There are lots of numbers that come into play when it comes to photography: shutter speeds, f-stops, lens focal lengths, digital sensor multiplying factors and fill flash ratios are some of the obvious. One number that doesn’t often pop into photographers’ minds is the number of subjects in a photo. The importance behind this deals with composition. There’s a compositional fact that states: When including an even number of similar subjects, it is more difficult to create a successful composition than when an odd number of subjects appear.
The obvious even number that comes to mind is two. Unless it relates to people, when two subjects are the primary elements in a photo, they compete with one another for attention. When working with an odd number of subjects, the eye flows from one to the next rather than back and forth. This guideline dates back to the early painters and still stands today. Not that it’s written in stone, but more often than not, it works.
1 — A Single Subject: With a single subject, the viewer’s eye goes directly toward it. This is especially true if the background isn’t distracting. A single subject commands attention. If a tree stands isolated in a field, it’s the primary subject and the eye is drawn like a magnet.
Using the example of two subjects, when one is on the left side of the frame and the other on the right, the eye bounces from one to the other and psychologically creates tension as to which one is the primary subject. The same holds true for subjects that are at the top and bottom of the frame. The exception is when you photograph two people since it’s natural to photograph couples, parent and child, a bride and groom, etc.
3 — Multiple Subjects: The most common shape one thinks about when the number three is mentioned is a triangle. When subjects are arranged in a triangle, the eye naturally flows from one to the next to the third and back again to the initial subject that attracted the eye. This allows the eye to smoothly flow around the composition. A natural connection is made between all three elements. With odd numbers, a rhythm or pattern is created.
5 — The Challenge Of Many: Five subjects create a pattern. Each is easily discernible by the brain yet each becomes its own subject that works in unison with the other four. Beware of mergers!
7 — Made in Heaven: Seven subjects also create a pattern and the same principles of five exist as stated above. Again, beware of mergers!
9 — Oh So Fine: Nine subjects create a pattern, but it becomes more complex. It’s the cutoff point at which the concept of odd numbers being a benefit ends. Once the viewer has to physically count each, the number becomes irrelevant.
To learn more about this subject, join me on a photo safari to Tanzania. Visit www.russburdenphotography.com to get more information.