This is part of my series on the basics of photography. The purpose of these short tutorials is to teach you principles of photography which can be utilized regardless of what kind of equipment you have. These principles apply to cell phone cameras, point and shoots, SLR cameras and even shooting video. Nor does it make any difference if you’re using film or digital medium. Most of these techniques do not require any advanced knowledge of how to use the camera in a technical sense. The vast majority of these tips are related to elements which are directly controlled by the person taking the photograph, not by the equipment.
BoP Episode One: Placement of the subject and cropping.
When taking a photograph – regardless of whether you are taking a photograph of a person (to include animals & pets) or an object – you generally do not want to place that person or object in the very centre of the frame.
Define the subject:
Before you place the subject you also have to think a moment about what the subject actually is. Is the subject a persons entire body? Upper torso? Face? The ring on a person’s finger? Is the subject a vase of flowers? Only the flowers? One of the flowers amongst the many flowers in the vase? Once you have identified the subject you have to place it in the frame. There are two common ways to go about deciding on the placement of the subject within the frame.
The first is called the Rule of Thirds. Imagine that the frame of your photograph has two lines drawn horizontally across it and two lines drawn vertically across it. In each case these lines are an equal distance from top to bottom or left to right, a tick tack toe grid. You want to place the subject at one of the four intersection points which those four lines will create in the frame. This doesn’t mean you always want to put the subject at exactly where that intersection point would fall. Sometimes you simply want the subject close to that intersection. You don’t have to mathematically scrutinize your composition.
The second method is called the Golden Mean. Imagine that there is a line extending from the top leftmost corner of the frame down to the bottom rightmost corner of the frame. Now from the top rightmost corner draw a line down to your first line which intersects the first line at a 90° angle. From the bottom left corner draw a line going up to your first line which intersects the first line at a 90° angle. You want to place the subject at or near one of these two points. You’ll notice that if you draw accurate diagrams and compared these points with the four points provided by the Rule of Thirds the two points in the Golden Mean are slightly closer to the centre of the frame. Again you don’t need to be precise about this. You simply want to use this as a general guideline.
In photography we use the term cropping to refer to things that are not in the frame. If I take a picture of a person and the picture only includes the person’s body from the waist up then everything from the waist down has been cropped.
When you take pictures of people you do not want to crop them at a joint, for example the elbow or the wrist or the neck. You also don’t want to crop them right at their waist. Whenever you’re cropping a person’s body you want to crop between the joints. Thus if you have to exclude somebody’s arm from the photograph you should crop their arm between the elbow and shoulder or between the elbow and wrist. If you can’t get, or don’t want, all of their body in the photograph don’t crop them right at the waist. Crop them above the waist or below the waist or crop them between the hip and the knee or between the knee and the ankle.
You also want to pay attention to the person’s head. Either get all of the persons head in the photograph or crop the top of their head somewhere in the vicinity of the forehead. Be careful not to crop the very tippy-top of the head.
Eye the edge:
Last thing before you take the photograph run your eye around the edge of the frame. Look to make sure that you aren’t cropping the person at a joint as we just talked about and also look for anything protruding into the picture which you don’t want in the picture.
You may be using your cell phone to take a picture of three of your friends in a restaurant. You have gotten them perfectly arranged in what’s going to be an award-winning photograph on Facebook and as you run your eye around the edge of the frame you notice that the leg of somebody sitting at another table is sticking into the background of your picture. You can now make whatever adjustments are necessary to get the leg out of your picture.
We don’t need no stinking rules:
Final disclaimer! Remember all of these rules are meant to be broken sometimes. Photography is not about memorizing rules and applying them ruthlessly. Photography is about knowing the rules, knowing when to apply the rules, and knowing when you can (should in fact) break the rules in order to enhance the quality of your photograph.
Here are your notes!