The golden rules of subject placement
- by Richard I’Anson
The great artists of the past discovered that by placing the main elements of a composition at points one-third of the way from the edges of the frame their paintings became more dynamic and interesting. This technique is known as the ‘rule of thirds’ and is a very practical place to start when deciding how to compose a photograph.
It helps prevent the great temptation of going for the ‘bull’s-eye’; that is, placing your subject in the dead centre of the picture. Resulting images are often boring and static, as the eye is drawn to the centre of the frame and stays there, taking in little else in the picture.
When filling the frame with a close-up of a person’s face, try placing their eyes one-third from the top of the frame. When taking environmental portraits, place the subject’s head away from the centre of the frame and your pictures will instantly look a lot less static.
The auto-focus systems on many cameras are constructed with the focus and exposure sensors in the middle of the viewfinder, and this is often the reason subjects are placed in the centre of the frame. Most cameras, including compacts, have a focus-lock facility that you should become comfortable in using so the technology doesn’t impede your ability to compose creatively.
In the first photograph, the subject’s head is in the centre of the frame or the bull’s-eye. The diagonal lines of the roof beams lead the eye away from him. The chair and scraps of rubbish are further distractions. I took the second photograph after removing the junk and standing on a chair to shoot from a different angle. The priest’s head is now in the bottom third of the image. The blank spaces of the first photograph have gone and the statue is more relevant.
It is just as important to use the rule of thirds when photographing portraits. When you look at this picture your gaze should go immediately to the subject’s eyes which are placed in the top one third of the picture. I indicated to this woman in sign language to lift up her hat a little so that her face was not covered in shadow.
The Golden Mean
This is a design concept which expresses a similar sentiment to that of the Rule of Thirds, which some claim to be derivative of Golden Mean. Without getting bogged down in too much detail, Golden Mean is actually a mathematical concept which, when unravelled, can explain why certain images give pleasure to the human eye. It’s also found in naturally occuring elements such as the arrangement of petals in sunflowers and the design of shells. The rectangular shape of man-made objects such as stamps, iPhones, movie screens or television sets can also be attributed to the rectangular boundaries of the Golden Mean; further still, it affects the way television and movie sets are designed and the way subjects are filmed. It’s also the reason why photographs of objects such as spiral staircases are so appealing.
Golden Mean’s design can provide photographers a guide to which they can place the individual elements of their image in order to give it visual balance. It looks something like this:
The theory of Golden Mean can be applied to anything but it works well for portraits.
Got some questions on Golden Mean? Check out some instructional videos here.
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- additional guff by Kylie McLaughlin (@kaymc_laffers)