Key Concepts
Photography, composition, rule of thirds, golden mean
Two pictures from a book with grids drawn on top

Introduction

Do you like to preserve a moment with a photo, tell a story with pictures? It can feel very rewarding to capture an experience in a compelling photo; it can also be disappointing when the photo does not convey what you were seeing or what you had in mind.

You might wonder what makes some photos mesmerizing and gripping, while others look dull, empty, or unappealing. If you could only create those perfectly balanced compositions. Maybe it is easier than you think. Some easy composition rules, like the rule of thirds and the golden mean have been around for centuries. Do compelling photos follow these rules, or does it take more than rules to create an astounding composition? Could applying these rules improve your photography skills dramatically? Do other art forms, like drawing or painting, follow similar rules?

In this science activity, you will browse through some famous works of photographic art and investigate how often these follow some basic rules of composition.

This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.

Background

Photography courses provide students with some easy-to-follow rules on composition to help them create visually interesting photos. One of the most popular rules is the rule of thirds. To apply this rule, look through the viewfinder of your camera, divide the image frame into thirds—both horizontally and vertically—and place the important elements you want to capture either along these lines, or where the lines intersect. This rule is very popular; some cameras even show these horizontal and vertical “thirds” lines in the viewfinder.

A less famous, but still practical, rule of composition is referred to as golden mean. This rule puts more emphasis on the diagonal. To apply this rule, mentally imagine a diagonal line drawn from one corner of the frame to the opposite corner, and that two dots divide that diagonal line into three equal parts. Then connect these points to the remaining corners of the frame. Here again, you place the main elements along these lines, or at the intersection of these lines (the dots).

Now that you know the main idea of the rules, you are ready to look at some published photos and investigate whether or not these follow some of the photography composition rules.

Materials

  • A photo book
    • Preferably a book including photos from many different photographers using different styles.
    • Or, if you would like to focus on a particular photographer, you can use a book of his or her collective work.
    • You could also choose a particular theme, like nature photos, portraits, or close-up photos.
    • If you cannot find a photo book, try magazine photos.
    • For younger students, you can start on a set of picture books, like the pictures books from Mo Willems, which, in general, are easier to classify.
  • Two different-colored permanent markers
  • Two transparency films or clear sheet protectors
  • A ruler
  • Paper and pen

Preparation

  1. Select a photo size that you would like to focus on. It should be smaller than the size of your transparencies and occur frequently in your book or in your selected photos.
  2. Use a permanent marker to make a rule of thirds template on a transparency film. First draw the outline or frame of a photo with the selected size on the film.
  3. Draw two parallel, horizontal lines within your outline, such that they divide the frame in three equal horizontal strips. These lines will be used to test if the photo follows the horizontal rule of thirds.
  4. Add two equidistant, vertical lines to your outline, dividing the frame vertically in three equal strips. These vertical lines will be used to test if the photo follows the vertical rule of thirds.
  5. With a different-colored permanent marker, color the dots where the horizontal and vertical lines you just drew intersect. These dots will be used to test if the main elements are placed on one or more intersections of the vertical and horizontal thirds lines. This completes the template to test the rule of thirds.
  6. Now use a permanent marker to make a golden mean template on a different transparency film. First draw the outline or frame of a photo with the selected size on the film.
  7. Draw one diagonal line by connecting one corner of the outline with the opposite corner. Why do you think you need only one diagonal line? Rotate your frame; does that make a difference? Now flip it; does that make a difference?
  8. 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.
  9. Using the first color of permanent marker, connect the dots you just drew, each to the closest remaining corner of the frame. This completes the template to test the golden mean rule.
  10. Make a data table in which to record your observations. Make a column for the following five categories: Horizontal Rule of Thirds, Vertical Rule of Thirds, Horizontal and Vertical Rule of Thirds, Golden Mean, No Rule.

