Upload & Sell: Off
Portraits, regardless of crop, look better balanced when the eyes wind up around the upper 1/3 of the frame. Yeah it's the "rule" of thirds and there are no rules, but there is cause and effect and if you compare the two moving the eyes up out of dead center of the frame looks better, at least to my eye. There are hints about why that's the case in scientific papers on perception in the Journal of Vision I've read. The eye movement of subjects shown photos scanned to where they expected the faces to be the photos, towards the top rather than the middle or bottom of the frame. So if the initial perceptual reaction on first glance is "Hey there is a face in this photo" the brain will send the eyes up to the top to focus / fixated on it."
How I compose photos I take and edit is to look at it and decide what is most important and where I want the viewer to scan to, dwell, and keep coming back to if they wander off it, then crop in tight on it. Isolating the center of interest...
... then expanding the crop outward, moving the center of interest around until near the four rule of thirds intersections until the overall balance "feels right" perceptually. It is a process not unless putting your wallet in all four pockets to decide which is the most comfortable. If the balance doesn't feel right on any of the four rule of thirds nodes more than likely it is a photo that will look better balanced in the center horizontally and in the upper or lower 1/3 vertically, or the physical dead center of the frame. Counting up all those spots four ROT nodes, centered up, centered down, dead center there are 7 potential "sweet spots" that might work well. Finding which only it is simply required moving the focal point around to each of them as you expand the crop until it "feels right".
This is generalized background not specifically related to this photo which you may find useful.
The term "rule" implies to some a constraint that should be broken. People tend by temperament either to follow rules like speed limits or break them. The guy that rides your ass about there not being any rules in photography if the word "rule" (or "ratio) is mentioned is probably the same guy riding your bumper in the left lane of the highway when you are going 10 miles over the limit because he wants to go 30. When he comes on the forum and says "there are no rules" he becomes like the guy in the Volvo they always seem to be driving Volvos who thinks it his job to enforce the speed limit by driving 55 in the left lane.
Although I use the term "rule of thirds" because it is commonly used and understood, I think, always, in terms of case and effect. For every action you take there is an opposite one a coin flip. It's not a matter of one being "right" and the other "wrong" they just produce different results: one team kicks, the other receives.
The way to look at the rule of third is that sometimes its the best solution, some times its half of solution and sometimes its not the solution. But if you systematically work your way through those composition options you will usually find the best solution at least for your tastes. It's trial and error, organized efficiently.
The rationale for the ROT is putting the focal point in the frame in a way the viewer will tend to scan towards it over the other context before seeing the focal point, or will be more likely to see the focal point first, then the context surrounding it. It is simply two ways to tell the same story: where/what vs. what/where.
In real life stuff is usually always moving. In situations where it isn't, such as field tall grass on a dead calm day, any movement that interrupts that pattern contrasting motion will attract the eye. It's an evolutionary thing. That movement in the grass was usually a predator and the fact you are reading this means your cave man ancestors reacted to it rather than being eaten. Unfortunately some peoples ancestors got eaten after having kids.
The eye moves in saccades and fixations attention jumps from spot-to-spot in real life and in photos between contrasting centers of interest. I real life it will be things that move seen out of the corner of our eye that make us divert our attention from where we are currently focused.
See see better out of the corners of our eyes because the cone cells that sense color (blue/yellow and magenta/green not RGB like the camera) are only in the center 2° of the field of view. The other 98% of the retina are covered with cone cells which detect only greenish parts of light and are 3000x more sensitive. That sounds like a huge difference but our eye response is logarithmic and the difference is similar to the difference between the highlights and shadows on a transparency (slide photograph) or negative strip. But it's enough to make things at the edges of our vision very distracting.
Why does the eye work that way? That's a question for a higher power, but the net effect when looking and a photo is that anything CONTRASTING in tone, color, sharpness, size, etc. with the overall "key" or tone of the background will attract attention. There's no rule in that, is just the way the brain and eyes are wired in everyone so it is a very predictable perceptual response.
Think of the area outside the box as a buffer zone and mat inside the photo. Keeping it free of potential distractions by cropping them out or toning/cloning in PP will help keep the viewer focused in the middle. They will wander away at some point but the brain seeing nothing more interesting will tell the eyes to go back. That's how vignettes of tone and sharpness work. The brain seeing that part of the frame has less contrast and is less sharp goes back to the contrasting / sharper part of the photo in the middle.
With vignettes and mats the tone/color of the focal point should dictate the strategy. White borders on photo became a convention due to the way the photo paper was held in place. You'd put the paper in the easel and crop by enlarging the image to fit the paper with the print winding up with a uniform white border. Light borders / mat work well on this image because the tone of the background is light, but around a dark photo a white border is a huge distraction until it is placed on a similar white page or wall. On a dark photo you'd want to vignette light > dark from center > edge but on a light background darker > lighter works better to keep attention in the middle. Dark vignettes on light photos create fodder for the rods to scream to the brain HEY COME LOOK AT THE EDGES.
How does it apply to the Rule of Thirds? The four intersecting lines create a box within the frame where in most photos you want the attention of the viewer focused. When the viewer is focusing on the center 2° of the FOV that's twice the width of your thumb at arms length the area outside that box is being seen entirely by rods of the eyes which because they are more sensitive make any CONTRASTING distraction on the edge VERY DISTRACTING. That's why the brain mentally tunes out the stuff in the periphery until it is too strong to ignore.
In real life that can be dangerous. One night I was driving on the interstate at night when out of the corner of my eye I caught the reflection of a pair of eyes. My attention was diverted to the side where saw a deer. When my attention returned the road I saw a huge buck standing 30' directly in front of my windshield. I jerked the wheel left then back right and narrowly missed it.
There isn't anything quite so hazardous in a photo, but if you put contrasting content outside of the ROT corral it will, predictably, pull attention of the focal point sooner or later. The timing is a function of the relative contrast between the focal points.
That dynamic is why if you want to create a sensation of extreme movement or conflict in a photo you would want to but the two conflicting focal points on opposite edges and for a more harmonious vibe put the two centers of interest closer together...
Harmony and Balance...
So the cause and effect of focal point placement is a feeling of dynamic motion do to the movement of the eyes across the photo to fixate on and process the content in the center 2° of the FOV when it is off center and the opposite tendency not to go anywhere if there is only one strong center of interest (like the strongly contrasting black puplis) which create an impression of stasis: static / stable / "rock solid"
These factors are not in play in real life because there is no frame defining the limit of our vision. The FOV is 360° not 140° because we can turn our heads. So just the act of raising the viewfinder to eye edits the story. Compositions work well what the placement of the focal point matches the subliminal perceptual reaction to its placement in the frame.
If you get in the habit of "inside-out" cropping you will likely notice, as I have, that there a a lot of different crops that work for a photo. It's the same story just edited differently to control when the viewer sees the various elements and connects the mental journalistic dots of: who, what, where, when, and why.
Just like in the movies the tighter the crop the close the viewer feels to the action. In movies that dynamic is heighten by starting wide and pulling tighter and the same thing works in a series of still photos. I've got tutorials on this stuff on my site if find these approaches helpful: http://photo.nova.org/
Edited on Nov 23, 2011 at 02:20 PM · View previous versions