For no better reason than I like odd numbers and asymmetry, the rule of odds is one of my favorite composition techniques in portrait photography.
What is the rule of odds in photography?
Using the rule of odds in photography composition involves including an odd number of elements in an image, rather than an even number.
If there are an even number of elements in a scene, arrange the elements in groups of odd numbers.
Or, like the photo below in my studio, take advantage of the moment elements (in this case people) position themselves according to the rule of odds for interesting composition.
How does the rule of odds work?
The basis of the rule of odds in photography is that our brains are wired to try to compare even numbers and to sort them into competing groups.
This becomes distracting if the elements are evenly matched as the viewer is pulled between the two, or four, competing elements.
If the elements of an image are arranged according to the rule of odds, however, the viewer’s eye can flow around the image more easily. This leads to a greater feeling of harmony in the image.
That said, you don’t have to count how many people are in a crowd, or how many flowers are in a bunch. Anything over seven elements in a group and the numbers are too large for us. Our brains get bored with automatically counting and switch off.
The rule of odds is most effective with three and five elements in an image.
What if you have lots of elements?
If you have a crowd of people that number more than seven, divide the crowd into three or five groupings for strong composition.
This will help your viewer process the crowd much more easily.
Rule of odds for photographing a wedding party
A great example of the rule of odds’ usefulness for wedding photographers is when photographing the wedding party. Divide the group into smaller groupings, observing the rule of odds, to make the image much more interesting.
But don’t stop at this composition technique for photographing groups. Use the rule of odds in combination with other photography composition rules, making the bride and groom a strong focal point of the image.
For example, arrange every element, or grouping of elements, in the image to lead the viewer’s eye to the bride and groom.
Additional photography composition techniques include:
- Incorporate invisible and visible leading lines to the bride and groom
- Make sure they’re the brightest part of the image
- Position them so that they’re a central focal point of the image
Rule of odds for photographing a family
What if you’re photographing a family of four? You can’t just remove one person from the image, because they don’t fit in with the rule of odds.
Arrange a family of four so that you don’t have all four family members in one group, on one focal plane.
Photographing families with small children is of course not as easy as that. In fact, herding frogs is easier. Instead, you have to be aware of where everyone is so you can grab moments when they’re naturally arranged into groups that follow the rule of odds.
If they’re split into two groups, one of three family members and one on their own it works well, as long as they’re still connected by gaze. Even though they’re in two groups, which is an even number, the groups are not evenly balanced so the rule of odds is at play.
If they’re arranged in two groups of two, the two groups would compete as they’re even numbers.
The rule of odds can be very subtle like in this family portrait. It was a lifestyle family photoshoot, so there was a lot of activity and play and I had to stay tuned for opportunities for good composition. With this family, because of where they’re positioned, there’s a group of 3 (mother and children) and a single person (father). Therefore the rule of odds is at play, aiding the composition. The father remains connected to the group, however, because he and the oldest child are looking at each other.
The rule of odds is not just for photographing people
The rule of odds applies to all photography genres, not just portrait photography. With travel photography or street photography, look for interesting buildings that lend themselves naturally to a setup for using the rule of odds.
For example, if you spot a building with three arches in a busy area, set up your camera and wait for the right combinations of people to “fill in the gaps”. In other words, pass under the arches.
In other photography genres, look for odd numbers in landscapes, or architecture. For still life photography and food photography arrange elements using the rule of odds.
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