As I was working on the “Composition in Photography: Assignment Discussion” article and upcoming Lightroom Crop Tool article last night, I came across a feature in Lightroom that I had not previously used. I love it when that happens. Realizing that the software tool I enjoy using and find to be very versatile is actually even more functional than I thought, is pure joy. In this article, I will teach you how to quickly check your composition in Lightroom against known rules and guidelines, such as the Golden Ratio or the Rule of Thirds (and, yes, these are indeed two separate things), by overlaying the image with them.
How Does It Work?
Basically, Lightroom allows you to overlay any image with several different guidelines, called Crop Grid Overlays. To do that, select the image you want to check against one of the available guidelines and engage Crop Tool, which is found right below the Histogram. Alternatively, you can hit the “R” key on your keyboard. Once the tool has been engaged, notice that the selected image is already overlaid with the default Rule of Thirds Grid Overlay. Hit “O” on your keyboard to toggle between all 7 available Grid Overlays. Use “Shift + O” (Windows PC) to rotate the guidelines. You can further customize the behavior of the Overlays (or Guides) by selecting the Crop tool to enable the settings in the Tools->Tool Overlay and Crop Guide Overlay menus.
Crop Grid Overlays
Here is the full list of available Grid Overlays as well as short descriptions for each one:
- Rule of Thirds – likely the most popular, “safe” guideline for many, the Rule of Thirds suggest that you first divide the frame into nine equal parts and place important elements of composition either along the dividing lines and/or at points of intersection. This particular guideline is very useful for beginners who are just getting into photography and want their images to have better balance and be more interesting from a composition standpoint, but is also very widely used by experienced photographers. By using the Rule of Thirds, one avoids placing the horizon in the middle of the frame when shooting landscapes as well as flat central composition which, unless used deliberately and with thought, often fails to give the elements proper emphasis and looks “boring”.
- Diagonal Lines – derived from the Rule of Thirds, this overlay might be useful if your photograph has a dynamic, diagonal composition. Personally, I’ve never used it, but I’d like to hear from readers who found it useful for their work!
- Golden Triangle, Golden Spiral and Golden Section (Golden Ratio in Adobe language) – three derivatives of what we may call the Golden Mean or even simply Golden Ratio, these guidelines are based on Fibonacci sequence. Yes, that’s math. In art. Sounds a bit weird, but actually these classic visual arts guidelines have always had a lot to do with math and science in general (some of the most realistic, detailed paintings of old were painted by projecting the scene on canvas with the help of a lens, for example). Golden Mean in particular employs a ratio that is calculated to deliver what can be considered “perfect” proportions of approximately 1:1.619. These proportions are aesthetically very pleasing to our eyes and can be found not only in man-made objects (paintings, photographs, buildings, etc), but also in nature. As with the Rule of Thirds, which you can see as a sort of simplified Golden Ratio, it tells us to place relevant objects and elements of composition along the dividing lines and/or at points of intersection. We will discuss the Golden Ratio in more detail in a future article, as it’s quite complex once you start digging deeper, yet rather fascinating at the same time.
- Simple Grid – less useful for composition, but great for checking for any signs of distortion or an accidentally tilted horizon.
- Aspect Ratio – preview how a specific photograph would look like from a composition standpoint in different aspect ratios. Very useful if you plan to print your photographs and need to decide on specific paper size. The aspect ratios are fully adjustable.
Out of all these overlays, the Rule of Thirds and Golden Rule (all three separate guidelines) are arguably the most important and, as such, will be discussed in more detail in separate Mastering Composition series of articles.
Word of Caution
There is no doubt Grid Overlays are very useful to have. However, don’t go cropping all your images to suit any of the specific overlays just for the sake of it thinking it will make your photograph better. In truth, composition is something you need to think about as you photograph, not whilst post-processing. So the Crop Grid Overlays are there for fine tuning, not for composing post capture. Finally, learning the rules is important, but no more so than knowing how to break them. Not every image has to follow a certain rule to be well balanced, engaging and interesting – as long as the choice is deliberate (or intuitive/instinctive)! So before you rely on any thousand year old guideline, experiment, practice and trust your guts. Maybe the photograph you are about to drastically crop to suit that Golden Spiral is at its best with that central composition you chose whilst holding a camera to your eye.
Have you used any of these guidelines in the past to fine-tune your composition in Lightroom? Let us know which ones are your favorites and why!