For no better reason than I like odd numbers and asymmetry, the rule of odds is one of my favourite composition techniques.
What is the rule of odds in photography?
When you follow the rule of odds, you simply include an odd number of elements to an image, rather than an even number.
Or you arrange the elements in an image in groups to create odd numbers.
Or, like the photo below, you take advantage of the moment elements (in this case people) position themselves according to the rule of odds.
How does the rule of odds work?
The basis of the rule of odds is that our brains are wired to try to compare even numbers, to sort 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, the viewer’s eye is allowed to flow around the image more easily. This leads to a greater feeling of harmony in the image.
That said, you don’t have to go counting how many people are in a crowd, or how many flowers are in a bunch. Anything over seven and the numbers are too large for us to. Our brains switch off.
The rule of odds is most effective with three and five elements in an image.
What if you have lots of elements?
So, if you do have a crowd of people, divide that crowd up 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 for wedding photographers is when you’re photographing the wedding party. If you divide them up into smaller groups observing the rule of odds, it will make the image much more interesting.
Arrange the wedding party, in combination with other rules of photography composition, so that the bride and groom are the focal point.
It will be even better if you arrange every element, or grouping of elements, in the image to lead the viewer’s eye to the bride and groom.
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.
Here, you can work on arranging the family so that you don’t have all four in one group, on one focal plane. When photographing families with small children it’s of course not as easy as that. In fact, herding frogs is easier.
Instead, you have to be very aware of where everyone is so that you can grab those moments when they are naturally arranged into groups to take advantage of the rule of odds.
If they’re split into two groups, one of three family members and one on their own it works well. Although there are then two groups, which is an even number, the groups are not evenly balanced so the rule of odds is at play.
If they were arranged in two groups of two, the two groups would be competing.
The rule of odds can be very subtle. 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
Of course the rule of odds applies to all photography genres, not just people photography. If you’re into travel photography or street photography, look for interesting buildings that lend themselves naturally to a set up 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 you can easily set up arrangements of elements using the rule of odds.
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