Essence of Photography: Rule of Odds

How does a photo change by just changing the number of objects in the picture? Learn why using an odd number of subjects can make for a more visually compelling image.

September 05, 2019

As children we learn to count... 1,2,3,4,5. Odd numbers, even numbers. As we dive into the medium of photography, how do numbers come into play? Can the number of subjects in the photo make a difference between a good or bad photo?

One way to learn to create better photos is by following a few basic "rules" of composition. These time tested rules have been used throughout history in both traditional art like drawing and painting, as well as photography.

While you don't always have to follow the rules to make great photos, it is helpful to learn the basics so you can use them where it makes sense.

One of the easiest techniques to add to your toolkit, is the Rule of Odds.

Put simply, it can be visually more interesting if there is an odd number of objects like 3, 5, 7 in the frame rather than an even number such as 2, 4, 6 or 8.

In other words, even numbers provide a sense of order and comfort, while odd numbers provide a sense of disorder or tension. It is this tension that can make the odd number of subjects in the photo more interesting to the viewer.

Consider these two images. Which photo do you like better and why?

While still a nice photo, the two pelicans on the left almost seem like something is missing as compared to the ducks on the right.

The pelican photo leads the viewers eye from the beaks to the bottom and off of the edge of the photo (or frame). Whereas the photo of the three ducks encourages the viewers eye to circulate around and around the frame without a sharp exit or breaking point.

A successful photo is one where the viewer lingers or spends time investigating the subject matter, rather than an abrupt exit out of the frame and on to the next picture. This can be done by providing several entry and exit points of interest for the eye to scan back and forth across the image.

Creating a photograph with an odd number of subjects can provide these entry and exit points, and bring a few subtle psychological effects into play which keep the viewer engaged with the image.

Thinking in Pairs

Our human brain likes to put order to things. One way it does this is by logically pairing things together to form a complete set.

Looking at the images below. The one on the left features a family with four people. Our brains tend to group them together, and once that job is done, our attention moves elsewhere.

The three girls in the image on the right are not so easily grouped together, and can ask the brain to provide more processing time to ponder what it is seeing. This in turn, can potentially make the image appear more compelling to the viewer.

Focus on the Middle

While finding pairs might be one activity for our brains to unconsciously engage, another is a certain sense of balance when seeing something in the middle.

This is another example why the Rule of Odds is successful for the creation of visually pleasing photos.

This same technique can hold true whether you have 3, 5, 7, even 9 objects in the image. Although more objects after that may be too many to process at a glance.

Odd Numbers with Different Objects?

To practice the Rule of Odds, do you always need to have an odd number of the same thing? Or can you use different objects as well?

Usually you can experiment with different objects and still get the same result. Sometimes having a variation of one type of object, like the dog image or red / green apples below, can be very effective.

You can also try posing your subjects in different ways like these zebras, to see how that changes the image. Although keep in mind that asking zebras to pose is not always a simple task.

The objects don't have to be lined up either. Try moving them around the frame in different positions, but don't forget that some models can be easier to order around than others!

Essence of Photography is a series of tips, tutorials, and visual inspiration on a variety of photography skills and techniques.

All photos in this article were posted to the Aminus3 Photography Community and are copyrighted by their respective photographers.

Click on any photo to see a larger version or to leave a comment for the photographer.

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TOPICS: essence of photography composition

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