Photograph above taken at Gettysburg, PA with a Leica M7 and Ilford XP-2 film
5 Approaches to Composition in Photography (And Why They Won't Teach You Anything About Design)
Finding reliable information on composition is difficult. Depending on who you ask, you will get different answers. Some photographers will tell you to use the Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, the Rule of Space, and Leading Lines. Because these "rules" don't require any knowledge, skill, or training, they might seem like the most obvious and "easy" choices. Others might tell you to try the Golden Section rectangle. Even though the concept is slightly more complicated than the Rule of Thirds grid, it's still manageable and straightforward enough for most to understand. Finally, the remaining group of photographers will tell you to use your intuition and do "what feels right." However, none of these approaches will teach a photographer anything about design. Here's why.
THE RULE OF THIRDS Despite the overwhelming popularity of the Rule of Thirds, this famous tic-tac-toe grid is nothing more than a simplified interpretation of the design principle known as rabatment. Rabatment, also called the "lazy man's golden section," is a method that entails placing the square, with a side equal to the edge of the rectangle, over the left and right sides of the composition. And even though the use of rabatment does play a significant role in classical skill-based art, the Rule of Thirds, used in isolation, is far too limiting to be considered a serious design tool.
THE RULE OF ODDS According to an article posted on the Digital Photography School website, "The rule of odds states that images are more visually appealing when there is an odd number of subjects. For example, if you are going to place more than one person in a photograph, don’t use two, use 3 or 5 or 7, etc." However, regardless of how many subjects or items you have in a pictorial composition, they all require visual balance based on real design principles; not on a "magical" number of three, five, etc. And much like the Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds tends to produce static images that have a cookie-cutter appearance.
LEADING LINES Leading lines is a composition technique used to create a visual path for the viewer to follow that will lead them to the main subject of a picture. Even though the approach of using leading lines is popular among many photographers, like the Rule of Thirds and the Rule of Odds, it's way too confining to be considered a valuable tool for design.
THE GOLDEN SECTION RECTANGLE (1.618) As appealing and "artsy" as the "Golden Section" might seem to most photographers, the 1.618 ratio only applies to one particular rectangle. In other words, for all the photographers that are shooting 35mm film and a 1.5 digital sensor, it doesn't have any legitimate value for composition. Furthermore, because the golden section rectangle and the 1.5 have different dimensions, the armatures and sub-geometry are entirely different. To see a visual comparison, click here.
INTUITION While most would never argue that intuition plays a significant role in one's artistic style, photographers that rely solely on instinct to create compositions will find it difficult, if not impossible, to produce a consistent and masterful body of work. Moreover, regardless of what Modern Art ideology tells us, relying on your "gut" to guide you or embracing the "teach-by-not-teaching" methods of creating art is not practical or reliable. As Jay Hambidge once said, “Instinctive art without mental control is bound to fail."
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What Others Are Saying About Dynamic Symmetry Art "James Cowman's user's guide on composition and Dynamic Symmetry, in particular, was one of the greatest milestones on my journey of becoming a better artist. Dynamicsymmetryart.com is undoubtedly the best resource on the subject out there, which I keep recommending to anyone interested in taking their compositions to a new level. It shocks me that even otherwise excellent artists today often know nothing about these old systems and rely mostly on their intuition to create their compositions. It's time that artists rediscover and revive the lost knowledge of the old masters and bring art back to its former glory. Jame's user's guide is a unique and invaluable resource in this effort." - Storm Engineer
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"Though I am not a newcomer to photography, I am far from being a professional. So too, it has only been in the past few months that I discovered dynamicsymmetryart.com. I was transformed from being concerned with camera equipment, f-stops, shutter speed, ISO to considering how I would apply the principles of classical art training to my photography.
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My journey began by reading. The Dynamic Symmetry Art website has numerous resources that gave me a crash course in art and composition. I had to learn about the visual properties of different kinds of rectangles and how each can be divided into compositional elements. Then I began using the Dynamic Symmetry grid overlays in Lightroom to analyze and crop my photos.
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I found myself repeatedly falling back on the Rule of Thirds, but this was becoming more of a hindrance rather than a help. Then one day I had the good fortune to stumble across the website Dynamicsymmetryart.com. There is no better teacher or resource on the internet regarding Dynamic Symmetry and best of all everything is free! I can assure you, once you begin to delve into the rich offerings on this site you won’t have any need to look elsewhere.
I, for one, can’t thank Jim enough for all the time and effort he has put into this and for taking my photography to the next level. His website and Youtube channel are both superb, and I'd like to thank him for sharing the knowledge on what is a very fascinating subject." - Tim B
"With the passing of Myron Barnstone, we lost a great resource on the application of the Rectangles of the Masters and the Golden Section in creating art. But the website dynamicsymmetryart.com is carrying on that work Myron so thoroughly believed in and taught. Dynamic Symmetry can be used in the simplest of ways as well as being infinitely complex if one desires. Great minds such as Leonardo da Vinci recognized the power that this compositional tool offers.
Dynamicsymmetryart.com is an amazing reference for artists who are open to exploring the benefits of using Dynamic Symmetry in their work. It applies to all the arts and resonates at a primal level of understanding harmony and beauty. Much thanks to James Cowman for his dedication to furthering this information to the public." - Master Artist and Teacher,Dot Bunn, Red Stone Farm Studio
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