw the viewer's eye towards your main subject

In the previous lesson, Lesson #2: How to compose a photograph, you have learned 3 basic guidelines for composing your photo. This lesson, Lesson #3: Introduction to Basic Composition Rules, I will go into more detail and give you a number of composition rules that serve to highlight the main subject of your photograph, which as you would recall is the 2nd guideline in the basic guidelines I provided in Lesson #2. I am going to show you several ways to put emphasis to the main subject in your photographs. These are some of the basic techniques of good photography composition. These techniques help stress the importance of the main subject of your photograph and draw your audience's eye toward the main subject in your photograph.

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Composition Rule #1: The Dominant Subject Rule

The first rule that I will discuss is what is referred to as the Dominant Subject Rule. As the name states, this rule allows your main subject to dominate the scene. How is that done exactly? One obvious way is to make your main subject occupy the majority of the photo. Make your subject larger than life, if you will, or in the case of your photo, make your main subject larger than the supporting cast or elements.

Dominant Subject Rule
Figure 1: Dominant Subject

The photo in figure 1 shows the California State Library building as the main subject. The building occupies most of the frame making it the dominant element in the scene. I also surrounded it with trees as framing elements to get more emphasis on the main subject. Framing will be discussed in the next page.

Another example of a dominant subject is shown below in figure 2. Here, I emphasized the main subject by making it dominate the other elements through relative size.

Dominant Subject Rule
Figure 2: Dominant subject thru relative size

One of the things I learned from Emanuele Pontoriero's Jumpstart Your Photography dvd video series with regards to placement of the dominant subject in the photo is this - place the main subject in the center of the frame and allow space at the top and bottom where the space at the top is twice as much as the space at the bottom. I know, my explanation is not very clear but the photo below should clear things up.

The main subject in Figure 3 is placed such that the space at the bottom (B) is half the vertical space on top (A).

Dominant Subject Rule
Figure 3: Dominant Subject Rule

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Composition Rule #2: Rule of Thirds

Placing your main subject in the center of the photograph is very common but it is boring. By simply placing your main subject off-center in the frame makes for a more interesting and dynamic photograph. But how much off-center do you place your subject? This is where the Rule of Thirds come in. The Rule of Thirds is one of the most popular composition rules of photography and it involves dividing your frame into thirds vertically and horizontally and the points where the lines intersect are the areas the have the most aesthetic quality. Placing your subject within these areas is recommended. See the example photos below.

Subject centered in the frame
Figure 4: Subject Centered in the Frame
Subject is off-centered
Figure 5: Subject Off-Center

The first photo in Figure 4 shows the subject centered in the frame. It looks okay and nothing is wrong with it but if the subject was placed off center, particularly in one of the intersecting points in the Rule of Thirds, notice how much more engaging and interesting the photo becomes. In figure 5 photo, I intentionally position the subject's face in one of the intersecting points to give it the most emphasis.

What if you have multiple main subjects and they all cannot fit within the intersecting areas described above? Well, this is where you prioritize each subject placing the subject that has the most priority in one of the intersecting area.

The Rule of Thirds doesn't have to be exact, meaning, your main subject doesn't have to be exactly centered in one of the intersecting points. The Rule of Thirds is simply a guide and not a hard and fast rule. If your main subject is placed slightly to the left or right, or slightly above and below one of the intersecting points, that is okay because it will still put a lot of emphasis on your main subject.

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