Ten Useful Composition Rules For Photographers

Ten Useful Composition Rules For Photographers


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Camera technology has changed radically over the last 100 years, but one thing that stays the same are the rules of photographic composition. It doesn’t matter how fancy your camera and lenses are, if your composition is poor then you will struggle to make good photos. On the other hand, if you have a good eye for composition then you’ll find that you can make memorable images using simple tools like a smartphone or a compact camera. Composition really is that important!

With that in mind, I’ve come up with ten composition rules for you to follow. But before we look at them, I should point that they aren’t really rules. None of them should be followed slavishly, otherwise you risk losing spontaneity and being predictable. But they will help you understand the elements of good visual design. Because of that, it’s best to think of them as guidelines, or principles of composition.

The best composition is done intuitively. To help that process, spend some time putting these ideas into action until they become second nature. Keep an open mind and be adaptable – what works for one photo may not work for another.

By the way, if you want to learn even more about composition don’t forget to check out my new ebook Mastering Composition Book Two.

Composition rule #1. Simplify

Simplifying the composition usually means moving closer to the subject and excluding anything from the frame that you don’t want in it. This is easier with standard or telephoto lenses, especially if you use a large aperture to blur the background. Wide-angle lenses naturally include much more of the background and are harder to make simplified compositions with.

You can take the idea even further with regards to the equipment you carry. If you go on a shoot with one camera and just one or two lenses you have less gear to worry about. This frees you up to concentrate on finding the most interesting ways to photograph your subject. Your composition will improve as a result.

Composition rules for photographers

Why this photo works…

1. The composition includes the birds, the painted walls and nothing else to distract you. There’s no doubt what the subject of the photo is.

2. The bright colors of the birds contrast against the gray background.

3. Two birds make a more dynamic composition than a single bird would as the eye jumps from one to the other.

Composition rule #2: Fill the frame

This is related to the previous idea of simplifying the composition. If you’re not close enough to the subject you can end up with too much extraneous detail in the frame and a cluttered composition. You can avoid this by moving closer or zooming in. This helps you fill the frame, so there’s no doubt what the subject is.

Composition rules for photographers

Why this photo works…

1. The predominant color is green (another form of simplification) which helps create impact.

2. Only part of the basket of apples is shown, allowing it to fill the frame.

3. What little you can see of the background is out of focus, helping keep attention on the apples.

Composition rule #3: Change the aspect ratio

Most photographers use cameras with a 3:2 aspect ratio (35mm dSLRS and some mirrorless cameras) or a 4:3 aspect ratio (Micro Four-thirds cameras and most compacts and smartphones). But does the scene really fit that aspect ratio? Perhaps you can crop to the 16:9 panoramic aspect ratio, or the 1:1 square. This is easiest if you use your camera in Live View (for example, if you are shooting landscapes) or if it has an electronic viewfinder. These cameras display a cropped version of the scene when you change the aspect ratio so you can frame the scene precisely.

The most interesting aspect of changing the aspect ratio is that it forces you to view the scene differently and change your style of composition to suit. If you’re struggling for inspiration, a change of aspect ratio often provides it.

You can also crop photos to different aspect ratios in Lightroom if this makes the composition more interesting.

Composition rules for photographers

Why this photo works…

1. The panoramic crop focuses attention on the unusual water feature.

2. The concentric circles make an interesting pattern.

3. The black and white conversion adds drama.

Composition rule #4: Avoid the middle

While there are times when a central composition works (portraits are a good example of this) there are many times when you can improve the composition of your photos by placing the subject off-center.

But don’t become too obsessed about using the rule of thirds. It’s far better to think about the visual relationship your subject has with the other elements in the frame. This is much easier with a simplified composition. As you simplify, the relationships between the various elements in the photo become clearer. Let these relationships, plus the overall balance of the scene, be the guide as to where you place your subject.

Learn more: Framing, Placement and Composition

Composition rules for photographers

Why this photo works…

1. The position of the boy pulls your eye through the frame.

2. The dominant color is red with accents of yellow in the tiles and the boy’s shorts.

3. The boy provides punctuation – his presence lifts what would otherwise be a much less interesting photo.

Learn more: Composition Tips From Pro Photographer Bob Holmes

Composition rule #5: Leading lines

In the previous example the presence of the boy pulls the eye through the photo. Lines take the eye through the frame in a much more direct and obvious way.

