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Subject Placement

Lesson 91 from: Fundamentals of Photography

John Greengo

Subject Placement

Lesson 91 from: Fundamentals of Photography

John Greengo

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Lesson Info

91. Subject Placement

Summary (Generated from Transcript)

In this lesson, the instructor discusses the topic of subject placement in photography. He explains the rule of thirds, which involves dividing the frame into thirds and placing the subject at the intersections or along the lines. He also discusses the golden ratio, which is a ratio defined by the number Phi that creates a visually pleasing composition. The instructor emphasizes the importance of balance, symmetry, and harmony in photographs and provides examples and tips for achieving these elements. He also discusses the significance of horizon lines and reflections in composition. Additionally, he mentions the importance of eye contact in wildlife photography. Overall, the lesson provides insights and techniques for effectively placing subjects in photographs to create visually appealing compositions.


  1. What is the rule of thirds?

    The rule of thirds involves dividing the frame into thirds and placing the subject at the intersections or along the lines.

  2. Why is it recommended to not place the subject in the center of the frame?

    Placing the subject off-center creates more visual interest and allows for the inclusion of the surrounding environment.

  3. What is the golden ratio?

    The golden ratio is a ratio defined by the number Phi that creates a visually pleasing composition.

  4. How can balance be achieved in a photograph?

    Balance can be achieved by placing subjects in different areas of the frame in a way that feels visually balanced.

  5. What is the significance of horizon lines and reflections in composition?

    Horizon lines can be placed at different heights in the frame to create different visual effects. Reflections can also add balance and visual interest to a composition.

  6. Why is eye contact important in wildlife photography?

    Eye contact with the subject creates a stronger connection and captures the attention of the viewer.

Next Lesson: Framing Your Shot


Class Trailer

Class Introduction


Photographic Characteristics


Camera Types


Viewing System


Lens System


Shutter System


Shutter Speed Basics


Shutter Speed Effects


Camera & Lens Stabilization


Quiz: Shutter Speeds


Camera Settings Overview


Drive Mode & Buffer


Camera Settings - Details


Sensor Size: Basics


Sensor Sizes: Compared


The Sensor - Pixels


Sensor Size - ISO


Focal Length


Angle of View


Practicing Angle of View


Quiz: Focal Length


Fisheye Lens


Tilt & Shift Lens


Subject Zone


Lens Speed




Depth of Field (DOF)


Quiz: Apertures


Lens Quality


Light Meter Basics




Quiz: Histogram


Dynamic Range


Exposure Modes


Sunny 16 Rule


Exposure Bracketing


Exposure Values


Quiz: Exposure


Focusing Basics


Auto Focus (AF)


Focus Points


Focus Tracking


Focusing Q&A


Manual Focus


Digital Focus Assistance


Shutter Speeds & Depth of Field (DOF)


Quiz: Depth of Field


DOF Preview & Focusing Screens


Lens Sharpness


Camera Movement


Advanced Techniques


Quiz: Hyperfocal Distance


Auto Focus Calibration


Focus Stacking


Quiz: Focus Problems


Camera Accessories


Lens Accessories


Lens Adaptors & Cleaning




Flash & Lighting






Being a Photographer


Natural Light: Direct Sunlight


Natural Light: Indirect Sunlight


Natural Light: Mixed


Twilight: Sunrise & Sunset Light


Cloud & Color Pop: Sunrise & Sunset Light


Silhouette & Starburst: Sunrise & Sunset Light


Golden Hour: Sunrise & Sunset Light


Quiz: Lighting


Light Management


Flash Fundamentals




Built-In & Add-On Flash


Off-Camera Flash


Off-Camera Flash For Portraits


Advanced Flash Techniques


Editing Assessments & Goals


Editing Set-Up


Importing Images


Organizing Your Images


Culling Images


Categories of Development


Adjusting Exposure


Remove Distractions


Cropping Your Images


Composition Basics


Point of View


Angle of View


Subject Placement


Framing Your Shot


Foreground & Background & Scale


Rule of Odds


Bad Composition


Multi-Shot Techniques


Pixel Shift, Time Lapse, Selective Cloning & Noise Reduction


Human Vision vs The Camera


Visual Perception


Quiz: Visual Balance


Visual Drama


Elements of Design


Texture & Negative Space


Black & White & Color


The Photographic Process


Working the Shot


What Makes a Great Photograph?


