Tips For Better Holiday Pictures This Year

the golden spiral
The Golden Spiral is just one visualization trick you can use to take better family photos this year

I wanted to revisit two separate articles on the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio and try to merge them into a way of viewing a scene and seeing the photograph within before everyone heads home for the holidays and starts swamping image services with the same family photos with the same really bad composition and lighting we see every year.

Just to review, the Rule of Thirds is a composition guideline that goes back almost as far as recorded time that suggests instead of putting a subject dead center in a photograph, shift the subject roughly a third of the way toward the edge of the frame. The way to visualize that is to picture a screen of nine equal size blocks overlaid on your view screen. The object is to put the subject at the interior intersection of any four of those blocks.

You can apply the same technique to your family photos. Instead of focusing just on the subject, try to focus on what they’re doing. If a family member is in the kitchen cooking, try to pan the camera over far enough to capture what they’re making. By focusing on the task instead of the subject, you’ll actually be moving the subject closer to the edges of the photograph. The same if they’re working in the garage or unwrapping presents. By framing the activity to the center, you’ll naturally be moving the subject toward the thirds.

That rule also provides guidance for distance. Adjust your distance so you can still see the person performing the activity, with what they’re working on center frame. If there’s distance between the subject and edge of the frame, you’re probably too far away. Move in or zoom in, if you can’t take a step forward.

Breaking Up The Police Lineup

Invariably everyone rushes into a line against the wall while someone snaps a few pictures with that dreadful straight-on flash. This year, escape from the police line up by borrowing a trick from the Golden Ratio.

To help visualize the golden ratio, imagine a widening swirl that starts in the upper right third of your camera frame that then curves toward the bottom of the frame, then starts up the other side, ending at the upper left corner.

Let’s say there were three couples in the police line. Break that up by having one couple stand to the back and off to one side. Have the second couple sit or kneel closer to the center of the frame and a little forward, and the third couple sit on a couch or stool off to the left at a medium distance. Now picture the swirl. It should start around head height of the standing couple on the right, sweep down to the couple on the floor, then sweep back up to the couple at medium height on the couch or chairs.

Now you’ve broken up the dreaded police line and created interesting composition by aligning your logically grouped subjects along the golden spiral. The result will be much better family photos!

Some of these concepts seem abstract until you can translate them to something that’s real to you. Experiment a little and look back years later with pride at the pictures you took.

Photography Basics: The Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds for subject positioning - by Chaky

There’s a reason it’s called the “Rule of Thirds” and not the “Suggestion of Thirds” or the “Very Highly Recommended Concept of Thirds”.

Still, for the most part, photographers don’t like rules.  More to the point they like flouting them with reckless abandon.  Photographers are frequently the people climbing on street lights to try and get a better angle on the crowds, the ones hauling a ton of gear out into the wilderness at zero dark-thirty to catch that one moment of fabulous lighting, the ones climbing over the fence at the zoo because the frame of the bear exhibit is really better just a couple steps beyond the fence.

The relationship between artists and rules has always been tenuous and contentious at the best of times.  Yet the Rule of Thirds ranks right up there as one of the more time-tested concepts in composition, both in photography and in the art world long before photography came into existence.

The general concept is fairly straightforward: Divide the image frame into nine equal sections.  Position your subject at the intersection of the dividing lines.  Which one of the intersections will depend on what else is in the frame.

The horizon line can be higher or lower, depending on whether you want to focus attention on the foreground or the sky, anywhere but along the center line.

Subjects In Motion

If your subject is in motion, the Rule of Thirds changes somewhat as you want to give your subject room to move in the photograph.  Position the subject so their direction of motion is toward the open area of the picture.  If a subject is moving left to right, you generally don’t want to frame the subject in the lower right hand corner as it leaves the impression they’re running off the frame.

For every rule there are exceptions.  I have seen some pictures when a slow shutter speed was used and the subject positioned at the distant corner, relative to their direction of motion, to make it appear as if they were going so fast the camera could not pan fast enough to keep up with them.

So there are rules and then there are rules in photography.  Learn them, break them, find new ways to apply them to your own personal style.  At least no one is going to issue you a ticket for climbing on the street light.