Photo Tip: A Matter of Numbers ___ 02/2009

Male and female Wood Ducks. The compositional number two works best in a relationship of male-female, big-small, parent-child. Canon 5D II, 500mm f/4, 1.4x, ISO 500, f/6.3, 1/2500sec.
Two works for male-female, big-small, parent-child.

If you work at composition—and what photographer doesn’t—you’re probably aware that number is a compositional element, and a powerful one. Consider that composition is a way of organizing a photograph. The best compositions paring down, simplifying, gett to the essence. It puts a stamp on who you are as a photographer.Number is one of many subsets of composition. It’s the number of like elements that make up your subject. More simply: how many subjects are in the photo? You may have one hiker on a trail, two kayakers paddling a sea, three foreground rocks, and so on. Odd numbers generally make for better compositions—they tend to be more interesting and more dynamic. Three is a great number. The three points that form a triangle are more exciting than four points that make a box.

One is powerful. Picture an ice climber on a blue-ice wall. It says risk, confidence, skill, going-it-alone. Two ice climbers? It might work if they look like a team, but then they’re operating as one. Two is interesting, but two usually works if it behaves more like one—if there’s a relationship like male-female, big-small, parent-child. Again it works best if they’re a unit. Two paddlers works if they’re paddling close together; if they’re far apart, not so well. A male and female wood duck perched together on a log works; two males alone—probably not as strong. Three is magic. I don’t know how many times I’ve used three foreground rocks to anchor a scenic. And five is better that four, seven better than six. If you’re photographing small flocks of birds in flight, pick off the odd-numbered groupings.

Three pair of Wood Ducks. The number three is a stronger bet. Go with it when you have the choice.
Four pair of Wood Ducks, assembled in Photoshop. Generally, four is not a strong number.

A few weeks ago I assembled four pair of wood ducks—from four separate photos of the same pair at liftoff—in Photoshop. With the soft, out-of-focus cattails for background, it was quick work, but I wasn’t thrilled with the result. After thinking about it, I dropped one pair, leaving three pair of ducks. My thinking was three is preferable to four. In part, dropping one middle pair was simplification, in that the middle pair males look much the same, and simplification is a good thing. But it’s more than that. Take a look; three’s a charm. The group of threes bests the group of fours.

Four pair of Wood Ducks, assembled in Photoshop from a single pair liftoff. Generally, four is not a strong number.
Three pair of Wood Ducks, assembled in Photoshop. Go with three when you can.