Composition in photography is about what to include or leave out of your frame. It’s also about how you decide to place the elements in the scene.
In this article, I’ll describe 21 important rules of composition in photography. Rather than thinking of these as “rules”, think of them as guidelines for making your images more visually appealing and interesting.
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21. Rule of Thirds
Composing using the Rule of Thirds means placing your main subject a third of the way into the image. Placing your subject off-centre is much more interesting than placing it in the centre.
Many cameras, including smartphones, can overlay a Rule of Thirds grid on the screen. It looks like a tic-tac-toe game. Two horizontal lines and two vertical lines divide the frame into thirds.
When photographing, place your main subject on one of the lines. Either horizontally or vertically.
“Crash points” are where the lines intersect. If you can, place your focus subject where the lines intersect.
20. Rule of Odds
The Rule of Odds is a way of simplifying a complex scene with many possible subjects. In general, we find an odd number of subjects more interesting than an even number.
Three is a magic number, but five or seven also work.
The Rule of Odds helps us select our subjects thoughtfully. The rule guides us on what to include and what to leave out.
The Rule of Odds also reminds us to isolate our subject in a busy scene. One is an odd number.
19. Filling the Frame
Filling the frame is about getting close to your subject. Really close.
Make your main subject clear and distinct. Ask yourself, how much sky do you really need? How much background?
We can fill the frame by using a zoom lens and getting photographically close to our subject. But it’s often better to “zoom with your feet”. Get physically closer to your subject.
In post-processing, consider cropping tighter on your subject to fill the frame.
18. Depth of Field
Depth of field is deciding how much of the image should be in focus. This isn’t so much a rule as a compositional decision you need to make.
A shallow depth of field means only a small part of the image is in focus, usually the subject. The background is blurred.
A deep depth of field means the image is in focus from the front to the back.
Use a shallow depth of field to blur distracting backgrounds. Sports photographers blur backgrounds so athletes stand out against a busy crowd. To get a shallow depth of field, use a wide aperture like f2.8.
Generally, use a deep depth of field for landscape photography. To get the entire scene in focus, use a narrow aperture like f16.
Orientation and aspect ratio determine how much of the scene you capture in an image.
Orientation refers to whether you’re holding the camera horizontally or vertically. Aspect ratio is the size of the image taken by the camera.
If there are a lot of vertical elements or height to your image, use portrait orientation. Hold your camera vertically.
If there are a lot of horizontal elements or width to your image, use landscape orientation. Hold your camera horizontally.
Don’t forget that you have a panorama option. We usually think of panoramas as long, horizontal images, but they can be vertical as well.
I often take the shot both ways and see what I like later. I often try different aspect ratios and crops in post-processing.
16. Straighten Lines
Straighten lines that should be straight.
Not all lines in an image need to be straight, but there are some lines that are expected to be straight. For instance, the horizon line in a landscape. Horizon tilt in an image is immediately noticeable and distracting.
Many cameras and tripods include a level. Use these tools to help orientate your camera. It’s also easy to correct a tilted line in post-processing.
Straight lines are also important in architecture. Using a wide-angle lens often distorts lines. Leave space on either side of a building so you can straighten lines in post-processing.
In an image with many different lines, choose one to be your main focus. Make this line straight even if the others are a bit off.
15. Leading Lines
Lines may be actual lines or implied by elements in the scene.
Sometimes the lines are straight and lead directly to the subject. Other times, the journey is roundabout. S-curves are a favourite of photographers.
Leading lines lead somewhere. If a line doesn’t lead anywhere or it leads the eye out of the frame, change your position. Move left or right or up or down.
14. Diagonal Lines
Diagonal lines add interest and energy to photography composition. Try photographing lines on a strong diagonal rather than straight across the frame.
Make sure your diagonal is obvious. A little tilt to a line looks like a mistake.
Think about where lines intersect with each other. Converging lines draw the eye. Also, consider where lines enter or leave the frame. Photographers sometimes try to have a line enter or leave the frame in a corner.
13. Light Attracts Attention
Our eyes naturally go to the brightest part of an image. Knowing this affects how we compose an image. The main subject should be the brightest part of the image.
Portrait photographers use flash or reflectors to highlight the faces of their models.
In post-processing, techniques like dodging and burning direct the eye. Dodging is selectively lightening certain parts of the image. Burning is selectively darkening certain parts of the image.
12. Negative Space
Negative space is the use of the space between or around subjects as an important element in the image. Negative space becomes its own subject with its own shape.
Negative space can show scale or imply an emotion like “emptiness.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to see negative space because we’re so used to focusing on a subject. Try flipping your images upside-down in post-processing. This will help you see space without being too focused on the details of your main subject.
11. Symmetry and Visual Balance
Visual balance is the relationship between two or more elements in your composition. The elements look balanced. One is not visually heavier than the other.
Even non-symmetrical images need visual balance. Balance a large, visually heavy subject on one side of the frame with many smaller subjects on the other. Balance a foreground element with a background element.
