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Abstract photography gives you free reign – there are no rules or expectations – and that allows you to experiment with colors, shapes, and lines, patterns, textures, and angles, and a whole host of other fun and interesting elements of composition.

The lack of rules, however, doesn’t mean that abstract photography can’t benefit from adhering to some basic photography composition techniques like the Rule of Thirds. Another fundamental technique that can help improve your abstract compositions is the Rule of Odds, also known as the Odd Rule. That’s the focus of this lesson.

What is the Rule of Odds?

The Rule of Odds is fairly simple – studies show that an odd number of points of interest in an image conveys a more comfortable feeling. Thus, surrounding one main subject with an even number of elements, or having an odd number of multiple subjects makes a composition more visually appealing.

One theoretical reason for this is that dividing space equally in an image tends to cause our brains to split the image in two. This, in turn, causes the image to lose cohesiveness. By employing the Odd Rule, the space is divided less symmetrically, resulting in a more “connected” composition.

Another - and perhaps more understandable - theory about this rule deals with the positive effects of symmetry. By this theory, we're most comfortable with the symmetry of even numbered sets, so by basing composition on sets of three, five, seven, etc. we build tension in our images while the viewer searches for that “missing” element. This pulls the viewer more into the image and can make a dramatic difference in abstract image.

Applying the Rule of Odds

Whatever theory you choose to subscribe to, this rule has been proven to work well in more traditional genres and can give your abstract images a boost as well. As with the other “rules” of composition, abstract photography is less restrictive in how you apply the rules when you choose to.

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In the image above, we immediately notice the prominent rider in the foreground. Our gaze is then drawn to the one immediately behind and to the right, and in turn, to the three less distinct ones shapes that lead to the right edge of the frame. This series of five elements leads us to look toward the somewhat misplaced dark area above the subjects as a possible sixth. This visual “walk through” of the image makes it more dynamic.

This shot also illustrates a second way the Rule of Odds can be applied in abstract photography. Note how the layout of the prominent elements causes your eyes to follow a roughly triangular path. Although there are six points of interest in this image, the rule can easily be paired with another composition technique: using the focal point to form a triangle.

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Although the image above doesn't exactly contain a triangle, the subject still demonstrates this application of the Odd Rule because there are three prominent points of termination: at the upper left and lower left of the frame and again on the right side of the frame.

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Your presentation of an odd number of visual points need not be obvious. In the example above, viewers will still experience three points of interest due to the impression of a triangle created by the pages of the open book. Viewers will visually connect the apex of the curves, thus creating a visual triangle. Note also that there are three individual pages showing, rather than two or four.

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In the final image, above, take note of how the Rule of Odds is used in both ways. The composition features a single (odd) prominent point with a number of leading lines drawing attention to it. That focal point is located at the apex of a strong triangular form, providing a path with 3 (odd) points along the visual path. Without these elements in the composition, the abstract view of this structure would be much less dynamic and would fall somewhat flat.

Final Thoughts

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The Rule of Odds may benefit just about any composition, including those that are abstract in nature. Featuring an odd number of subjects, even if they are out of focus or abstracted in some other way, will, on a very basic level, be more interesting to your viewers than an even number. When based on a number of focal points in an image, compositions with fewer odd numbers will be more interesting. In other words, three subjects will probably create a more comfortable composition than eleven.

Lesson Summary

  • The Rule of Odds suggests using odd numbers of subjects in your photos.
  • One or three subjects will be more visually appealing than 10 or 12.
  • Among the effective ways to use this rule in your compositions is orienting your focal points in the shape or a vague impression of the shape of a triangle.
  • Applying this rule to abstract photography can improve your composition because of the additional interest it provides.
  • As always, remember that this and other “rules” of composition are subject to your own sense of creativity!

Assignment

Grab your camera and endeavor to apply the Odd Rule in two distinct ways. First, create a scene in which there is an odd number of subjects. Try three, then five, then seven, just to challenge yourself to work with a varying number of subjects. Second, create an image in which the subjects you include form a visual triangle. Remember - a visual triangle can be made up of more than three subjects, or even an even number of subjects. Just ensure that there are three visual termination points.

Further Study