back to top

21 Most Important Rules of Composition in Photography

Last updated: November 12, 2023 - 15 min read
ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little money. Need more info? See how it all works here.
Subscribe Below to Download the Article Immediately

You can also select your interests for free access to our premium training:

Your privacy is safe! We will never share your information.

There are a number of important rules of composition in photography.

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.

Rather than thinking of these as “rules”, think of them as guidelines for making your images more visually appealing and interesting.

eBooks and Courses for Everyone

1. How to Use the Rules of Composition and the Rule of Thirds to Add Interest

Composing using the Rule of Thirds means placing your main subject a third of the way into the image. Placing your subject off-center is much more interesting than placing it in the center.

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.

Horses in a field with the rule of thirds composition grid overlayed
This image shows the Rule of Thirds grid lines with circled crash points. Notice how the horses take up 2/3rds of the image. The eye of the front horse is on a crash point. Also, notice there are three horses. This is also an example of the Rule of Odds (see Rule #2).

2. Simplify a Scene with the 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.

composition: photo of three stones placed in a line

3. Focus on Your Subject by 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.

A rule of composition: A street scene diptych before and after editing
The image on the left is the original. I cropped the image on the right much tighter eliminating much of the sky and the pavement. The original image is in portrait orientation, but I switched it to landscape orientation (See Rule #5).

4. Choose a Suitable 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.

A close up of yellow flowers in a field
Shallow depth of field isolates individual flowers in a field.

5. Use the Best Orientation for the Scene

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.

6. Straighten Lines for an Aesthetically Pleasing Image

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.

A diptych of a fireworks display before and after editing
I bumped my tripod during a fireworks display (left). The tilted horizon is easy to fix in post-processing (right).

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.

7. Create Depth with Leading Lines

Our eyes naturally follow lines through an image. Leading lines direct our eyes to the main subject. Used well, leading lines create a sense of depth.

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.

Composition tip: A the cityscape of St. Louis and the Gateway Arch at sunset
This image is full of lines leading to the cityscape of St. Louis and the Gateway Arch. The clouds, the reflection of the clouds, and the bridge are all leading lines. This image also includes rocks as a foreground element (see Rule #19).

8. Use Diagonal Lines to Add Energy

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.

Interesting composition: Birdseye view of a spiral staircase
Rather than straightening out the lines of this spiral staircase, I shifted them to a diagonal.

9. Attract Attention Using Light

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.

A close up of rain drops on leaves
I use a lot of dodging and burning in post-processing to guide my viewer’s eyes to important elements in the frame.

10. Use the Negative Space Around Objects

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.

Four swans in a lake
This photo of white swans in the fog is impactful mainly because of the negative space.

11. Balance the Subjects for 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.

Composing symmetrically creates visual balance. The left half of the image matches the right, or the top half matches the bottom. Reflections in photographs work so well because they show symmetry.

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.

A balanced composition: Serene view of trees over a lake at sunset
This image shows symmetry through the reflections, but also another type of visual balance. The tree in the left foreground is balanced by two trees in the right background.

12. Change Your 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.

A group of street protester holding placards and signs
This photo is more powerful because I’m photographing up at my main subject. She looks 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.

13. Emphasise Your Main Subject with the 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.

A street shot with the golden spiral composition grid overlayed
In this screen shot, I’m using the Golden Ratio spiral overlay in Lightroom to help me place important elements in the frame.

14. Capture Movement from 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.

Diptych of airplanes performing stunts
I flipped the image horizontally to show the difference when the planes are flying left to right or right to left.

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.

15. Incorporate Pattern and Repetition for Stronger Compositions

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 color.

You may have to change your perspective to make patterns pop. Notice how changing perspective alters spacing or hides the pattern.

A long hallway in the interior of a grand building
I often look for repetition in architecture. Architects know about the rule of repetition as well.

Adding contrast to repetition makes your photos even more dynamic. The contrasting element may be a different color, shape or height. Breaking up the pattern emphasises the pattern.

16. Find a 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 colors 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.

A woman playing accordion on the street with the text 'lovelier' above her head
I noticed the sign behind this street performer. This street performer’s smile is “lovelier”. Juxtaposing the sign and the person creates a deeper meaning.

Color theory is about how colors in your image relate. Color theory is often represented as a color wheel. Colors across from each other on the wheel are complementary.

17. Simplify Images to Capture the Essence

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.

18. Draw the Eyes with Framing

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.

The Millennium Bridge over the Thames frames St. Paul’s Cathedral
The Millennium Bridge over the Thames frames St. Paul’s Cathedral. The lights on the bridge also provide leading lines (see Rule #7).

19. Use Layering for Depth and Dimension

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 color or light. This helps avoid mergers and lets the eye easily distinguish the layers.

Stunning view of the Smokey Mountains at sunset
Photographers travel from far and wide to capture the layers of the Smokey Mountains.

20. 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 color 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.

Diptych portrait of a Cuban boxer demonstrating good portrait cropping
The rope behind this Cuban boxer creates a merger and is distracting (left). I had to remove it in post-processing (right). Notice where I’ve cropped the boxer’s arms (see Rule #21).

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.

21. Check the Edges for Distractions

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.

Tuktuk bikes on a dusty street
The edges of this image are messy. For instance, there is trapped space in the upper right corner. A foot is cut off in the bottom right.
A tuktuk bike on a dusty street
I can crop in tighter in post-processing and avoid mergers and messy edges. This is also an example of movement left to right (see Rule #14).

Conclusion: Rules Of Composition

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.

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!

eBooks and Courses for Everyone