Composition-Beyond the Rule of Thirds


Lesson Info


Now we're gonna explore some painterly compositions because I think they are still just as effective. And I think they're not utilized as much as they should be. And one of the most important things, I think, that a photographer can do is study paintings and art history. Beyond the study of light and color palettes and color theory and the fact that it was the dominate visual medium for thousands of years, studying great painters is the key to great composition. Because when everything in a scene must be analyzed and scrutinized and obsessed over and placed just so, we can actually really dissect and understand why and how things are placed how they are. And in more complicated painting scenes, a very common compositional device, something you see a lot in art, are the diagonals, the baroque diagonals or the sinister diagonals. You'll notice that there is a lot of similarity between the triangles and this but this is usually a lot more effective when it's used in more complex scenes. S...

o there are gonna be a little bit of similarities, but works really well when the image is a little bit busier. And this one's always very intimidating. But we're gonna break it down. So, there are two different kinds of diagonals. We have the baroque and the sinister. And baroque diagonals are read from the bottom left to the upper right and sinister diagonals are read from the upper right to the bottom left. Did I screw that up? Bottom left, upper right. Bottom right, upper left. I'll show you on the next slide. It could be simplified as, it could be one simple diagonal but it works better for busier scenes. If you ever take a look at Annie Leibovitz's group scenes, she uses this a lot and it overlays beautifully. So go google her group images and you will see this done incredibly effectively. And there are definitely modifications that you have to make to it, sometimes to fit how, you know, the groups of people and everything else, but it works so, so well when you have to make a lot of people fill the frame. Now we're gonna look at it simply, and this is the Grande Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique. I apologize for my terrible pronunciation, but this, what we're looking at here, is a very simple sinister, right? It's just one line to the other, 'kay, there's not a whole lot happening here. You can utilize it this way, but it's not really what it's most effective. So, again, here's the correct diagonal lines. We have baroque on the left and we have sinister on the right. It actually doesn't matter if you intend to read the image from this corner to this corner or this one to this one, as long as the main stuff happening is on that line, it's a baroque and the same is true for sinister. It's called sinister because Latin sinistra means left. And there are all kinds of funny little narrative antedotes about sinister and lefties and stuff throughout history. It's really quite funny. Like the angel and the devil on the shoulder in the cartoons. Right? Anyway. So, this is actually what we're gonna be looking at here. We're gonna be applying these diagonals and creating a much more complex grid over top of them. But like I said, this is a little bit complex, let's break it down. So the first thing you've got is some kind of strong diagonal composition, usually one way or the other. Sometimes, you'll have a secondary diagonal composition the other way. Sometimes, it may even be very balanced. You may not have a definitive strong baroque or sinister. And that's fine. You can actually use the narrative elements within the scene to dictate what that stronger line is. So if you actually start looking at like historical and allegorical paintings, if it's a very busy scene, but one of the figures you know is the more significant figure, they're gonna dictate the line. And sometimes it's through just knowing who they are, sometimes it's through the fact that they may be the brightest part of the image, or they may have a stronger, more vibrant color, there's a lot of different ways you can illustrate this. But again, that's really where you're gonna start. Then what you're gonna do, is you're gonna divide the image in half. You're gonna create some kind of a pillar in the middle. From there, from that pillar, you put an x across both sides, so you basically create a mini diagonal composition both ways in each of those halves. This is, for the most part, the core of what this is about. See basically if you've ever seen those group scenes, you're looking at, you're eye does this through the image, that's this. In a much more structured, laid out way. Now you can actually take this one step further and you can draw these lines through those intersections. It's kinda fundamentally gonna be your sorta rule of third'sy across it. So you can see definitely how there's a lot of overlap. These are not really the core of what makes these lines, makes this composition the most successful, but you will see this ride in from time to time. A lot of times you'll see like, this is a head line, uh, where the faces are in a group scene, right? For example, we've got this diagonal. This is Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David. And I love this painting, this is the MET in New York. And this, if you can see it already, if you are seeing the baroque diagonal, you are correct. And it's based off the main character and then all of the other characters reinforce it. So our main compositional line goes from the bottom left to the upper right. And you can see it here. We have the pillar in the middle, right, which is reinforced even by that lamp. The point of interest is here, it's him getting the poison. And then you happen to have these guys falling along a line here. You have these guys on these lines. Even the people in the background, all these different points of interest lining up quite beautifully. This is The Blinding of Samson, by Rembrandt. This is a sinister diagonal. It goes the other way and your eye is drawn downward to Samson being blinded. Again, how to we know what's important? He's bright, he's being stabbed in the face, (laughing) but, all of the lines reinforce where we should be looking. This is pointed at him, the gesture is going downward and so we can actually see that line applied. Everything merges to him, the hands, the angles, the lines, the gestures. It's not necessarily about applying it and following it exactly, but it follows it generally. You'll also notice how it leaves a little bit of space up top. This is about that common sense thing. It's not necessarily about applying it to the entire constraints of the entire scene, but it's about what you need to put importance upon. Here it is photographically. We have a little bit of a baroque diagonal here, but she creates that pillar in the middle. And then we have varying interests in the legs and so forth and so on. This goes across that point, she creates the column in the middle, she's leaning back, that gives us a little bit of a baroque line. And you'll see that the legs are followed here and here and here and generally speaking the gesture, like, she's creating an x and so you can see how a little bit of this is utilized in a group scene. This one's a little bit more balanced, but, again, it's that up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down and the guy in the middle is the manager, this was for a bar. For a bar restaurant and these were actually everyone that worked there. So we did, it was like a theme shoot for the bar. So, you know, important subjects, we create a pair over here, we have a little interaction thing happening over here. The gesture line, right, these guys follow this line. We got the head going through that line and then the lower part of the image. I love this composition, but it is very tricky to think about consciously.

You know the basics of composition – now take it to the next level. Good composition is more than following a strict set of rules and guidelines. In fact, those very things can stifle your creativity and make your work fade into the pack of other photographers. In this class, Chris Knight shows you that there is more to composition than a few lines – it’s about creating balance in an image. He’ll introduce the Gestalt Principle and encourage you to look beyond the rule of thirds and utilize contrast, leading lines and more for interesting and dynamic images.



  • I have to say, perhaps if you are an academic or a college trained photographer/artist/painter etc., this may be old hat to you. However, if you are like me and have never been exposed to definitions and descriptions of composition, this was a shock-and-awe inspiring reveal of these artistic concepts. I can guarantee I will watch these over and over again while I try to absorb even a little of this material, but Creative Live could make an all day class of this guy explaining this material. material he quite obviously loves and uses and his passion for the subject matter is very obvious. This class is making me consider a trip back to the campus to get more information on this subject. Quick, contract Chris Knight to develop a whole class before I end up in college!!! Highly recommend this class.
  • What a FANTASTIC presentation! I loved it. Best instruction I have ever seen/read as a graphic designer for 33 years. I majored in art and graphic communications in college before becoming a designer. Well done Chris. Definitely buying the class.
  • Excellent information. I would have liked a little more examples in some of the composition rules, but I liked the content. Recommended for some one who is beggining or needs to reinforce composition