Mastering the craft of photography takes a lot of work, but the rules to create a beautiful photo are actually quite simple. Let the world’s greatest painters teach you the simple art of image composition.
Author Malcolm Gladwell said in his 2008 book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any craft. In fact, the results are determined by how you practice, not just how much you practice. You have to try, receive structured and constructive feedback, adapt your technique and try again — a positive cycle of repetition that leads to constant improvement.
I had my 10,000 hours in the field of photography. Like many others, I just played around for many years without a strategy. I had long periods of frustration when my ability to spot a great photo was improving faster than my skill to create one. While I understood that a particular photo was great, I didn’t understand that it was following or breaking a set of rules — both in composition and in technical settings.
Of course, plenty of books deal with both issues. But I (still) believe that the publisher’s need to produce 400 sellable pages is detrimental to understanding that the rules to master any creative craft are really quite simple. I am sure that if I had know this 20 years ago, I could have saved myself (at least) 5,000 of those 10,000 hours.
Maybe I can save you a few hours now?
In this article I focus on learning how to see. (Later on, in another article, I will show you a few tricks for using a camera like a pro.) Art, of course, advances by breaking rules. But as my art teacher Friedl Kubelka once taught me: “Before you can break the rules, you first have to learn them.”
Humans are constantly being exposed to countless external stimuli: sights, sounds, temperature, smells, tastes, touch. Too many to allow us to consciously process them all. So, as a short-cut to understanding, we learn to spot patterns. Looks like a tree — is probably a tree. The dog barks but also wags their tail — probably friendly. We are satisfied and feel safe when we perceive an object and recognize a pattern.
Pattern recognition gives satisfaction because it helps us understand our environment quickly. If we take a photo that the viewer understands, we create satisfaction in the viewer, which means that our photo is very likely to be perceived as good.
Our survivial instinct tells us that clarity is better than chaos. Clarity in visual terms is expressed through harmony. That one seems to be universal across human cultures.
Another purpose of patterns is to direct the viewer’s gaze to what is important in the image. In movies, on the other hand, we are directed by the narrative — how the story plays out.
This means that the patterns creating harmony can fulfil the narrative function in a photograph.
FIRST LOOK. THEN DO
As photographers, our aim can be to create images that have harmonious patterns. That sounds quite complicated and is actually extremely difficult to do consciously. So, we have to split our goal into parts. First, we learn how to recognize a finite number of patterns in our surroundings. Like the card-matching game of memory.
Most teachers advise us to reproduce the patterns we have learned. That didn’t work at all for me. When I have to concentrate on both the camera and the object, I don’t have the bandwidth to juggle a composition method, let alone the nine different methods I am introducing here.
Instead, I snapped away at my pictures as they came to me. Then, back at home; I analyzed their compositional value. I discarded those that I thought lacked essential harmony and kept the rest. And now comes the thousands of hours of repetition — I did this over and over and over again. My photos improved with time, as the patterns became baked into my vision. Eventually, I never thought about them at a shoot. Today I see the patterns even when I don’t have a camera with me. I often shoot while barely looking through the viewfinder — I feel when the image is right, and it most often is. I am now a professional and — given the lack of talent I had when I began — I believe that everybody can learn the photography trade.
Now, without further ado, here are nine patterns that I find interesting and useful — even harmonious. Instead of showing photographs, I have selected classical paintings over five centuries from the Renaissance to the Impressionism period. Sometimes it is helpful to go to the source of an invention.
1. THE GOLDEN RATIO
Much has been written about the Golden Ratio: a design found often in nature that is mathematically expressed in the Fibonacci sequence.
In simple terms, it’s enough to say that complete symmetry is not the most naturally harmonious pattern. Complete symmetry is a square, with a (dead) center. The greatest harmony is found in a rectangle where the short line is approximately half the length of the long one. Christians recognized this and designed the Christian cross to express the Golden Ratio.
For example, if you place the most important element of your photo at the intersection of the short and the long line, you create harmony. In a vertical, close-cropped portrait, this usually directs the viewer’s gaze to the eyes in the portrait.
I have put a cross in the Golden Ratio over Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait from 1886–87 (British Royal Collection) . We are mesmerized by the intensity of his eyes. They rest on the horizontal line of the cross as measured from the bottom of the painting. This line is the area of greatest harmony. In just about every portrait you will be able to place the cross like this. (Obviously, some artists play with breaking that rule.)
In a total view of a person, the center of the image is the heart. Leonardo Da Vinci showed that in his famous Vitruvian Man.
John Singer Sargent directed our gaze even more precisely with the position of the hand in his colorful portrait of Dr Pozzi at Home:
As amateurs, we tend to put the most important object in the “dead” center. It happens mostly because that’s where the focus point is situated in the viewfinder. The new rule: place the eyes, the face, the heart in the center of the line marking the top third of the image to achieve harmony instead of stasis.
Your take-away: aim as you usually do and then tilt the camera down a little. Congratulation yourself, you have passed the halfway point to your goal of becoming a professional.
The mind is a beautiful thing. It can work without a full set of information and extrapolate the unknown. In other words, our brain knows how to fill in the missing parts of an image.
We need the houses on the left and right in Pieter Breughel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents to see that the action is taking place in a town square. But Breughel crops the image so that only the facades are visible. The rest of the houses are outside the frame. The space gained by cropping the houses brings the gruesome scenes closer to the viewer so, forcing us to focus on the violent tragedy.
