This section is from the book "Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography", by J. B. Schriever. Also available from Amazon: Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography.
312. One of the clearest and most concise articles on the subject of pictorial composition for beginners was given by Mr. J. W. Ridpath, before the Photographic Section of the Franklin Institute. As the paper contains much of value and concisely summarizes what has preceded in this volume, we reproduce it here for your benefit.
313. "Pictorial Photography is a Very Broad Subject. -It deals with selection of subject, grouping, composition, light and shadow, focusing, making of negatives and after-treatment of the same, printing and mounting, each being a separate step toward the finished picture. For the present purpose it is intended to speak briefly upon only one branch of the subject.
314. "Pictorial Composition is based upon certain well-established and generally accepted rules, or general principles, which, although somewhat elastic, are found to be generally observed by artists everywhere. Some say art is subject to no set rules, for its variations are infinite; yet nearly all agree that it has certain general principles. In fact, almost all pleasing pictures, whether paintings, drawings, etchings, photographs, or those made by any other process, are found to be based upon some of these rules.
315. "In a short article like this, it is only possible to refer briefly to a few of the more important or fundamental rules of composition, omitting such subjects as lighting, atmosphere, balance, etc. A careful observance of the following nine rules will greatly aid the young photographer in making more pleasing, and consequently better, pictures.
316. (1) "In Selecting a Subject to photograph there is always a principal object - that which you want a picture of. It should, if possible, be placed to one side of the center and below or above the middle line. In other words, place the principal object in one of the natural quarters of the picture space.
317. "The Principal Object should, if possible, be supplemented by one of lesser importance as a secondary object. If the view contains trees, a position may be selected where a handsome or picturesque tree will occupy a point near the camera, in or near the foreground, as the principal object. This might be supplemented by a small tree, of somewhat similar shape, in the middle distance. A group of men or women might be supplemented by a group of children placed at a little distance. A church or other important building, in perspective, might be supplemented by a smaller building in another part of the picture.
318. (2) "Objects Should be Few in Number and Simple in Character. - A group of two or three trees look much better than a picture showing an extensive and elaborate collection of shrubbery. The latter may look beautiful to the eye, but the former will yield a more pleasing picture. One shock of corn, well to the front, with a few others less distinctly shown in the distance, is much better than a number of shocks, equally spaced, at nearly the same distance from the camera. Two or three figures may be satisfactorily grouped, but to make a picturesque group of a dozen will require artistic skill of a high order.
319. (3) "In Order That Your Picture may Look Natural, the Surroundings Should Always be in Keeping with the Principal Object. - To illustrate: A lumberman's or hunter's camp may look well in the forest. A fisherman's boat and nets should be beside water. A wagon loaded with logs might appropriately be coming out of the woods. A farm team should be engaged at some regular farm work, with appropriate surroundings, such as ploughing, hauling grain, raking hay, or any other useful farming operation. A quaint stone arch, or rustic bridge, may impress you favorably; if so, you will find that a willow tree, group of shrubbery, or even a bunch of tall weeds, if near the camera, will add greatly to the picturesque effect.
320. (4) "The Principal Forms of Composition are Three in Number. The Angular Form may be illustrated by drawing an imaginary line diagonally from an upper to a lower opposite corner, thus dividing the picture space into two triangles. The principal object may be advantageously placed in the lower triangle; the secondary object may be placed in the lower half of the upper triangle as middle distance, while the upper half of the upper triangle is occupied by the sky or other background. Sometimes a very handsome angular grouping is effected by placing the principal object in the upper triangle of the picture space with the secondary object in the lower triangle.
321. (5) "The Pyramidal Form of Grouping is particularly good for strong objects; being shaped like a mountain it gives an idea of stability. The tall tree, church tower, a house in perspective, or tallest man in a group, occupying a somewhat central and commanding position a little to the right or left of the center of the picture space, might form the basis of a good, strong composition.
322. (6) "The Circular or Oval Forms are light and graceful, and lend themselves naturally to groups of shrubbery or flowers, and still-life objects; curved or radiating forms are quite plentiful in nature. The dependent branches of the elm and willow, the oval form of the violin, many articles of glass and porcelain, the spray from a fountain, a vase filled with flowers, the oval form of the human face, and indeed the long oval of the human frame, are illustrations of this graceful form of composition.
323. "You do not always find objects that compose readily; perhaps the fault is in the objects themselves; perhaps it is the wrong time of day, or time of year, conditions are not always alike. Change your position slightly and look again. IF THE IMAGE ON THE GROUND-GLASS IS NOT PLEASING, WHY EXPOSE A PLATE?
324. (7) "It is important that the principal lines of the picture be so placed as to enhance its beauty; otherwise they may detract from it. Generally the horizon or sky-line in out-door pictures should be placed about one-third distance from the top or the bottom, not half-way up. In many cases the sky-line is quite important. A gently undulating foreground with hazy distance is suitable for peaceful farm scenes. Rugged mountain scenery might appropriately have a saw-tooth or jagged sky-line.
325. (8) "All Important Lines, Such as Fences, Road, Streams, Etc., Should Lead into, not out of, a Picture. - They should be so placed as to lead the eye unconsciously toward some point of general interest. For the above reason a cross-road picture is seldom pleasing. If the important lines conform to 'Hogarth's line of beauty,' a graceful double curve, they will greatly enhance the beauty of your picture.
326. (9) "Figures, if included in a landscape or other view, should always be appropriate in character and in keeping with the surroundings. A farmer at work in the fields, dressed in his working clothes, is more picturesque than the same man in his best bib and tucker' entertaining company on the front porch. A hod-carrier would look better with a pipe in his mouth than smoking a cigarette. Two girls in sunbonnets, picking blackberries, might add life to the scene; but two young ladies dressed in silk and lace, wearing ostrich plumes on their hats, would be out of place among blackberry briars. Perhaps there is no more certain way to spoil an otherwise good picture, than to pose your cousin or best girl in the picture center, with nothing to do but stare at the camera. If you must place her in the range of the lens, give her some appropriate employment, such as picking daisies, golden rod, or other wild flowers, but if you value her friendship, don't have her looking at the camera. To do so will probably spoil the composition and the portrait is almost sure to be disappointing.
327. "Some persons might object that these rules, or general principles, are not practical; that many views cannot be artistically grouped. It is certainly true that many views are quite commonplace, having nothing picturesque in them. In an afternoon's outing the camerist may pass a hundred views, many of which have some attractiveness, but only one or two appeal to him. While you cannot move the wayside cottage or trees, you can move the camera. Select the most important object and give it a strong place in the picture space, a little out of the center. Select a few objects, not too many, as accessories; most views contain too much. Try to find a suitable foreground. Move a little nearer or farther away; to the right or left; raise or lower your camera. While the principal object should occupy a strong place, the view should be considered as a whole, unity or oneness being all important. If you spend a little time intelligently studying the scene, the chances are that you will secure a much better picture than you could by a 'hit or miss' method. REMEMBER THAT ONE GOOD PICTURE IS WORTH MORE THAN TEN POOR ONES."