Joe McNally is a giant of modern photography. For more than two decades he has been shooting for National Geographic, and in 1994 he was hired on as LIFE Magazine’s first staff photographer in 23 years. He has been intermittently featured in Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated, among other regular publications, and does advertising work for major corporations such as Nikon, Sony, FedEx, and more. In this video, Marc Silber picks his brain about the fundamentals of composition – when to heed the rules, and when to break them:
There are many entrenched regulations when it comes to visual composition, some of which McNally discusses – the leading line, the rule of thirds, perspective. These are an essential canon of techniques to know and practice when creating a photograph, like a painter understanding pigment and brush size. In case you’re unfamiliar:
The Rule of Thirds: Divide any frame into three equal parts both vertically and horizontally, like drawing a tic-tac-toe board over the scene. If you position major elements along these lines, and particularly where they intersect, it will draw focus to them and help lead the eye around the image.
Leading lines: Any major lines in a photograph, be they created by colour, texture, shadow, or light, should be used thoughtfully and with intention to attract the viewer’s gaze in the direction that you want it to move. Lines leading in from the edges, and especially the corners, are very strong.
Perspective: By positioning some elements closer to the camera and others at a distance, you add the illusion of the third dimension into your picture, which the human brain will pick up on and respond to. In the above image of the FedEx truck, because we intuitively understand depth, the road that recedes into the distance carries us along with it.
Of course, once you know these techniques, you’re free to throw them out the window. They are important to learn, to develop an eye for how things “should” be done, but they are not carved in stone. Knowing how to do something properly simultaneously teaches you how to NOT do it, properly (this is very different from doing it improperly). In fact, some of the best photographs have ignored these guidelines altogether, throwing caution to the wind in search for a unique, dissenting voice.
At the end of the day, great composition is not thought out, it is felt – a visceral reaction to visual stimulus. So learn the canon first, before you forget it and follow your gut.