Lesson Info

Subject Placement

All right, so where are we gonna put our subject in the frame? So let's start where everybody else starts when it comes to talking about this and that is the rule of thirds. So this has been around for who knows how long, there are some people that like this, and there's a lot of people out there that don't like this. And we'll talk about that as we go through it. But what is the rule of thirds? Well the rule of thirds is pretty simple. We take our frame and we break it into thirds. Left, middle, right, top, middle, bottom, and where those intersections are, where those lines are, are good places to put your subject. Why? Might be a good question. Why do we wanna put things over there? Well when your subject is dead center in the middle, it seems kinda obvious. This is just maybe a little too easy. And once again photography we like to have a little bit of mystery, you know this is very, very obvious, so maybe we should just put it off to the side a little bit. Now you get to decide wh...

at corner looks the most interesting, but if it's off to the side or in the corner it's just probably gonna look a little bit more interesting 'cause you're showing the rest of the environment. You get to show a little bit more than just that one subject in the frame. So there's a lot of reasons that will motivate us to move that subject a little bit off to the side. Now where those intersections are, are supposedly kinda where you're supposed to put your subject, but it doesn't have to go exactly right where those crosshairs are, but it also works for general other lines in the frame. And so moving off to the side is just a very comfortable, natural position for that. Now I think some people don't like this, simply because it has the word rule, and this is art and there's supposed to be no rules in art, so you can't say that you have rules when everything is available to you. So the way that I consider this is that if you put a subject in the middle of the frame, it might work, and I do like symmetry, which is something we'll talk about. But it does seem a little conventional and obvious, and so, okay, don't put it in the center of the frame. Where are we gonna put it now? Well you could put it way over to the edge of the frame, and well, frankly I think we can all agree that feels a little uncomfortable if that's the main subject in the frame. Probably don't wanna do that. And even putting it really close to the edge of the frame just seems a little bit awkward, you know touching the edge of the frame is just a little bit off a little bit. So you probably don't wanna use the very edge, 'cause you might wanna have a little bit of that cropping room in case you need to shorten or lengthen one of the sides on there. So it'd probably be better to move out of that area. Now if you're not gonna put it in the middle, and you're not gonna put it around the edges, what's left? You got four big spots, that end up being pretty much, the rule of thirds. And so it does make sense and if it helps to call it the suggestion of thirds, then I'm all perfectly fine with us voting and changing the name from the rule of thirds to the suggestion of thirds. And so this is a great system for showcasing a subject that for one reason or another, you don't want to fill the frame with. You wanna have it in the frame, but you wanna show other parts of the environment around it. And so it's just pretty obvious. Don't put it the middle, it's gonna go to one of those other four areas. And so I found this a little bit easier to work with in horizontals than in verticals, but you can do it in verticals as well. And so it's something that is an easy, quick adjustment that you can make when you're composing your photographs. A lot of times you're doing your focus lock and your recompose and just moving that subject a little bit out of the middle of the frame. If it is out of the middle of the frame another concept to think about is direction. Which direction is the object facing? Or is the object, person, subject going in that frame? Putting it directly in the middle, symmetry, can be a good thing, but if it's pointing in a certain direction, looks very different if we have very little space in front of it. For a lot of people this is kind of an uncomfortable photograph, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Now perhaps if you're designing an advertisement, and up here in the right-hand corner you're gonna have the title of your product and this whole article that you're writing, it might make more sense. But as a photograph on its own, this just feels a little uncomfortable for most people. And something like this, feels a little bit more natural. There's space for the bird to move, space for the bird to see, and so there are different ways of composing your subject with more or less space in front of or behind that subject. And so in this case here, it's kind of an uplifting shot. Mountain climber going up a steep mountain. The next image which might be the most photoshopped image in the class, has a very different feel to it. And there's a very different story of what's going on in that photograph compared to this one. And so where is your subject, where are they in the frame, and where are they looking? Now I had to wait for about 10 minutes for this guy to finally turn around and look the other direction. But it felt much more natural when he was looking into the frame. Having more space on the left side where the horse is kinda moving towards. More space on the right space for the zebra to move, or for the lion to look, or for the car to come driving down the road. Just feels more natural in most cases. Leaving that space for them to move. Now in this case the marmot is pretty much right dead center but it's coming out of the hole and it does have more space to move on the left than on the right because there's other things going on on the right side of the frame. It's