Compelling Compositions, do Masters Follow Rules?
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.
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.
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
Sabine De Brabandere, PhD, Science Buddies
Science Buddies |
Photography, composition, rule of thirds, golden mean
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