I find most of the stuff that’s about on the interweb and magazines purporting to explain composition in photography to be a waste of time in practice. When I’m taking photos I’ve always got too much to think about already without adding another set of complexity, adding more to thing about certainly isn’t a priority for me.
However some of the stuff I’ve learned over the years has helped me predict more accurately what other people would like, after the event that is, explain why some images worked and some didn’t, and give a little help sometimes when actually taking photos.
This is just my own personal hypothesis with some basis in established theory but mainly my observation and a keen interest in our sales figures at the end of each month, I'm a designer by trade so it’s quite important to me, feel free to challenge anything you don’t agree with, these are only opinions.
Part 1) What’s the point
It turns out that what I like is pretty much what everyone else likes, it seems odd but we all tend to see things the same way, whatever our age, gender or education. Because of that tendency it is possible to predict what will hold the viewers attention what they will like and dislike, and more importantly if you know you can manipulate their reaction to some extent.
I’m sure everyone has seen this type of simple optical illusion, the lower shape looks longer even when we know full well the lines are both the same length.
The eye and brain insist on completing the missing parts of shapes, and even complete shapes that are outside the frame of view. This is know as the law of completion in Gestalt theory, but it’s best thought of as just a tendency for the eye to follow a line even if that line is broken or incomplete, and its that tendency that makes composition possible, and it exists in the overwhelming majority of people in exactly the same way we simply can’t help joining the dots and filling in the gaps.
... the effect persists even when everything is abstracted, subtle and highly textured, one can’t help but find the some sort of line and the eye can't help but follow it, it would seem
I think this is probably why odd frames on a contact sheet or a thumbnail image can stand out so strongly.
Part 2) The rule of thirds
Very useful as a starting point for creative artists and designers, and handy to know there are many articles, and much skepticism all over the place. However it is useful simply because it allows us to have some idea which images will engage the viewer and which will not. In the field it can help inform framing and in a studio give a starting point for setting up a shot and the placement of key elements of the final image.
It simply predicts that an image is split into thirds vertically and horizontally the centre “third” and it’s four nodes will be of more interest to the viewer; which is stating the obvious really.
I’ll try and keep this as abstract as possible so as to keep things simple
So in theory any arrangement of elements that approximates to those points, people will tend to be untested in and keep their attention … like this
… and therefore anything contained within that area will get similar attention, like this
… however anything outside will distract the attention and lead the eye off to the edge of the frame and out of the picture, so it could almost be called the Rule of “Don’t Put Stuff Close to the Edges” from a practical POV
(just out of interest; if one watches someone looking through artworks the amount of tine they devote to each image varies enormously, and it tends to be the same images that catches their attention whoever is viewing them)
… so (again in theory) this should look clunky and take the eye out of the frame
… and this one should tend to keep it in
… the effect should also be maintained with tones of light and dark and amorphous figures.
... and when the ground is replaced by the figure, that's another of the gestalt laws; Figure/Ground Relationships
Now all this seems pointlessly esoteric until one starts noticing how the rule fits over and over on so many of the classic images, and that shot of some bland desert shot through a broken window that caught and held ones attention longer than it warranted has an explanation of sorts.
To get an idea try photographing the view from your window, then step back into the room until the window frame sits on the third lines and take a second shot, then show them round and see which gets the most attention