Photo Basics – Composition II

In the first instalment of this series, we looked at why the guidelines of composition work and we defined what composition is.  Now we’re going to start looking at some of the actual compositional tools artists use in creating imagery.

The first one we’ll look at is the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio.  This is the one that’s got a mathematical basis.  In technical terms what it says is that you divide your viewfinder up into sections such that the ratio of a to b is the same as the ratio of a+b to a.  Got that?  Yeah, it’s a bit complicated.  Let’s look at a diagram.

Golden Mean Illustration (click for larger version)

OK, so using this diagram and looking at the blue line A and the green line B; the ratio that line B is to line A is the same ratio that line A is to lines A+B.  That’s how the Golden Mean works.

What you can see in the diagram is that the viewfinder has been broken down into sections based on this ratio (the solid black lines).  Then, one smaller segment has been further broken down using the same method (the dotted black lines).  The red lines show how diagonals can be used to further break the viewfinder into sections based on this same concept.  If I’d drawn an arced line instead of straight lines, the red line would resemble the shape of a nautilis as we discussed in the last article.  The last thing to note is that I’ve put grey circles at the intersection points of the grid.

OK, how do we put all this into practice?

In the simplest form, we can use these lines and sections to place important scene elements.  A horizon line can be placed on one of the two horizontal planes, for example.  An important vertical component can be placed on one of the vertical lines.  Secondary scene elements can be placed in other sections or on other lines.  This is a bit easier to do in a painting or drawing where the artist has complete control of object placement.  With photography, unless it’s a staged scene, we’re at the mercy of what’s before us so have a little less flexibility in placing secondary elements.

The diagonals can also be used to place strong angled elements in a scene.  A staircase.  A road.  A river.  A fence.  The angle of a treeline down a hillside.  Any number of these types of strong lines can be placed along the diagonals of the Golden Mean.  We’ll see later on in the series that these diagonals can play a part in another compositional tool.

Using the arc to place, for example, a flower and showing the petals rotating in toward the centre is another way to use the concept.  The image below doesn’t follow the exact proportions of the Golden Mean but it’s pretty close.  And the centre of the flower is very close to an intersection point.

Golden Mean Example (click for larger version)

I didn’t put a grid on this when I cropped it.  I simply wanted to place the centre of the flower in the upper left corner with the petals of this multiple exposure photo radiating out like rays of the sun.  The fact that I got this close just by a simple crop shows how innate the concept of the Golden Mean is.

The intersection points of the grid can also be used to, for example, place the eye of a portrait subject (human or wildlife).

As noted in the first article and I’ll point this out in each of the following articles, this is not a hard and fast rule.  It’s merely a guideline to assist with composing your photos.  Use it and any of the other tools as you want and as suits your need and situation.



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