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The Rules of Photographic Composition

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Here at Digital Focus, I often write about the science and technology of photography. But while the software, gadgets, and photo editing techniques are fun, some of the most important lessons in photography aren't about the technology at all. This week, let's set aside high-tech photo editing like high dynamic range and hyperfocal photography, and instead talk about a few of the most basic--and common--rules of composition. Mastering these rules can help you turn what could be a simple snapshot into something more--into a story about the moment in time in which the photo was taken.

Follow the Rule of Thirds

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is utterly ubiquitous: Every movie and TV show makes almost constant use of it, and professional photographers avoid putting the subject in the center of the frame almost without exception. To understand it, draw two lines through a photo, dividing it into thirds. This turns it into something like a tic-tac-toe board, as you see here.

At its essence, the rule of thirds says that you'll get the most interesting photos when your subject isn't in the center of the frame, but rather is positioned off-center, to the left, right, up, or down. You can position your subject at any of the four intersection points of the third lines, or along one of the four lines, like the birds in this example.

Use Diagonals to Your Advantage

Here's another trick using lines: If you want to add a sense of drama to your photograph, look for ways to incorporate a diagonal. Draw a mental line from one corner of the scene to the other; if you can find some element in the situation that more or less follows this line, it can make your shot more dynamic and add some energy to the scene, almost as if it's pulling the viewer through the scene. The diagonal can run the entire length of the photo, as it does in this photo.

But it's not critical for your diagonal to span the entire photo. You can get essentially the same effect even with a partial diagonal, such as this.

Break the Monotony

This is a fun one. No doubt you've seen photos in which most of the frame is filled with more or less the same thing: a field of grass, a pile of pennies, rocks, fish, stars in the night sky. Such photos truly would be monotonous if that's all they offered, but often, the photographer will incorporate one out-of-place element that attracts your eye like a magnet. With that in mind, this rule says that you should look for photos that are mostly uniform and then break the pattern with an element that disturbs the natural flow or organization of the scene.

Make it Symmetric (and Then Disturb Your Symmetry)

Rules, of course, are meant to be broken. The rule of symmetry is all about capturing the natural symmetry in nature. There are a few ways to do this. You might shoot a scene in which both sides of your photo are essentially the same, for example. Or you might shoot a photo of something that is itself quite symmetrical, like a flower.

Even better, though, is when you incorporate a lesson from the rule about monotonous content and shake things up with a little variation. Surprise the viewer, either by making one side of the photo nonsymmetrical, or, in this example, defeat the symmetry of the flower by shooting only part of it in the frame.

Position Movement Into the Frame

One of my favorite photo subjects is motion. I like capturing the essence of speed and energy in what's by its very definition a static art form. But how you introduce that motion into your photo is really important. Whether you're shooting a speeding car, an airplane, a flock of birds, or a running dog, be sure that the motion leads into the frame, not out of it. By that, I mean you should give the leading edge of your moving subject plenty of room; it should be positioned on a third line (see the rule of thirds) and pointed at the center of the frame, not at the closest edge, as you see in this shot.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Pastel Winter Park" by Valerie Jennings, New York

Valerie writes: "I took this photo of Central Park after a soft snowfall using my Nikon Coolpix VR ISO 2000."

This week's runner-up: "Just After Sunset" by Nathan M. Hess, Newark, New Jersey

Nathan says: "My roommate pointed out a beautiful sunset, so I grabbed my camera and headed to the roof. I took this shot almost an hour after the sun had disappeared over the horizon using my Olympus E-520."

To see the March winners, visit our Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "The Rules of Photographic Composition" was originally published by PCWorld.

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