10. Changing Perspective
Perspective is about where you are in relation to your subject. Changing perspective means getting down low or going up high.
Everyone sees the world from about the same perspective – at eye level. You can make images more interesting by using a different perspective.
Photographing from a low angle makes the subject look more powerful.
It’s also fun to change your perspective and go high. This is one reason drone photography is so interesting. We rarely get this bird’s eye view of our world.
Using a low perspective is important when photographing subjects close to the ground. It’s also important when photographing children. Get down to their eye level.
9. Golden Rule
The Golden Rule is about placing your main subject in an important part in your frame. This rule is like the Rule of Thirds. But the Golden Rule suggests a different arrangement of compositional elements.
The Golden Rule is based on the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is a naturally occurring mathematical phenomenon. The natural world favours the ratio 1 to 1.618. Mathematically, this may mean nothing to you, but visually, you see it everywhere. The most common visual representation of the Golden Ratio is the spirals of a seashell.
In photography, the Golden Rule is represented either as a grid or a spiral.
Some cameras allow you to see an overlay of the Golden Ratio or the Golden Ratio on your viewfinder. Lightroom also has overlays to help you crop images using the Golden Rule.
8. Movement Left to Right
We read images like we read text, from left to right. Movement in a photograph should also move left to right in the frame. This compositional rule is particularly important for wildlife and sports/action photographers.
It’s not always easy to capture motion left to right in the real world. Flip your image horizontally in post-processing to create left to right movement. This often works as long as there is no text in the image.
Make sure to leave room in the frame for the subject to move into. This means leaving space to the right of the subject. Otherwise, it looks as if the subject is moving out of the frame.
7. Pattern and Repetition
Our brains like pattern and repetition. We’ll even impose patterns on random elements. Think of the fun we have finding patterns in clouds. Incorporating repetition and pattern makes our photographic compositions stronger and more interesting.
Repetition and pattern are often found in shapes and colour.
You may have to change your perspective to make patterns pop. Notice how changing perspective alters spacing or hides the pattern.
Adding contrast to repetition makes your photos even more dynamic. The contrasting element may be a different colour, shape or height. Breaking up the pattern emphasises the pattern.
6. Relationship Between Elements
Look for interesting relationships between elements in your image.
For instance, look for tension. Two elements that appear to pull at each other create visual tension. The colours clash, or there is a size discrepancy.
Street photographers often juxtapose elements. Something in the environment conflicts with people on the street. This can create humour or suggest a deeper idea.
Colour theory is about how colours in your image relate. Colour theory is often represented as a colour wheel. Colours across from each other on the wheel are complementary.
Simplifying means including only what you need in the image. Take out everything you don’t need.
Simplifying an image doesn’t mean creating minimalist images. Simplicity is distilling the idea of a photograph into its purest form.
Decide what your photo is about. Then take out everything that isn’t about this idea.
With framing, one element of your image sits inside another element. This creates a frame within your frame. For instance, you might shoot through a window or through an opening in the trees.
Frames add depth and draw our eyes into the image and to the main subject.
Layering is looking for elements that stack from the front to the back of your image. Layering adds depth and dimension.
Layering includes adding a foreground element to a landscape. Rather than the scene being on the same flat plane, a foreground element leads the viewer into the scene. Rocks or flowers are natural foreground elements.
Layers should be visually distinct in colour or light. This helps avoid mergers and lets the eye easily distinguish the layers.
2. Avoid Mergers
Mergers happen when elements in an image overlap in a way that makes it difficult for our eyes to separate. Our 3D eyes separate out things separated by distance. But in a 2D photograph, the objects pancake especially if they are similar in colour or shading.
Watch for background distractions. It’s easy to overlook a tree branch that appears to be coming out of someone’s head. Or people look like they have extra limbs.
To create a clear composition, make sure your main subject has space around it. If objects or people overlap, step to the left or right. Changing the angle even slightly can often get rid of mergers.
1. Edge Patrol
Finally, before snapping a photograph, scan the edges of your frame. We’re often so focused on our main subject that we forget to look at the entire frame.
Look for trapped space. Trapped space happens when an object and the edge of the frame intersect to create an odd shape of light.
Also, look to see how objects or people are cut off by the edge of the frame.
Some photographers live by the rule: “Include everything or include nothing.” This means that rather than cutting an object or person off at the edge of the frame, it’s better to cut it out completely.
Other photographers are ok with cutting off an object or person as long as the crop looks natural.
Portrait photographers try not to cut people off at the joints.
Compositional choices make the difference between a snapshot and a great photograph. Following these photography composition rules is a great way to make more impactful images.
But there is no one right way of seeing the world.
Once you master the rules of photographic composition, it’s time to bend or break them. Notice that most of the images I used in this article follow the Rule of Thirds. But not all.
Use these photography composition rules as guides to help you decide what to include in your image and how to place the elements. Sometimes the right thing to do is to break the rules of composition.