The Golden Rules of Photography
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AbstractWhat is it that famous photographers do to make their images so pleasing to the eye? Find out if simple rules of geometry can make you a better photographer.
In this experiment you will investigate the use of the golden mean and the rule of thirds in the composition of famous photographs.
Sara Agee, PhD, Science Buddies
Edited by Sabine De Brabandere, PhD, Science Buddies
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Last edit date: 2017-07-28
When you take a picture, you look through the viewfinder to make sure that the things you want to be in your picture are in the frame. After all, you do not want to cut off anybody's head or leave anyone 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, your natural tendency will be to put the subject right in the center of the frame. But you can create a much more dynamic and interesting photo by shifting your subject off-center. One way to do this is to use the rule of thirds. 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).
Figure 1. Using the rule of thirds can make your photos more interesting. (Cheek, M. 2004)
Another rule, called golden mean makes use of the diagonal to create dynamic photos with subjects placed in visually stimulating locations.
Other composition techniques are based on 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 astounding.
In this experiment, you can investigate how often famous works of photographic art follow these rules of composition. You will make templates for different arrangements of the rule of thirds and the golden mean and use them to score famous photos. Do the most published 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!
- Rule of thirds
- Golden mean
- Golden ratio
- How do professional photographers frame the subject of a photograph?
- Do you think most famous photographs follow a version of the rule of thirds or golden mean?
- Do you expect to find some famous photos that break these rules?
- Greenwood, D. (2008). Digital Video Tips: Framing the Shot. Adobe Systems Incorporated. Retrieved April 14, 2014, from http://blog.lib.umn.edu/cedarumn/repository/digital_video_tips.pdf
- Fodor, M. (n.d.). Photo School. Photoinf.com. Retrieved April 17, 2006, from http://photoinf.com/Golden_Mean/Michael_Fodor/Photo_School_-_Compsition_Basics.htm
- Ilchenko, E. (n.d.). Golden Section and Photography. Photoinf.com. Retrieved April 17, 2006, from http://photoinf.com/Golden_Mean/Eugene_Ilchenko/GoldenSection.html
For help creating graphs, try this website:
- National Center for Education Statistics, (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved June 2, 2009, from http://nces.ed.gov/nceskids/createagraph/
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Materials and Equipment
- Permanent markers, two different colors
- Transparency film or clear sheet protectors (2)
- Book of famous photos like The Photograph Book
- Lab notebook
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The Golden Rules of Photography
- First, find a book of famous photographs for your project from the library or a book store. We recommend The Photography 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 his or her collective work.
Next, make a rule of thirds and golden mean template on transparency film with your permanent markers.
- Find a photo size that appears often in your book and fits on a transparency. Make the templates the same size as these photos.
- Make the template for the rule of thirds using Figure 2 as a guide. Draw two parallel, horizontal lines such that they divide the frame in three equal horizontal strips. Add two equidistant, vertical lines dividing the frame vertically in three equal strips. With a different marker color, draw dots where the horizontal and vertical lines you just drew intersect.
- Make the template for the golden mean using Figure 3 as a guide. Draw one diagonal line by connecting one corner of the frame with the opposite corner. Then, find the two points on the diagonal line that divide the diagonal line's length in three equal parts. Mark these points as dots with a different-colored permanent marker. Using the first color of permanent marker, connect the dots you just drew, each to the closest remaining corner of the frame.
Figure 2. Rule of thirds template.
Figure 3. Golden mean template.
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 rule of thirds template. V Vertical The photo positions the subject(s) along one or both of the vertical lines of the rule of thirds template. B Both The photo positions the subject(s) at one or more intersections of the vertical and horizontal lines of the rule of thirds template. G Golden Mean The photo positions the subject(s) along the diagonal lines or at one or more intersections of the diagonal lines of the golden mean template. N None The photo does not align the subject with any of these templates.
Make a data table in which to record your information, either in your lab notebook or in a spreadsheet program, 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 one of these basic composition rules (Y=yes, N=no) and which rule it follows (H=horizontal rule of thirds, V=vertical rule of thirds, B=both horizontal and vertical rule of thirds, G=golden mean, N=none). You will be collecting a lot of data, so leave plenty of rows:
Title of Photo Name of Photographer Date Page Rule Followed? (Y/N) Which Rule? (H, V, B, G, N)
- Start browsing through the photo book. For each photo, see if you can guess which rule it might follow.
- Take the rule of thirds template and place it over the photo, as shown in Figure 4. If it lines up, then write the appropriate information in your data table.
Figure 4. An example of how you can test if photos follow the rule of thirds or the golden mean (Photos from the book National Geographic: The Photographs by Leah Bendavid-Val).
- If it does not line up, try the golden mean template. Do not forget to flip this template and see if it matches with that side. If it fits, write the appropriate information in the data table.
- If you try both templates and none of them fit, then this photo breaks the rules. Write the appropriate information in the data table.
- Browse as much as you can and collect as much data as possible. More data will give you a more accurate idea of whether or not published photos follow one of the basic composition rules.
- To analyze your data, first count the number of photos you found following each rule. Record these numbers in a new data table, like Table 3, either in your lab notebook or in a spreadsheet program like Excel®.
Rule H V B G N Total Number of photos
- Making a graph or a visual representation of the numbers might help you understand your results better. If you need help creating graphs, try the Create a Graph website. You can make graphs showing your data in several ways. Here are some suggestions:
- Use a bar graph or pi chart to compare the total number of photos that follow a rule to the total number that do not. Do most famous photos tend to follow one of these basic composition rules?
- Make a bar graph or pi chart of the number of photos that follow each different rule. Which rule is the most common?
- Looking at your data, would you conclude it is necessary to follow one of these basic composition rules to create a compelling photo, or would you conclude these rules are optional, a tool in your toolbox that can help create compelling compositions?
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
- Try this project comparing different types of photos and the rules they tend to follow. Do landscapes tend to follow different rules than portraits, close-ups, or action shots? 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 or golden mean 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 drawings, paintings, and sculptures. Would they apply to illustrations found in picture books? Can you find evidence of these rules and golden ratios in architecture and building design?
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