Art Course

Compose your images like the pros

Course on PHOTOGRAPHY N°4: Compose like the pros

In this 4th lesson dedicated to photography, we will see how great authors, whether in photography or painting, have used the rules we talked about previously to make images that “worked”.
These are great classics in the public domain that I have taken to illustrate this course. Here we have a photo of Ansel Adams; American photographer well known for his black and white landscapes.
Adams The Tetons and the Snake River Custom

Note that the composition is very simple: it only holds on the line of the river which directs the gaze towards the snow-capped mountains. The fact that the river is also illuminated further accentuates the strength of this line.

Please note, this article is a transcription of the video course on photography published on the Photophiles YouTube channel. So if you prefer the video format, you can watch this course and the following ones in the video below (and if not continue to scroll down the page to see the rest of the course in text version):

I take another example, here an image of Degas, French painter.
The dance class - Degas painting

We also have here a line which is created by the bottom of the dancers: this line sort of separates the dance master, who is in the right part, from the dancers. We can also see that we have a reminder of the foot of the desk (in the foreground on the left) in the cane of the dance master. We are exactly on what we talked about in the third course; i.e. mass balance. The dance master’s cane acts as a counterweight to the foot of the desk, and thus balances the image.

I take a photo of Dorothea Lange with a portrait which this time is centered.

Migrant Mother - Dorothea Lange

In the 1st course, we said that portraits often had to be decentered. In this image, the centering is justified to highlight the symmetry of the heads of the two children who hide their faces in their mother’s neck. We have a line of thirds which passes approximately at the level of the character’s hand and a gaze into space with a little “field” in front, so a little space to accentuate this impression of inner reflection.

I continue with a drawing by Edward Hopper.

Drawing Edward Hopper
Perhaps you remember… in the 1st lesson of this series, we reframed a small sailboat. Here we are exactly in the use of the rule of thirds. The navigator is placed on the strong point at the bottom right of the image (see lesson n°1 the rule of thirds for the definition of strong points), bringing the gaze to the subject and thus giving a lot of dynamics to this image .

A painting by Monet:
Bath at La Grenouillère - Painting by Claude Monet

Again, the author used guidelines to compose his image. See that all the lines lead back to the small circle of characters: the line of the pontoon on the left, the line of the boats, the line of the terrace, etc. These lines guide the gaze towards the real subject of the painting: the central island.

One last from Renoir:
Young girls at the piano - Renoir

This painting illustrates both the rule of thirds: with a vertical line which passes at the level of the torso of the girls, a horizontal line which passes at the level of the hand placed on the piano, and the balance of the masses: with for example the colorful bouquet that will counterbalance the entire left part of the image by also taking up the different colors.
Overall, whatever the works (photographs, drawings, paintings, etc.), we find most of the time the use of classic rules such as the rule of thirds, the balance of masses or the use of guidelines.

Once again, all these rules are not made to be followed to the letter, and nothing prevents you from deviating from them. But it is a good start to begin photography to train yourself on the one hand to spot the use of these rules in all the images you can see (magazine, exhibition, internet, video…) and on the other hand think about putting them into practice when shooting.

In the next lesson, this time we will cover a more technical part with the photo settings.

READ THE NEXT COURSE : Course N°5 Aperture, speed, ISO: the settings

READ THE PREVIOUS COURSE : Course N°3 on Guidelines

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Article illustrated with paintings and photographs from the French and American public domain.

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