Genealogy: Making a photograph look good—Rule 2: Photographic composition

Photographic compositionBy Barry J. Ewell

If you’re like me, photographs decorate my home and office. Photographs are part of every medium we consume from books and magazines to newspapers and calendars.  Pictures communicate our thoughts and feelings.  Within genealogy, the photo is used to document our sources and provide depth to our family history as we record and tell our history.  The only boundaries are within one’s own mind.

Have you ever thought about why you like certain photographs?  The answers are relatively simple and you can improve your images by following a few basic rules which you will use a majority of the time.

Rule 2: Photographic composition
One of the first photographic lessons I learned is there are “sweet spots,” places in the rectangle of the photo where placement of the main subject of the photo will make the photo really pleasing to the eye.  This is called composition. Our first instinct is to want to place the focus of our picture right in the middle.  Another term for that is called “bull’s eye.”  From now on forget about centering your subjects.  You will notice a difference in your photos immediately.  There are several methods you can use to help you compose better pictures.

  • Squint:  Yes, I’m serious.  Squint your eyes until the image is almost a blur.  At this point you will see the lines and shapes created by the shadows and light.  You will notice how shadows blend together creating shapes and forms that you would not have seen otherwise.  It will impact the composition of your picture.
  • The “rule of thirds” and the Golden Mean:  Any image can be divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines (i.e., tic-tac-toe board). The four points formed by the intersections of these lines can be used to align features in the photograph which is called the “Golden Mean.” I am a firm believer that aligning the photo at these points of intersection creates photos of more interest and energy.  Photos are simply more aesthetically pleasing. For example, when you are taking outdoor shots, place the horizon in the top third.  Rather than placing people in the center, put them on the right or left third of the photo.

The “rule of thirds” and the Golden MeaThe “rule of thirds” and the Golden Mea 10-14-2014 7-54-55 PM

  • The Golden Triangle:  The Golden Triangle rule is a spin-off of the rule of thirds. To follow the rule, simply draw a diagonal line connecting two opposite ends of the picture. Then draw connecting lines from the two unused ends so that they are parallel to the first diagonal line. At the two points where the lines intersect, that’s where your subject should be.  The idea behind this is that keeping the composition in a diagonal line defies the logical straight line that our brain is used to seeing, making the overall composition a lot more intriguing than a simple shot of the subject “bang” in the center.

The Golden TriangleOdd numbers:  Photos stand out when they move away from the element of order and symmetry.  Even numbers of objects make an image look simple because it immediately brings out a sense of symmetry.  Take a photo of two similar objects and then take the same photo with three objects.  Notice the lack of symmetry with three objects, making the image more appealing to look at.  This rule works really well with people, birds, animals, flowers, inanimate objects, and just about anything you can think of.

  • The frame within a frame:  This rule works well with architecture and landscapes. Use materials near you in the foreground and include them in your photograph around two or more edges to create a frame; archways, doorways and other such features work well.

The frame within a frameThe frame within a frame

  • Leading lines:  Roads and footpaths are a great way to use leading lines to your advantage and draw your viewer into your photograph. When looking at a picture, our eyes look for a pattern or a lead-in to the subject. That’s where lines can be highly effective in any composition. When our eyes spot a line in a composition, they automatically follow it from the edge of the frame to wherever it may lead.  For example, a painted line on the road leads your eye into the image, meeting the horizon line, which is one third of the way down into the image. The edges of the petals of a daisy can be leading lines moving into the center of the flower. A row of trees or street lights that vanish in the distance can create very strong leading lines that take the viewer’s eye all the way through an image.

Leading linesLeading lines

  • The circle:  The circle can be used very effectively when composing a photograph, if the subject is right. The circle keeps the viewer’s eye from escaping from the picture, taking the viewer’s attention such as in the center of a dartboard. “The Circle” is a tricky element to use in a photograph effectively, but when done well, makes for an outstanding photograph.

The circle

  • Rhythm:  Dynamic impact in your photograph is created by using “visual rhythm.” This is a way to use repetition of form and shape in an image to create interest.


  •  Negative space:  Negative space is a term used in photography that implies only a tiny fraction of the frame is taken up by the actual subject. Negative space is usually used either to make the subject seem very small, or to give the impression of the subject being in a wide-open space.

Negative space

  •  It’s OK to break the rules:  Sometimes your subject just doesn’t fit into any of the composition rules.  What do you do?  Take the picture the way it looks best.