Session 5: A Sense of Place(ment)
To recap our checklist for taking better iPhone photos:
- Take lots of pictures.
- Critique your pictures.
- Turn off your flash.
- Compose your shots such that one thing matters.
Okay, that’s it. You’re done.
But, wait. We promised a couple of tips about ways to control the focus of attention in your photos. Well, it turns out, these tips are an extension of checklist item No. 4, and the first one is really simple: Find the thing the photo is about, and put it in the middle.
Right now, legions of photography buffs are screaming, “Nooo…!” Because this advice flies in the face of our second tip, a thing called the Rule of Thirds.
Much has been talked and written and gesticulated enthusiastically about the Rule of Thirds. So we won’t go into the philosophy of it here. (But if you want to read about it, there’s a good bit in Wikipedia: The Rule of Thirds.)
To sum up the Rule of Thirds, imagine your photo behind a tic-tac-toe grid. When composing your shot, place items of interest, such as horizon lines, trees, people, etc., along the grid lines, or at the intersections of them. That’s how you use the Rule of Thirds as a tool for composing your shot. What it does for you is provide dynamic tension while preserving balance.
The Rule of Thirds also applies in a special way to portraits, where it’s often called Head Room, or, sometimes, Nose Room. Or Lead Room, when used of subjects without a nose. The whole mystique of the Rule of Thirds seems somewhat less magical when you consider a similar compositional guideline used by painters ever since the Renaissance… and by photographers, ever since the painters. It’s called Rabatment of the rectangle, and it’s based on the fact that every rectangle has within it a square. And a square is such a primal geometric shape that our brains automatically look for them. And anything that your brain is automatically looking for already… well, it’s probably not a bad idea to incorporate it consciously into your composition.
But, should you always abide by the Rule of Thirds? What would happen to the photo of the dock at the right, if the dock were moved from the center? Strict adherence to any rule is sometimes going to result in a photo that looks badly framed or artificially contrived. Instead, look at the whole photo and decide for yourself what the photo is really about. Is it about the object centered in the frame, or is it about the object’s relationship to the things around it?
As a case in point, take a look at the desert scene example, above. Pay particular attention to what happens to the clouds in the version at the left that illustrates a photo composed without the Rule of Thirds, and ask yourself what this photo is really about.
So, use the Rule of Thirds, but don’t be a fanatic. Don’t be afraid to center the composition. You’re not alone. Check out The Dead Center Society and another Flickr group named My subject is centered… so what? And, while you’re on that Wikipedia page, as a point of interest, consider what Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote in 1783 about the balance of darks and lights in painting (which quote was used 14 years later by John Thomas Smith in defining the Rule of Thirds):
Two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture : One should be principal, and the rest sub-ordinate…
Note how this statement applies to our checklist item No. 4, above, about making one thing matter. This quote brings us back to the idea of using lights and darks and color to create a balanced composition. As it turns out, your iPhone gives you a dangerously powerful tool for exploiting lights and darks and colors. So, in Part 6 of this series, we’ll talk about a thing called HDR.
Photo example from Wikimedia Commons, used in compliance with the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Other photos shown here, of Harbor Island Yacht Club and City Island, Old Hickory Lake, are copyright 2013 by j. michael rowland, used by permission.