Evaluating Basketball Photos

NCAA Championship Photo Analysis

This page provides compositional analysis of photos from the final game of the NCAA March Madness tournament.

Great sports photos are great not just because they show key moments of action, but because they are framed — intentionally or intuitively — via classical metrics.  In major sporting events, photographers packed on the sidelines capture big plays from all angles, creating lasting images that live on to define the event. Coverage of the 2013 Super Bowl and NCAA championship game included many eye-catching plays, but a few stood out and were featured repeatedly in photographs by various news outlets.

Comparing images of the same plays reveals how mathematical proportions factor into the appeal of certain photos.  See below for an evaluation of two NCAA Final photos.

NCAA Banner

Michigan’s Trey Burke is shown flying over Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng in an attempt to score.  Many new outlets used a version of this photographs of this play in their coverage of the 2013 NCAA Championship Game.  USA Today ran the photo on the left, Sports Illustrated the version on the right.  See below for an analysis of these two photos.

What makes a photograph compelling?

Chad Neuman

Mona Lisa with the golden rectangle

THE GOLDEN RATIO — The compositional rules considered staples of good photography are based on natural inclinations.  Humans are attracted to images that follow the aesthetic guidelines of the “Golden Ratio,” the rule of thirds, and leading lines.  These elements of the golden ratio are based on mathematical proportions that appear frequently in the world.  Art enthusiasts can find the golden ratio in some of the world’s most famous paintings, as can everyday observers of the natural world.  Architecture, plants, and people all display these “golden” elements.

Chris 73

Nautilus shell with the golden rectangle

Professional photographers understand these compositional rules and use them instinctively.  Following these guidelines can make pictures more visually compelling — a consequence that has implications on the field of journalism.  Photojournalists have the ability to direct peoples’ attention to certain elements of a photo without viewers, or even the photographer, necessarily being aware of that direction.

Michigan point guard Trey Burke’s big air makes a captivating photo


Pinterest board with photos of the play

News outlets published six photos of the same play by Michigan’s Trey Burke (click to see them on two boards on Pinterest: board A and  board B).  In all the photos Burke is shown flying over Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng in an attempt to score.

The two photos shown below are both low angle images that highlight a dramatic shot and the athleticism of the players.  The photos are arresting because they capture Burke’s mid-air jump and Dieng’s contorted figure below, and because of their saturated colors.  Yet when the “golden” compositional rules are considered, the reasons why the photos are engaging are even more apparent.


The first photo analyzed is a wider shot than the second.  More players are visible on the court, as are other elements of the Georgia Dome, including: the net, the ceiling, and the court.  The wide shot also emphasizes the athleticism of the play.

This shot is wider than the first photo analyzed. As a result, Burke is seemingly higher off the ground. — Sports Illustrated


Golden Ratio: Click for larger image.

The main action of this photo is encased in the golden spiral, as are the players in the distance.  The red, diagonal line starting at the top left of the photo perfectly skims the bottom of Burke’s hand and the length of his leg.  The short, red leading line at the far left of the image rests right above Morgan’s head and follows his line of sight to the basketball and farther net.  The right, vertical rule-of-thirds line borders Burke’s feet perfectly. Burke’s hand gripping the basketball is encased in the golden rectangle.  The bottom line of the same rectangle rests above Morgan’s head and on the side of Burke’s right arm.  The blue, horizontal line at the top of the photo closes the outer spiral and borders the backboard.  As with the second photo below, more compositional alignments are evident when the direction of the spiral is reversed.


Michigan’s Trey Burke flies over Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng. — Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports, ESPN


Golden Ratio: Click for larger image.

The main action of this second photo is nicely encased in the golden spiral, with the basketball and net bordering the top, blue line.  The players’ feet neatly skim the bottom, blue line.  The red, diagonal leading line starting at the top left of the photo cuts between the action of prominent players Burke and Dieng.  Burke’s right foot slightly crosses the outer spiral, as does Jordan Morgan’s (Michigan #52). The primary light source in the upper left of the photo is encased in the spiral as well.  The Louisville Cardinals sign lands at the bottom, left rule-of-thirds intersection.  And the large mascot next to that sign skims the spiral nicely.  The red, leading lines that intersect at the bottom right of the photo land at Dieng’s knee.  The diagonal leading lines intersect on Dieng’s face at the center of the photo.

The photos of the Mona Lisa and the Nautilus shell can be found on the websites of Chad Neuman and Chris 73, respectively.