WE CAN’T COVER the topic of composition without discussing the classic rules that appear in every photography or painting textbook. If you remember only one thing from this article, it should be that these are tools, not rules.
On more than one occasion when teaching underwater photography workshops, I’ve had photographers show me fantastic images only for them to express disappointment with them because they don’t adhere to the letter of the law – the so-called rules. This is totally wrong.
The main reason I have left these classic rules of composition until the final instalment of this mini-series is to ensure that you don’t think them the be-all and end-all of framing up images.
That said, many photographers find these guides a very significant help when trying to make sense of a scene or a subject in the viewfinder or on their LCD screen.
They are often just as helpful when selecting and cropping images after shooting. If you’re struggling to find the image, they really can be the key to unlocking the potential subject.
But the goal of these “rules” is simply to help you make better-looking pictures. Many photographers never consider these guides at all, instead simply arranging the subject matter in a way that pleases their aesthetic tastes.
That’s fine, and this intuitive approach regularly yields pictures that adhere perfectly to the laws.
Compositional awareness, however, is definitely a skill that can be learned and continually refined. Perhaps the greatest benefit of any of the guides to composition is that they help us develop our photographic eye, making the process much more intuitive.
And the good news is that you don’t even need to be under water. I’m sure everyone has played at being a movie director by making a frame from our thumbs and index fingers to compose a scene.
These days we can even use the camera in our phone. The message is that the more we practise composition, the more pleasing our pictures will be.
I AM GOING to cover only the three most useable rules in this column: Thirds, Diagonals and Lines. These classic rules of composition date back millennia. The ancient Greeks famously recognised the inherent attractiveness of specific proportions and used them in their architecture and art.
And most of the great art from the past 500 years is also based around these principles, so you’re in good company!
Most images have a main point of interest, such as an attractive red soft coral, the eyes of a fish or the face of your buddy. This is where the viewer’s eyes will be drawn first.
Where and how this is positioned in the frame affects the aesthetic balance and even the mood of the photograph. This is where the rules come in.
The best known is the Rule of Thirds, which is widely used in paintings to give a pleasing harmony to the composition and is generally more interesting than sticking the subject in the centre of the frame. Google JMW Turner’s famous Fighting Temeraire for a classic example.
To visualise the thirds, we should divide our frame with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines (all equally spaced), so that the original frame is now a grid of nine identical rectangles with the same proportions as the whole frame.
Many cameras will do this for you, overlaying this grid onto your LCD screen or viewfinder.
Placing subjects in-line with these lines and particularly with key features on the intersections (sometimes called power points) will give your composition balance and strength. Because we read from left to right, the intersection points on the right of the frame are considered to give the most harmonious composition. However, if our subject is orientated or moving in a direction, it is far more important for balance that it is facing into the frame, with more space ahead than behind.
The good news is that underwater images (without divers) can easily be flipped. Because there is no writing etc to confuse matters, we can try a subject on the left or right.
On slide film this simply meant turning the slide over; in digital it means clicking a switch in the software.
When flipping an image we should look away from the screen or close our eyes, because when we watch it change we are less likely to prefer the result. Looking away for a moment lets you choose objectively.
Photographers can get obsessive about exactly hitting their thirds, but this doesn’t matter. The important lesson is to get the subject away from the centre of the frame. We can easily fall into the trap of shooting everything in the middle, because this is where the camera autofocus works best.
Finally, don’t forget that we can always crop an image after shooting, to position the subject in a more interesting location.
DIAGONALS are highly suited to underwater photography and give images interest and energy. Often we create them by simply tilting the camera by 45°, to turn a standard scene into something more interesting.
They work well with “stickies” – critters such as gobies, shrimps and crabs living on stick-like whip corals or kelp stipes. Diagonals also suit moving subjects, such as schools of fish or sharks, giving the image more dynamism.
The other use of diagonals is when shooting standard, vertical wide-angle scenery. These shots often have the main subject in the lower half of the frame (sponge, soft coral etc.) and a secondary subject in the top half (silhouetted diver, sunburst). It is usually stronger to position these on a diagonal, rather than straight up and down.
Straight lines are rare under water, but that doesn’t stop us using leading lines to give images depth and compositions energy.
They take the viewer’s eyes through the frame and give a feeling of perspective. A classic use under water is a photo revealing an anchor line leading up to a boat on the surface.
Converging lines are often used in paintings. Look at Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, and see how the lines of the room draw your attention to the chap in the middle!
Leonardo boosts Jesus’s contrast further still using classic techniques we covered in last month’s column. First Jesus is placed against a bright window, then he is dressed in eye-catching and opposite colours of red and blue. There is no doubt who is the boss here!
Such lines may be infrequently found under water but wreck internals give us the chance to use them, as does some shallow scenery, and they can greatly add to compositions.
Careful composition can transform ordinary to interesting, but keep it simple. The rules are tools just to help you produce pleasing images. Once you have found a subject it is time to experiment and frame it in different ways until you find the most pleasing composition.
Remember: if it looks right, then it is right.
Try to avoid repeating the same compositions again and again. At times the best position for a subject is in the middle of the frame, sometimes on a third, sometimes on a power point. But if you are showing a series of images in a gallery or slide-show, you don’t want them all the same.
Compositional rules don’t have to be used in isolation – they can be combined for eye-catching images.
Diagonals and thirds are regularly best buddies. Some of the most attractive compositions bring curves and spirals into the mix.