Procedure

  1. Browsing through the photo book. For each photo that is the size of your template frame, see if you can guess which rule it might follow. Are there strong horizontal or vertical lines present in the photo that are approximately at one-third of the frame’s horizontal or vertical size? Is the main subject placed on a horizontal third, a vertical third, or on an intersection of both third lines? If so, the photo probably follows the rule of thirds. To see if the golden mean rule is used, look for a strong diagonal line. Is the main subject placed at one third sections of the length of this diagonal line?
  2. In the next steps, you will classify each photo you analyze in one of the columns of your data table. Be sure to make clear references to your photos; you might want to come back to the photo later. A clear reference might include the page number in the book, the title, the date on which it was taken, and the photographer.
  3. Lay the rule of thirds template over the photo. Is there a clear indication that the photo follows the horizontal rule of thirds, the vertical rule of thirds, or maybe both? Note that it is enough if one strong horizontal or one strong vertical third line is present to classify it as following the horizontal or vertical rule of thirdsIf a main element in the photo is placed at an intersection of third lines, classify it as following both the horizontal and vertical rule of thirds. If you found that this photo follows a rule of thirds, note the photo down in the appropriate column of your data table. Once a photo is classified, you can skip the next two steps and go to the next photo.
  4. Lay the golden mean template over the photo. Does the photo match this template, indicating that the photo follows the golden mean rule? Do not forget you can flip this template to see if the diagonal matches in the other direction. If you found a match, note the photo down in the golden mean column of your data table. If you classified this photo, skip the next step and instantly go to the next photo.
  5. If you conclude this photo did not follow one of the basic composition rules, classify the photo in the “No Rule” column of your data table.
  6. Browse, browse, and browse some more, analyzing and classifying photos as you go. 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.
  7. Once you feel you have gathered enough data, count the number of photos listed in each column of your data table and write the total at the end of the column. Do your numbers show a clear pattern? Is one type of rule more common than another?
  8. Add up the totals for all four columns, indicating a basic composition rule was followed. How does this total compare to the total number of photos you classified as not following a rule? What would you conclude; are these rules strong rules that need to be followed to make a compellingphoto, or are they really just guidelines, helpful hints that can create balanced compositions? Maybe your data indicates that photos are creations of art that do not follow any rule.
  9. Make a bar graph or pie chart showing the total number of photos you classified as following a rule versus the number of photos you classified as not following a rule. Do you find it easier to draw conclusions from the visual representation than from a number comparison? Would you be able to guess which fraction of all the photos you analyzed follow/do not follow a rule from the graphical representation? You can also make a bar graph or pie chart of the number of photos that follow each different type of composition rule. Do you find this visual representation easier to understand or faster to read than the list of numbers

Extra: Use a camera and try some of these rules for yourself. Do you think you will you be pleased with the results? You can also use your favorite photo editing program and reframe your photos digitally using the crop function. Does following a composition rule make your photos more expressive, more pleasing to the eye, or more balanced?

Extra: This activity focuses on the main elements in the photos. Photographers can use different compositions for the background, the foreground, and the subject of the picture. Can you find these composition rules applied to different subsections of some photos?

Extra: Study whether or not these rules are more often followed in particular styles of photos. Do you think these rules are equally effective for different types of photos like landscapes, portraits, close-up photos, or action shots?

Extra: The rule of thirds and the golden mean are well-known in photography. Do you think other art forms use these rules to create balanced and pleasing compositions? Find out by browsing through some websites, picture books, paintings, or drawings. You can even look at sculptures, architecture, or objects in nature.

Observations and Results

Did you find photos following one of the basic composition rules and others not following any of these basic composition rules?

Proportion is an important element in composition, and an excellent tool to help create balanced, appealing photos. But it is not the only one; shape, texture, color, and dominance are just a few other elements to consider. Knowing this, you can see that the rule of thirds and golden mean, although handy guidelines, are not unbreakable rules. It is always up to the photographer to decide what works for a particular case.

You might have noticed that these basic composition rules work very well in some types of photos, like action shot and landscapes. These rules do not work well in other areas. Close-up photos or photos where symmetry is important often work better with the subject placed in the center, and rarely follow these basic composition rules.

More-advanced photographers might use a composition rule based on the golden ratio to lead the eye and create visually pleasing compositions. The golden ratio and golden spiral can be seen in many art forms, and even in nature, like the whorls of a shell. Do some background research and see if you can find the golden ratio in famous pictures or in other art forms.

More to Explore

Credits

Sabine De Brabandere, PhD, Science Buddies

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Key Concepts
Photography, composition, rule of thirds, golden mean
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