Photograph above by master photographer Martine Franck
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, 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."