THE SEARCHLIGHT MESSENGER
What helps make a good picture? Try
this activity, and you'll find out how to take better photos yourself.
Do you like to preserve a moment with a photo or tell a story with pictures? It
can feel very rewarding to capture an experience in a compelling photo; it can
also be disappointing when the image does not convey what you were seeing or
what you had in mind.
You might wonder what makes some
photos mesmerizing and gripping, whereas others look dull, empty or less
appealing. It might be easier than you think to create those effective
Some easy composition rules, such as the "rule of
thirds" and the "golden mean" have been around for centuries. Do
compelling photos follow these rules or does it take more than rules to create
an impressive composition? Could applying these rules improve your photography?
Do other art forms, such as drawing or painting, follow similar rules?
In this science activity you will
browse through some famous works of photographic art and investigate how often
these follow some basic rules of composition.
Photography classes provide students with easy to follow rules on
composition to help them create visually interesting photos. One of the most
popular rules is the rule of thirds. To apply this rule, look through the
viewfinder of your camera, divide the image frame into thirds, both horizontally
and vertically, and place the important elements you want to capture either
along these lines or where the lines intersect. Some cameras even show these
horizontal and vertical "thirds" lines in the viewfinder.
A less famous but still practical
rule of composition is referred to as golden mean. This rule puts more emphasis
on the diagonal. To use this rule, mentally imagine a diagonal line drawn from
one corner of the frame to the opposite corner and that two dots divide that
diagonal line into three equal parts. Then connect these points to the
remaining corners of the frame. Here again, you place the main elements along
these lines or at the intersection of these lines (the dots).
Now that you know two main concepts
for composition, you are ready to look at some published photos and investigate
whether or not these follow some of the photography rules—and in what cases
good photographs might stray from the rules.
- A photo book (Preferably use one that includes work by
many different photographers using different styles; or if you would like
to focus on a particular photographer, you can use a book of his or her
collective work. You could also choose a particular theme, such as nature
pictures or close-ups. If you cannot find a photo book, try magazine
photos or a picture book, such as those by Mo Willems.)
- Two different-colored permanent markers
- Two transparency films or clear sheet protectors
- A ruler
- Paper and pen
- Select a photo size that you would like to focus on. It
should be smaller than the size of your transparencies and occur
frequently in your book or in your selected photos.
- Use a permanent marker to draw the outline or frame of
a photo with the selected size on the film.
- Draw two parallel, horizontal lines within your
outline, such that they divide the frame in three equal horizontal strips.
These lines will be used to test if the photo follows the horizontal rule
- Add two equidistant, vertical lines to your outline,
dividing the frame vertically in three equal strips. These vertical lines
will be used to test if the photo follows the vertical rule of thirds.
- With a different-colored permanent marker, color the
dots where the horizontal and vertical lines you just drew intersect.
These dots will be used to test if the main elements are placed on one or
more intersections of the vertical and horizontal thirds lines. This
completes the template to test the rule of thirds.
- Now use a permanent marker to make a golden mean
template on a different transparency film. First draw the outline or frame
of a photo with the selected size on the film.
- Draw one diagonal line by connecting one corner of the
outline with the opposite corner. Why do you think you need only one
diagonal line? Rotate your frame; does that make a difference? Now flip
it; does that make a difference?
- Find the two points on the diagonal line that divide
the diagonal line's length in three equal parts. Mark these points as dots
with a different-colored permanent marker.
- Using the first color of permanent marker, connect the
dots you just drew, each to the closest remaining corner of the frame.
This completes the template to test the golden mean rule.
- Create a table in which to record your observations:
Using a piece of paper, make a column for the following five categories:
Horizontal Rule of Thirds; Vertical Rule of Thirds; Horizontal and
Vertical Rule of Thirds; Golden Mean; No Rule.
- Browse through the photo book. For each photo that is
the size of your template frame, see if you can guess which rule it might
follow. Are there strong horizontal or vertical lines present in the
image that are approximately at one third of the frame's horizontal or
vertical size? Is the main subject placed on a horizontal third, a
vertical third or on an intersection of both third lines? If so, the
photo probably follows the rule of thirds. To see if the golden mean rule
is used, look for a strong diagonal line. Is the main subject placed at
one-third sections of the length of this diagonal line?