Cropping is also used to direct the viewer’s focus in about every portrait in every magazine in the world:
Apart from getting a closer look at the face and eyes here, the cropping also creates a psychological impact because my brain automatically is forced into action to add the rest of the hair and hat and skin and so complete the picture. It has to work a little harder, for example, than if all the additional information about the size, shape and color of Breughel’s houses in the town square were visible. On the other hand, the brain doesn’t have to sort through all the extra information and make sense of it. This additional work is called engagement. The more engaged we are as viewers, the more satisfied we are when our brain completes the picture.
Your take-away: find out how much you can crop surroundings without cutting too much — you’ll feel it when that happens. Action: do as always and then step a little closer so you have a narrower view.
BTW:As you can see in these cover photos, Vogue, Marie Claire, Cosmo and Harper’s Bazaar are huge fans of the Golden Ratio.
3. RULE OF THIRDS
We have seen the Golden Ratio in action with symmetrical portraits where the visual guide is the vertical cross. The principle works just as well if we turn the cross upside down and put the focus in the lower third. In a landscape-oriented photo, we still achieve harmony and direction by moving the focus left or right to two-thirds of the longer side. This is equivalent to rotating the cross by 90 degrees.
As you see, we can place the key object of focus on any intersection in the following graphic:
Let’s see how Breughel does it in his Hunters in the Snow. First, take a look at the image:
Then notice how the focus is on the hunters at the lower left intersection. Breughel also put the foreground in the lower third, the middle ground (the more distant frozen lakes) in the center third, and the background in the upper third. Breughel did a lot of thinking before putting brush on canvas.
Your first take-way is that the Golden Ratio can be done in upside-down or left-right.
4. DIRECT THE VIEWER’S EYES
Let’s take a longer look at the hunters. Breughel helps us by directing our initial gaze: we start with the hunters (that’s why he put them on a Golden Ratio point) and we automatically look in the direction they are walking:
This is the equivalent of movement in a film. A great photo makes our eyes travel across the image. To accomplish this, the hunters had to be at one side (for a European painter, this means starting the action on the left), so that our eyes have room to travel. As we follow the narrative of the hunters’ return, we are automatically engaged. Even the crows direct our gaze toward the same endpoint. Breughel is a daredevil of composition.
Your second take-away: if you want to show movement in a still photograph, put the moving part on one side, never in the center.
You might have already guessed it: geometric forms are pleasing to the eye. We recognize geometric patterns without consciously looking for them. Our eyes travel along the invisible lines and hook us in: we are engaged. Paolo Veronese’s family portraits are a good example. Can you spot the triangle in each one?
My favorite painter is Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio, a sneaky Italian who once had to leave town after killing his opponent in a duel. He was usually commissioned to paint Bible scenes, but always put in secret codes and funny stuff. That’s how you beat censorship!
Can you spot all the triangles in David with the Head of Goliath? Here are some I found:
My art teacher once pointed out that Goliath has an expression of lust, the sword is a phallus and David’s trousers gap open in a (symbolic) inverted triangle — thus making this a highly sexual scene.
Your take-away: don’t go looking for triangles. But when you spot them in your viewfinder, take that shot.
A simple but effective way to direct the onlooker’s gaze is to put a frame around the key object of focus — where else are you going to look?
Vermeer uses extreme framing in his Love Letter:
When you google Vermeer, you will see that he applied framing in about 20 of the 30 pictures we have today. When Vermeer found a pattern, he stuck with it. If you scroll back up to my comments on cropping, you’ll see that Breughel used it, as well, to focus our eyes.
Your take-away: direct the viewer’s gaze and create tension by putting something in the foreground. A tree, a house, walls, furniture. On one side or more. You don’t have to look for potential frames. Usually they are right in front of you, obstacles you would try to overcome. Next time: use them to your advantage.
7. RULE OF THIRDS AGAIN
The rule of thirds is super-complicated. First, let’s refresh ourselves with Manet’s Le Dejourner Sur L’Herbe, as I looked at it in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris:
Foreground — Center — Background. Breasts and crotch in the Golden Ratio. Zoom in on the naked woman. The face, I mean. What does her gaze say to us? Maybe: “What is the narrative purpose of me being naked while the dudes wear their Sunday best? Manet, you are a chauvinist.”
7. FOLLOW THE GAZE
Even when an impressionist paints a crowded, bustling scene with broad strokes, you can easily imagine who each individual in Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette is looking at and how they are feeling at that moment.
This pattern is more emotional than visual. To me, what is most beautiful thing in a human is not just their eyes but the look in their eyes. Where is the person looking? At whom? What are they feeling? When eyes are full of expression, then I want to dive into them. I am suddenly deeply engaged with the story the painting is telling.
The boy on the far right is gazing longingly at the girl standing in the center. She has her hand on the shoulder of the young girl in the foreground, and both appear to be listening intently to the young, man seated opposite her, whose face is obscured. The dancing couples, on the other hand, look directly at the painter as if they are posing for a photo. My comments barely ruffle the surface of the emotions in the scene. So much action, so many feelings, so much to engage us.
Your take-away: Don’t always have people standing like toy soldiers in front of a landmark. Be a fly on the wall and photograph them in conversation, in action.
8. COLOR AND CONTRAST
There is a painting in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum hanging next to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. If you know the painter, please write in the comments! Even though there are a bunch of similar looking dudes in the frame, we know exactly which one is the most important dude, don’t we?
Your take-away: if your object is bright, place it in front of something dark and vice versa.
When it comes to composition, Caravaggio’s Jesus Receives His Thorny Crown is my favorite painting. It ticks all the boxes I’ve listed here, and more. I started out with the rule of thirds, as that is the complicated one. Can you spot all the other composition methods in this painting? Write them in the comments and then go out and enjoy photography!
PS: if you want to see some of my photos, you can find them at silberblick.at.