How To Use The Rules Of Composition

How To Use The Rules Of Composition

In my last article I wrote about the way balance and placement work together in composition. This leads to a fundamental idea that will improve your composition skills once you start to use it. The concept is this – the most effective or best photos use two or more rules of composition at the same time.

Let’s explore that idea in a little more depth. Most of us are familiar with the so called rules of composition (especially if you read articles like this one!) such as the rule of thirds, or ideas like using simplicity, leading lines, tonal contrast, texture and so on.

Regardless of whether you think of them as rules or guidelines, they all have their place in helping you compose better photos.

The trap is that you may think you only have to use one of these ideas. That’s why it’s common to see images where the photographer has obviously used the rule of thirds but hasn’t given any thought to the balance of the photo, or ideas like using space effectively, or getting close enough to the subject etc.

The best way to explain is with examples, so let’s get started.

Rules of composition example 1: Candle in Chinese temple

Rules of composition

These are the rules of composition that I’ve applied to the photo above.

Symmetrical composition. While not completely symmetrical, thanks to the angle at which I took the photo, there is symmetry in the placement of the candle and the candle holders either side.

Use of diagonal line. I framed the photo so that the ledge runs across the frame in a rising diagonal. This helps add visual interest and pull the eye across the photo.

Use of negative space. There is negative space above and below the candle. The space in the frame gives the subject room to breathe.

Texture. There are interesting textures in the photo.

Simplified composition. I moved in close and kept the composition as simple as possible. This means there is nothing to distract you from the main subject (the candle).

Limited color palette. The pink, green and yellow of the candle create visual contrast when juxtaposed with the gray/brown background.

As you can see this deceptively simple composition has at least six compositional ideas applied to it! You’ll also notice that none of these work in isolation or against each other. They work together to make the composition stronger.

Let’s take a look at how this works in some other photos.

Rules of composition example 2: Black and white portrait

Here’s a black and white portrait that uses several rules of composition.

Composition rules

Central composition. Rather than using the rule of thirds to place the subject, the model is near the center of the frame.

Framing. The out of focus white square behind the model frames her face. In fact, there are several frames within frames here. The model’s face is framed by her hair, which is framed by the white square, which in turn is framed by the dark rocks.

Subtle tonal contrast. The tonal contrasts in the photo echo the frames. The model’s skin is a light tone, her hair slightly darker, the white square is lighter, and the rocks are much darker.

Shallow depth of field. I used a wide aperture (f4 on an 85mm lens) to make the portrait. As a result the background is out of focus which is a form of simplification.

Black and white conversion. This was done afterwards in Lightroom, not at the time I made the photo, but the black and white conversion emphasizes the tonal contrasts in the photo.

It’s a relatively simple portrait but there are at least five rules of composition working together.

Rules of composition example 3: Stormy sky

Here’s a photo I took at Muriwai Beach, a black sand beach in New Zealand.

Photographic composition

It also applies several rules of composition.

Scale. The people are deliberately small in the frame, to give a sense of scale against the stark landscape and stormy sky.

Diagonal lines. The edge of the sea creates a diagonal line leading across the frame. The people are walking along the direction of line, which emphasizes its direction and strength in the photo.

Limited color palette. The gray sky and black sand have virtually no color. Luckily for me two of the people in the group were wearing red, which helps pull the eye towards them.

Rules of composition example 4: Red flower

Here’s a close up photo of a red flower. I was attracted to this particular flower because I saw a kind of beauty in its decaying petals.

Composition rules in photography

What rules of composition does it use? Let’s take a look.

Color contrast. Red and green are complementary colors (that is, they are opposite each other on a color wheel – sometimes referred to as opposite colors). That means they are a powerful visual combination when used together like this photo.

Simplicity. Closing in on the flower helped create a simple composition. There’s very little to distract attention from the main subject.

The simplified composition (emphasized by using a wide aperture to give a narrow depth of field) shows that composition doesn’t always have to complex. Sometimes the simple approach is just as effective.

Rules of composition example 5: Chinese door handles

This is a photo that I made in Yuyuan market, an old part of Shanghai.

Compsition rules of photography

Let’s take a look at the rules of composition in place.

Symmetry. There’s a powerful symmetry created by the two door handles, and the way the dragons seem to be looking away from each other. You’ll also notice how the composition isn’t perfectly symmetrical. For instance, the paint on the ring part of the left door handle marks it apart from the other one. Part of the paintwork is also missing on one of the doors. Imperfections like these help create a sense of realism.

Strong use of color. The red doors and gray handles make up a photo in which red is the only strong color. There’s nothing subtle about the color in this photo, instead it’s strong and dramatic.

Rules of composition example 6: Chinese temple

Finally, here’s another photo that I made in China on a hazy day.

Rules of composition in photography

This one uses some different rules of composition.

Rule of thirds. The temple, which is the main focal point of the photo, is placed directly on the intersection of thirds.

Aerial perspective. The hazy conditions mean the temple is silhouetted, but the hills behind it are hazy rather than black. This is because of the hazy atmosphere, but it’s also a visual indicator that the hills behind the temple are further away than it.

Use of shape. The temple is silhouetted but we can still tell what it is because of its shape. The same applies to the hills behind it.

Simplicity. Once again, it’s an image with a simplified composition.

Cropping. I cropped the photo in Lightroom to the 5:4 aspect ratio because the wider rectangle created by using a 35mm camera seemed to unbalance the image by creating too much empty space. Just like the photo I converted to black and white, this is a composition decision made while developing the photo, rather then the point of capture.

Final thoughts

The most important point of this article is to help you understand that the various rules and guidelines of composition don’t work in isolation. Instead, they work together, ideally in harmony, to create photos with strong or dramatic compositions.

This idea should also help you analyze your own photos when you have time to look at them more closely on your computer. Get into the habit of looking deeper at photos and trying to see beyond the obvious. You can also do this with other people’s photos, especially those created by master photographers.

Further reading

Composition resources

Learn more about composition with our ebooks Mastering Composition Book One, Mastering Composition Book Two and Square.

Mastering Composition ebook

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.


  1. Author

    Hi James, I suggest you set yourself mini-assignments using one composition rule at a time. For example, one day you could try making photos that use negative space, another photos that use tonal contrast, another day work with central compositions, another day work with off-center compositions, and so on. Adjust to suit your style of photography and preferred subject matter.

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