- In the next steps you will classify each photo you
analyze in one of the columns of your data table. Be sure to make clear
references to your photos; you might want to come back to one of them
later. A clear reference might include the page number in the book, the
title, the date on which it was taken and the photographer.
- Lay the rule of thirds template over the photo. Is
there a clear indication that the image follows the horizontal rule of
thirds, the vertical rule of thirds or maybe both? Note that it is
enough if one strong horizontal or vertical third line is present to
classify it as following the horizontal or vertical rule of thirds. If a
main element in the photo is placed at an intersection of third lines,
classify it as following both the horizontal and vertical rule of thirds.
If you found that this picture follows a rule of thirds, note it in the
appropriate column of your data table. Once a photo is classified, you can
skip the next two steps and go to the next image.
- Lay the golden mean template over the photo. Does it
match this template, indicating that the image follows the golden mean
rule? Do not forget you can flip this template to see if the diagonal
matches in the other direction. If you found a match, note the photo down
in the golden mean column of your data table. If you classified this
photo, skip the next step and instantly go to the next one.
- If you conclude this photo did not follow one of the
basic composition rules, classify it in the "No Rule" column of
your data table.
- Look at more photographs, analyzing and classifying
them as you go. Collect as much data as possible. More data will give you
a more accurate idea of whether or not published photos follow one or more
of the basic composition rules.
- Once you feel you have gathered enough data, count the
number of photos listed in each column of your table and write the total
at the end of the column. Do your numbers show a clear pattern? Is one
type of rule more common than another?
- Add up the totals for all four columns, indicating a
basic composition rule was followed. How does this total compare with
the total number of photos you classified as not following a rule?What
would you conclude; are these rules strong ones that need to be followed
to make a compelling image or are they really just guidelines, helpful
hints that can create balanced compositions? Maybe your data indicates
that photos are creations of art that do not follow any rule.
- Extra: Make
a bar graph or pie chart showing the total number of photos you classified
as following a rule versus the number not following a rule. Do you find
it easier to draw conclusions from the visual representation than from a
number comparison? Would you be able to guess which fraction of all the
photos you analyzed follow/do not follow a rule from the graphical
representation? You can also make a bar graph or pie chart of the
number of pictures that follow each different type of composition rule. Do
you find this visual representation easier to understand or faster to read
than the list of numbers?
Use a camera and try some of these rules for yourself. Do you think using
one of these rules will change the way your photographs look? You can also
use a photo-editing program and reframe your photos digitally using the
crop function. Does following a composition rule make your images more
expressive, more pleasing to the eye and more balanced?
This activity focuses on the main elements in the photos. Photographers can
use different compositions for the background, the foreground and the
subject of the picture. Can you find these composition rules applied to
different subsections of some images?
Study whether or not these rules are more often followed in particular
styles of photos. Do you think these rules are equally effective for
different types of images such as landscapes, portraits, close-ups or
The rule of thirds and the golden mean are well known in photography. Do
you think other art forms use these rules to create balanced and pleasing
compositions? Find out by browsing through some Web sites, picture books,
paintings or drawings. You can even look at sculptures, architecture or
objects in nature.
Observations and results
Did you find photos following one of the basic composition rules and others not
following any of them?
Proportion is an important element
in composition, and an excellent tool to help create balanced, appealing
photos. But it is not the only one; shape, texture and color are just a few
other elements to consider. Knowing this, you can see that the rule of thirds
and golden mean, although handy guidelines, are not unbreakable rules. It is
always up to the photographer to decide what works for a particular case.
You might have noticed that these
basic composition rules work very well in some types of photos, such as action
shot and landscapes. These rules often do not work as well in other areas.
Close-ups or photos where symmetry is important often work better with the
subject placed in the center and often don't follow the same composition rules.
More advanced photographers might
use a composition rule based on the golden ratio to lead the eye and create
visually pleasing compositions. The golden ratio and golden spiral can be seen
in many art forms, and even in nature—like the whorls of a shell. Search
further and see if you can find the golden ratio in famous pictures or in other