kind of a very easy thing to do, and in most cases it's probably the best choice rather than having less space in front of that particular subject. But sometimes you're forced into a situation where you can't shoot the other way around, as in this case here. I didn't ask this guy to ride his bike the other direction up the street. And it's perfectly fine to do the exact opposite in a lot of different situations. It just has a slightly different feel that may be better in some situations. In this case there's some other strong elements on the left side of the frame that are there that are nice and strong and so it's okay that he's facing out kind of the narrow side of the frame. In this case the wildebeest is almost jumping out of the frame, but there's a lot of things going on behind it which help motivate it in jumping that direction and it makes sense in that particular scenario and so it's something to try or not try and have fun with. And that's one of the great things about photography is that you get to play with how you compose your images. As a slight little side story, there's a camera out there, there's a whole brand of cameras, and I'm not gonna tell you which brand it is, and it has a feature, you'll figure it out if you want. It's called auto object framing. And I joke around in the class 'cause it's the worst feature I've ever seen on any product in the history of humanity. Because one of the things that is most fun about photography is that we get to point the camera wherever we want. And what the camera does is you take a picture and it goes in and it recomposes the photo according to what it thinks is a good photo. And for my testing of it, it does just a horrible job. Just disastrous job of doing this. And I just read recently there is some program that people were working on for automatically cropping your photos after the fact. And I don't know how bad you would have to be to have a program that could beat any one of us, when it comes to framing up our subject. I mean that is one of the most fun things about shooting photos is being able to take pictures of what we want. And so this is, I can't imagine having that turned over to the cameras, something that's a lot of fun for us. All right, so rule of thirds is very closely related to the golden ratio. So this is another theory that is bantered about in a lot of art classes, so we'll talk about it relatively quickly here and so golden ratio, a ratio or proportion defined by the number Phi. Now this is not Pi. So Phi is 1.61 and then on and on, I don't have that one memorized. We probably all learned about Pi in school, the 3.14, the circle and the radius and all of that, and that's not what we're talkin' about here, there's this other number Phi that is a very, very special number. But the way it works is, we have a length. And we'll start with 100. And what we wanna do is we wanna figure out the next number and what we do is we multiply it by Phi, all right? So 100 x Phi, which is 1.6, is gonna give us a number that's 161. Now we take that number and we multiply it by Phi again, and what do we get, is we get another number. Now this is a very special number 'cause it's the only number in the world, in the universe, in the collection of numbers, where the previous two lines will add up to equal that third line. So the relationship from A to B is exactly the same as the relationship from B to C, and so that they are exactly relationship-wise the same distance apart. And when we take these and we put them into a rectangle, we end up with something called a golden rectangle. And this is in theory a beautiful rectangle. It's the right proportions. All right 'cause it is in a 1.1, 1 to 1.6 ratio here. When we use this ratio of size of lines and you can create them any size you want just that they have to be all in relationship to each other. You can add them together to create all sorts of interesting things. And so we'll take this and we'll piece it together and see what we get. And so that's how you make a perfect pentagram. And apparently there are lots of things that adhere to this standard. And so there's been many people who have looked at ancient architecture and they have found that it adheres to these philosophies in the size relationships of the height and the width, and the various dimensions of various subjects. And they've even found it in the Mona Lisa if you look at the face, the shape of the face fits that same proportion. Now I don't know, this could be a lot of people reverse engineering, making things work after the fact. I don't know if the artist designed it ahead a time. It happens to be very, very close to the standard frame that most of us use in our SLRs with the 1.5 crop and the full frame sensors. It's a little bit wider than that. It's definitely a notable bit wider than the four thirds system. It's not quite as wide as HDTV, that 16 by 9, so it's kind of halfway between full frame and a 16 by 9 ratio so it's pretty close to what we're using already. So if you were to take this, and take the long sides down equal to the short sides, because they're all in proportion, you of course get a perfect square in the middle. And you can continue to do this to make smaller and smaller squares in this case. And if you want you can draw the lines out at this point and end up with what's called a golden selection. Now the golden selection and the rule of thirds in my mind they're close enough they're about the same thing. It's kind of moving things a little bit away from the center. You've given a notable amount of room over to one side and less to the other over here. So if we continue on with this concept here and keep taking that box, reducing it down and keep taking it in the same direction, what we can do then is we can then take a line, curve it through all of them, and we end up with something very special called the Fibonacci spiral. Which is designed to be a very beautiful, curved