Don’t hit the bulls eye!
Occasionally friends ask me how to take better photographs. Often the question centers around whether to buy a new camera. Will buying the newest DSLR or point-and-shoot give them better pictures? The answer is generally no. For novices, the simplest way to get better pictures is to use good composition when taking photos. Better equipment will only help if you have the basics of composition down to begin with. Without good compositional skills, a better camera will just give you higher resolution bad images. You might be able to make a 20×30-inch print without sacrificing detail, but the detail will still be boring to look at. To a professional, nothing screams “amateurish” more than placing the subject dead center in the frame. (Of course, like all rules, this one occasional can sometimes be broken with good effect, but trust me, until you know better, don’t break this compositional rule!)
While whole books have been written on composition, the easiest compositional trick to better looking photos is to avoid the “bull’s eye syndrome.” A corollary is to use the “rule of thirds.”
What do I mean by the bull’s eye syndrome? As you might know (especially if you are a dart player like I am – hard tips only please) the bull’s eye is the center of the dart board. A photo with bull’s eye syndrome has the subject of the photograph dead center in the frame. Nothing could be more boring! Imagine you are taking a picture of your sweetie. If you place her (or him) dead center in the frame, making a bull’s eye of them, you leave a lot of dead space above their head. If you are trying for a full body shot, by placing their face in the middle, they are twice as small in the frame as they would be their face was placed at the top of the frame. If you remember one compositional rule, make it this – do not place your subject in the center of the frame!
So, if not in the center, where do you place a photographic subject, you ask? That’s were the rule of thirds comes in. Imagine your frame divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically, making a grid. Some point-and-shoot cameras even come with an option to show these lines on the LCD screen when photographing. If your camera has this option, be sure to use it! Now, whether you can see the lines or just have to imagine them, place your subject on the intersection point of two of these lines.
You can also use the lines instead of just the intersection points. If a horizon is in the scene, place it on one of the horizontal lines. If there is a tall vertical object in the scene, a tree or tall building perhaps, place it on one of the vertical lines.
The photo above illustrates this principle. It is a photograph of my wife, Tanya, that I took down on the beach in Oregon a couple of years ago. Note how she is about one-third of the way into the photo, and the waterline is roughly one-third of the way down from the top. I’ve also included a smaller image that shows these one-third lines. Imagine how poor image would look if Tanya’s face was dead center in the frame. There would be a ton of boring, featureless sky above her head, and she would be a lot smaller to keep her whole body in the picture.
Another thing to note is that you don’t have to hit the one-third lines and intersection points exactly to have an effective composition. In the example with Tanya, the waterline is a bit above the one-third line, but it still works well.
That’s basically it. Avoid bulls eyes and use the rule of thirds, and your photos will look a lot better than the average snapshot.