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The Golden Rules of Photography

Difficulty
Time Required Very Short (≤ 1 day)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety No issues

Abstract

What is it that famous photographers do to make their images so pleasing to the eye? Find out if simple rules of geometry and symmetry can make you a better photographer.

Objective

In this experiment you will investigate the use of the Golden Ratio and the Rule of Thirds in the composition of famous photographs.

Credits

Sara Agee, PhD, Science Buddies

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "The Golden Rules of Photography" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 30 June 2014. Web. 23 Nov. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Photo_p012.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, June 30). The Golden Rules of Photography. Retrieved November 23, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Photo_p012.shtml

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Last edit date: 2014-06-30

Introduction

When you take a picture you look through the view finder to make sure that the things you want to be in your picture are in the frame. After all, you don't want to cut off anybody's head or leave any one out of a group photo. But there is more to framing a photo than just making sure everything is inside the frame. If you want to take a more pleasing photo, you should also consider how the objects in your photo, called the subjects, are placed. This is called composition.

When framing a stationary subject while composing a photo or video screen shot, your natural tendency will be to put the subject right in the center of the shot. But you can create a much more dynamic and interesting photo by shifting your subject off center. One way to compose an image is to use the "Rule of Thirds" to place subjects in visually stimulating locations in your frame. This is explained by Dan Greenwood at Adobe:

"Centering every subject all the time is not very interesting. By using the Rule of Thirds, you can make your productions more appealing to watch. Divide your picture into thirds. Interesting elements of a picture should be placed on those lines or at their intersections" (Greenwood, 2008).

Using Rule of Thirds
Using the Rule of Thirds can make your photos more interesting. (Cheek, M. 2004)

There are different ways of using the Rule of Thirds, which are based upon something called the Golden Ratio. These ratios can be found in many objects we consider to be visually attractive and beautiful. The whorls of a shell, the symmetry of a face, and the petals of a flower all exhibit these ratios in some way. Famous photographers use these ratios to frame and compose photos that are timeless and beautiful.

In this experiment, you can investigate how often famous works of photographic art obey these rules of composition. You will make templates for different arrangements of the Rule of Thirds and use them to score famous photos. Do the most famous photos obey or break the rules?

Terms and Concepts

To do this type of experiment you should know what the following terms mean. Have an adult help you search the internet, or take you to your local library to find out more!

  • composition
  • subject
  • framing
  • background
  • Golden Ratio
  • Rule of Thirds

Questions

  • How do professional photographers frame the subject of a photograph?
  • Do most famous photographs follow a version of the Rule of Thirds?
  • Are there some famous photos that break the rules?

Bibliography

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Materials and Equipment

  • permanent markers
  • transparency film
  • a book of famous photos (I recommend The Photo Book, but if you would like to focus on a particular photographer you can use a book of their collective work)

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Experimental Procedure

  1. First, find a book of famous photographs for your project from the library or a book store. I recommend "The Photo Book" by Phaidon Press because it has a large sampling of famous photos from many different photographers in different styles. However, if you would like to focus on a particular photographer (like Ansel Adams) you can use a book of their collective work.
  2. Next, you will make some Rule of Thirds templates on transparency film with your permanent markers. Try to make the template the same size as the photos in the book. Using these images as a guide, draw the lines first and then color the intersections with a different color:

    Rectangle
    The Rectangular Rule of Thirds Template



    Triangle
    The Triangular Rule of Thirds Template

  3. If a photo follows one of these rules, you will be able to match it up with the template. Here is an example of how to score the photos:

    Symbol Rule Description
    H Horizontal The photo positions the subject(s) along one or both of the horizontal lines of the Rectangular template.
    V Vertical The photo positions the subject(s) along one or both of the vertical lines of the Rectangular template.
    B Both The photo positions the subject(s) at one or more intersections of the vertical and horizontal lines of the Rectangular template.
    T Triangular The photo positions the subject(s) at one or more intersections or along the diagonal lines of the Triangular template.
    N None The photo does not align the subject with any of these templates.
  4. Make a data table to record your information, either in a notebook or spreadsheet application like Excel. It should include a column for the title, photographer, date, and page of each photo. Also include a column to indicate if the photo follows the Rule of Thirds (Y=yes, N=no) and which rule it follows (H=horizontal, V=vertical, B=both, T=triangular, N=none). You will be collecting a lot of data, so leave plenty of rows:

    Title of Photo Name of Photographer Date Page Rule of Thirds? (Y/N) Which Rule? (H, V, B, T, N)
               
               
               
               
               
               
  5. Start browsing through the photo book. For each photo see if you can guess which rule it might follow. Then take the matching template and place it over the photo. If it lines up, then write the appropriate information in your data table.
  6. If it does not line up, try a different template until one fits. Write the appropriate information in the data table.
  7. If you try each template and none of them fit, then this photo breaks the rules. Write the appropriate information in the data table.
  8. Browse, browse, and browse some more. Collect as much data as possible to get a better graph of your results.
  9. You can make graphs showing your data in several ways. Graph the number of photos that follow the rules vs. those that do not. Do famous photos tend to follow the rules? Make a bar or pie graph of the number of photos that follow each different type of rule. Which rule is the most common?

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Variations

  • Try this experiment comparing different types of photos and the rules they tend to follow. Do landscapes tend to follow different rules than portraits? What about nature photography compared to commercial photography?
  • How can these rules make a photo more appealing? Take a series of similarly staged photos, but change the framing each time to follow a different rule. Print out the photos and conduct a survey. Ask people to rank the photos in order of preference to see which ones they prefer. Does following the Rule of Thirds make the photo more appealing?
  • You can also use the same rules to evaluate others forms of art and design. Try applying these rules to paintings and sculpture. Can you find evidence of these rules and golden ratios in architecture and building design?

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