line. And it is something that you will find in nature, you will find in different places. And it is a very pleasing attractive line to the eyes. Now I don't know that it's pleasing and attractive because it happens to fit into this box, or it just has a nice little curve to it that makes us feel good to it. And so using this idea it's basically right along the rule of thirds. Moving your subject out of the frame, having it over to the edge, one side or the other. And so lots of different easy examples where you want to have a subject in the frame, but you don't want it to be dead center you want people to also look at the environment where that subject is. And so it's quite often that you want a environmental type portrait. You're gonna have a subject in there, but you wanna show where they are and what they're doing, and it's obvious that you need room to show the environment, they're gonna go off to one of those corners so that you can have room to make the rest of the story. It was, when I read about this I thought back to one of the photos I had taken before I'd actually even read about it, I'm like, "Wow, maybe I was onto something here. "That is why I like that particular photograph." So working with the rule of thirds, or the golden ratio, you can think about high horizon and low horizon. And where those, that top third of the frame is versus the bottom third of the frame. So when you line up your frame, your horizon line right down the middle, that can be often the most static place to put your horizon line. So you should really think about what's it gonna look like if I put down towards the lower portion of the frame or put it to the higher portion of the fame. Is there one that would be better? And it's gonna depend on the content that's in the photograph. And sometimes I have found that I have to put it right in the middle because there's equal amounts of information that I think is important in the photograph. But it is often good to try to get that horizon line down low if there's something more interesting above it. And so it's gonna just vary from situation to situation. You wanna show a subject with a little bit of the skyline around it, that's perfectly good case to put it on the lower part of the horizon. If there's more interesting things in the ground below the horizon, that's a good time to have a high horizon. And this will vary according to whether you're shooting verticals or horizontals. And one could argue here that I've included way too much white space and blank space up at the top, but sometimes it's nice to have some negative space just to show how alone that one tree is. How little else there is around it, it helps tells a different type of story about it. Putting a high horizon 'cause we have interesting things in the foreground. And so once again going technically back using our wide angle lenses, setting lots of depth of field so we can hold focus on those subjects that are very close to us. One of the ways that we judge beauty in a lot of different things, sometimes in people's faces, or in buildings, is symmetry. How symmetrical even is something in a particular case. And so anytime you encounter symmetry, try getting yourself into the exact right position. And so there is a lot of photographers who will get near to the right position, but it's really using visual clues to figure out exactly where you need to be and so in a situation like this what I'm often looking at is some of those different spires and things in the background, tryin' to figure out exactly, you know is this window the same one as far as the space I have in the back one? Using lineups on other parts of the area that you're around, really getting yourself into the best position possible, because you don't wanna be pretty close to being accurate, if you wanna be accurate try to be as accurate as you can. And so there's lots of different symmetry that you will find in buildings and in cities. But you'll find it in natural areas as well sometimes. And so whenever you have symmetry, it's usually kind of a quick gimme, and in some ways it's a small pattern shot and we'll talk about patterns actually in an upcoming section in this class. But it is a pattern to another degree. So one of the places that you'll find a lot of symmetry is any sort of reflection. And so reflections are another kind of easy gimme for a good shot. For being a landscape photographer I find that reflections are kind of hard because the wind almost always seems to be blowing. It very rarely super, super calm out, in any particular location. So when you do have the opportunity to shoot with really, really smooth water, take advantage of it. 'Cause it seems to be rather rare in my opinion. This is Reflection Lakes, up in Mt. Rainier. It's not always this smooth out there, but it is nice when it is. And so whenever you see a mirror, this was an art installation in New York City, and they were gonna open it up the next day, and I knew what was gonna happen because you could go stand and walk through it as basically it was going to be filled with people taking selfie shots. But the night before they blocked it off and it was kinda open so you could use the mirror in there to reflect everything else around it. One of my favorite places in Rome is this church, that had a giant mirror, so that you could more easily see the detail and artwork in the ceiling without leaning back, you could just lean forward and see it and so I went around this mirror with my microfiber cleaning cloth, cleaning off all the fingerprints so that I could get a nice clean shot of this and I wasn't damage anything, I was helping them out. I left it better than when I had got there. Kind of the next little step on this is balance, and this is where you'll have subjects in different places, maybe a little bit more random. But there's a balance to it, it's not overly weighted to one side of the frame or the other. And you'll