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. Then I’ve got some great examples of how certain photos follow specific rules.
But before we look at this, I should point that the rules of composition 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why this photo works…
1. The man has space to move into.
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.
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.
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.
Why this photo works…
1. The three largest rocks make a triangle that pulls the eye around the frame.
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.
Why this photo works…
1. The photo is divided into three layers that give the image depth.
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.
How to use the rules of composition
The examples shown so far demonstrate how the various rules of composition work together. 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. We’ve already looked at some of these ideas and how you can use them to improve the composition of your 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.
The best way to explain is with examples, so let’s get started.
Rules of composition example 1: Candle in Chinese temple
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.