Lines work best in photos taken with wide-angle lenses as the perspective makes the lines stronger. It’s common to see use of line in architectural and landscape photos.

Lines can be straight, diagonal or curved. Diagonal lines are powerful because they create a more dynamic composition. Diagonal lines in the landscape can help create a sense of depth. Straight lines, such as the horizon in a landscape photo, create a more peaceful feel.

Composition rules for photographers

Why this photo works…

1. The stone jetty is a strong diagonal line that takes the eye through the frame from the foreground to the distant horizon.

Composition rules for photographers

2. The aerial perspective created by the hazy conditions creates a strong sense of depth. It reinforces the depth created by the wide-angle lens and the diagonal line of the jetty.

3. The long shutter speed (125 seconds) blurred the water and clouds, creating mood.

Composition rule #6: Space to move

If your photo implies movement in any way then it’s useful to include space in the frame for the subject to move into. If you’re taking a photo that includes a walking figure, for example, it’s more comfortable to look at if there’s space in front of him. On the other hand, if the walking man is near the edge of the frame it creates a kind of tension (as we can’t see where he’s going). You can exploit this to create an edgier composition.

Composition rules for photographers

Why this photo works…

1. The man has space to move into.

Composition rules for photographers

2. The camera was tilted so that the path the man is following is diagonal. This makes the composition more dynamic.

3. There is nobody else in the photo. This makes it clearer that the walking man is the main subject.

Composition rule #7: Backgrounds

There are two approaches you can take to background. The first is to blur it using a telephoto lens and a wide aperture. This is a useful technique if the background is messy or distracts from the subject.

The second is to use a wide-angle lens and a smaller aperture to include more of the background and get it in focus. In this situation you have to follow the advice of Bob Holmes and look around the frame to make sure there are no unwanted distractions. Don’t forget you can move around to change the relationship between the subject and background.

With outdoor portraits don’t be afraid to look for a different location if the background isn’t working for you. If the background is too colorful and pulls attention from your subject you have the option of converting the photo to black and white. This is an effective way of bringing attention back to the model.

Composition rules for photographers

Why these portraits work…

1. The first portrait places the model against an interesting background that adds atmosphere and mood. A wide aperture blurs the background so it complements rather than competes with the model.

2. The second portrait was made with a telephoto lens and has a simpler background so that all the attention falls on the model.

3. Both portrait use limited color palettes (another form of simplification).

Composition rule #8: Use framing

Sometimes the subject becomes more interesting if you can find a way to frame it. Frames work well with portraits as you can find all sorts of inventive ways of framing your model. Techniques you can use include:

  • Shooting through flowers or leaves (using a wide aperture so they go out of focus).
  • Asking the model to stand in a doorway.
  • Letting the edge of a doorway go out of focus in the foreground to add depth and an extra layer of interest.

Composition rules for photographers

Why this portrait works…

1. The yellow slide makes a strong frame around the model.

2. The soft light is flattering and ideal for portraits.

3. The colors are harmonious. There are several strong colors in the photo but they work well together and don’t clash.

Composition rule #9: Look for triangles

Good photographers learn to look for shapes in the scene. The triangle is one of the commonest that you’ll come across. It works well in composition because it encourages the eye to move around the frame as it follows the shape of the triangle.

Composition rules for photographers

Why this photo works…

1. The three largest rocks make a triangle that pulls the eye around the frame.

Composition rules for photographers

2. The long shutter speed (340 seconds) blurred the sea, creating mood.

3. The photo was taken at dusk and the fading light is very atmospheric.

Composition rule #10: Use layers

We started off by looking at the idea of simplifying the composition. Using layers is a different approach that lends itself to more complex compositions. Layers are a way of creating separation between the different elements of the photo. This makes the main subject clearer.

Another benefit of using layers is that they add a sense of depth to the scene.

Composition rules for photographers

Why this photo works…

1. The photo is divided into three layers that give the image depth.

Composition rules for photographers

2. The black and white conversion makes the most of the interesting textures.

3. The backlighting picks out the buildings in the foreground, adding interest.

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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