find a lot of this in nature where nature will automatically balance itself. But sometimes you need to adjust the frame so that you know, we got a few things over here and a few things over there, they're not exactly the same, but it's an overall well-balanced photograph. And sometimes this comes down to having multiple subjects that are in different areas in the photograph that there's something of interest to look at down here there's something else of interest to look up here, and then you'll kind of go back and forth and draw some sort of relationship between the different objects that you see in the frame. And so a lot of these times, technically speaking, it's having enough depth of field so that you can see clearly between the two different subjects, or more subjects that you may be looking at. And so this kind of goes along with the foreground, background philosophy I've talked about before. One of the things you need to make sure about on balance is making sure that you have a correct horizon line. And this is where the in-camera grids and a number of cameras have in-camera leveling systems that can be very important and so if it's supposed to be level, we probably want it level. Now there is something called a dutch tilt where you tilt your camera significantly from one side to the other, and that can be fine. It's just that slightly off that looks a little sloppy, that doesn't go over very well. And so I kinda carry that forward to as far as where are you lining something up. Is it exactly in the middle, or are you gonna notably move something off to the side? And that's why sometimes those grid patterns are nice. Okay that's nice, 'cause we've notably moved it off to the side. Or maybe you want it on the other side. And what tends not to work as well is if you kinda line things up but don't quite line 'em up all the way. That doesn't work so well. And so either get it right or do something very different, once again going along the philosophy of do it one way or do it completely the other way. The halfway in between doesn't always work. One of my favorite photos from South Georgia Island, is the penguin and the two seals here. I think there's a nice balance. The direction, there's some symmetry, and there's just you know things are evenly spaced out in there, so. I consider this picture very harmonious so I would just call it harmony if I had to give it a title. Now kind of the backstory on this is this is back when I was working with Art Wolfe and Travels to the Edge. And this was one of those times where I had a little bit of free time to go off and shoot on my own. And they drop you off on the islands here and you go about the penguins and they're all over the place. And you just kinda walk amongst them, and they just kinda move out of the way. They don't mind being too close to you. They'll get about five feet away in most cases, sometimes they'll come up and peck at your shins or something, but there was a lagoon over here on the side and the penguins were just kinda hangin' out, chillin' by the lakeside over here. And in there are the baby elephant seals. Really cute seals. They're very, very friendly. They make some really gross noises when they're kind of, it's like they're burping noises at each other and they're just kind of mock fighting. And you know very rarely in society or at least in the wildlife, do you have two different types of animals just right in close proximity to each other. And so I kind of consider this the Walt Disney World and Walt Disney's imagination. There was all these animals and they were frolicking around with each other, and what I found in most places in the environment is one animal's over here, another one's over here and they don't wanna get anywhere close to each other. There's a lot of exceptions to that of course in Africa there's a what they would call the, what do they call it, they called it the, there was a whole group of animals and that was the buffet. 'Cause there was a lot of different choices in there if you're an animal chasing other animals down. But here we have some animals that are very friendly, very different types of animals too that are just right next to each other, so I'm getting down lower. A little bit closer to my subjects, and I got this one penguin out on this one rock and that's like a good standout subject here. And so I'm kinda movin' myself out in towards the water area. And now I have my main subject and I got some other interesting characters here in the background as well as just a nice background back there as well. And so I'm just gettin' my cameras in the right position set right, and they're coming in a little bit closer, and they come up for like one perfect scream at each other and maybe someday I'll do a class on wildlife photography, I don't know. But one of the things that I would say about most wildlife shots that's important, is you want eye contact with the animal. Now the thing about this photo is there is no eye contact at all. And this is another good example of either you wanna do one thing or you could do something completely different. And what's completely different about this one to me, is that it seems like none of those three animals have any awareness that we, I, a photographer, is right there taking that photo. This is just what they do, on their own, in their own time, and then a moment later it dissipates and they're all looking at me as if, "Did you get that? "And can you send it to me on my Instagram account, "'cause I wanna post that." and so you gotta be ready for those moments because they come and they go very, very quickly.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Fundamentals of Photography Class Outline
Learning Projects Workbook
Camera Keynote PDF
Sensor Keynote PDF
Lens Keynote PDF
Exposure Keynote PDF
Focus Keynote PDF
Gadgets Keynote PDF
Lighting Keynote PDF
Editing Keynote PDF
Composition Keynote PDF
Photographic Vision Keynote PDF

Ratings and Reviews

a Creativelive Student

Love love all John Greengo classes! Wish to have had him decades ago with this info, but no internet then!! John is the greatest photography teacher I have seen out there, and I watch a lot of Creative Live classes and folks on YouTube too. John is so detailed and there are a ton of ah ha moments for me and I know lots of others. I think I own 4 John Greengo classes so far and want to add this one and Travel Photography!! I just drop everything to watch John on Creative Live. I wish sometime soon he would teach a Lightroom class and his knowledge on photography post editing.!!! That would probably take a LOT OF TIME but I know John would explain it soooooo good, like he does all his Photography classes!! Thank you Creative Live for having such a wonderful instructor with John Greengo!! Make more classes John, for just love them and soak it up! There is soooo much to learn and sometimes just so overwhelming. Is there anyway you might do a Motivation class!!?? Like do this button for this day, and try this technique for a week, or post this subject for this week, etc. Motivation and inspiration, and playing around with what you teach, needed so much and would be so fun.!! Just saying??? Awaiting gadgets class now, while waiting for lunch break to be over. All the filters and gadgets, oh my. Thank you thank you for all you teach John, You are truly a wonderful wonderful instructor and I would highly recommend folks listening and buying your classes.


I don't think that adjectives like beautiful, fantastic or excellent can describe the course and classes with John Greengo well enough. I've just bought my first camera and I am a total amateur but I fell in love with photography while watching the classes with John. It is fun, clear, understandable, entertaining, informative and and and. He is not only a fabulous photographer but a great teacher as well. Easy to follow, clear explanations and fantastic visuals. The only disadvantage I can list here that he is sooooo good that keeps me from going out to shoot as I am just glued to the screen. :-) Don't miss it and well worth the money invested! Thank you John!


Dear John, thanks for this outstanding classes. You are not only a great photographer and instructor, but your classes are pleasant, they are not boring, with a good sense of humor, they go straight to the point and have a good time listening to you. Please, keep teaching what you like most, and I will continue to look for your classes. And thanks for using a plain English, that it's important for people who has another language as native language. Thanks again, Juan

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