July 18, 2024

22 Essential Photography Composition Rules

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As a beginner, photography composition may be a mystery. But as you look at images made by photographers whose work you admire, you notice some things. Among those things: these photographs tend to be a lot more eye-catching. They just look better.

What’s the difference between an average photo and a remarkable photograph? Do you know how a photo works? What makes a photograph outstanding? Is it the setting of the environment, depth of field, or the subject? Could it be the lighting, balance, use of lines, or how space is utilized? Was it the use of color or contrast?

Photography is about communication between the photographer and the viewer. That is, the photographer tells a story through an image. So what makes for a great image? The answer is subjective. Most of us would agree that a great image strikes a chord inside us. It evokes a strong emotional response in the viewer. And there are some important elements of photography that make it more likely that an image will strike a chord and stir emotions.

In this article, we review the role of composition in photography. In addition, we compile a list of photography composition rules, define those rules, and give examples with images. Whether you follow these rules, bend or break them, knowing the fundamental rules of photographic composition makes you a better photographer.

What is Photography Composition?

Composition in photography refers to the arrangement of elements within the frame to create a visually appealing and impactful image. So, composition commands a leading role in determining the overall aesthetic quality of a photograph. It greatly influences how the viewer interprets and connects with the image. With an elegant arrangement of elements within the frame, a photographer elicits an emotional response, highlights specific subjects, and creates a sense of harmony or tension within the image.

In addition to the placement of objects within the frame, composition combines light, color, texture, and perspective to enhance the visual impact of the image. By understanding and applying compositional techniques, photographers elevate their work from a snapshot to a work of art that conveys a message or tells a story.

1. Rule of Thirds

The first photo composition rule, the most talked about, and most clichéd, is the rule of thirds. Most cameras offer an option to turn on a grid that superimposes lines on the viewfinder or LCD screen. These lines divide the frame into three rows and three columns.

Placing the focal point of an image where two lines intersect or aligning an important element with one of those lines makes the image more appealing to the human eye.

rule of thirds.

The above photo is an example of the rule of thirds. The rising sun is at the top right point where two lines intersect, and the sun’s reflection on the water follows one of the vertical lines. This positioning helps the eye to scan the image.

Photoshop’s crop tool superimposes the rule of thirds grid lines to assist in cropping an image.

2. Golden Rectangle and Triangle

A variation on the rule of thirds, the golden rectangle is a unique geometric shape aesthetically pleasing to the human eye. It is a rectangle whose sides are in proportion to the golden ratio. I won’t go into the mathematics of it, but Wikipedia describes it in detail.

The golden rectangle has been used in architecture, visual arts, and design for centuries. The vertical and horizontal lines of the grid are closer to the center than the Rule of Thirds.

golden rectangle.

Photographers use the golden rectangle to compose images that draw the viewer’s eye to certain focal points within the frame. Therefore, it is a versatile tool that can enhance the visual impact of artistic and photographic works.

The Golden triangle is very different from the Golden ratio, but the concept is similar. We use it to create visual harmony. With a diagonal line from corner to corner, two lines join this diagonal at 90-degree angles from the remaining corners. So the diagonal lines form four triangles. How this rule is applied is flexible. Many compositions have only a rough approximation to the lines.

landscape triangles.

Photographers utilize geometric shapes like the golden triangle to guide the viewer’s eye through the image in a dynamic and visually appealing way. This technique creates a sense of movement, depth, and visual interest in the photograph.

3. Golden Spiral or Golden Ratio

The Golden Spiral is a repeating spiral shape with a consistent growth ratio. The growth is based on Fibonacci numbers or sequences. Again, Wikipedia explains it.

By incorporating this principle into an image, you can guide the viewer’s eye in a natural and harmonious way, leading to a more engaging and aesthetically pleasing final result.

seashell golden spiral.

The golden spiral is seen in a top-down view of a spiral staircase and some seashells, such as the shark eye above. And the composition of the image doesn’t have to be a perfect example of the technique to benefit from the aesthetics of the principle.

4. Leading Lines

Leading lines invite the viewer’s eyes to follow them. To that end, these lines lead our eyes into the image and help us understand the story. Photographers form leading lines in a number of ways. One is some form of solid line. A road or fence may form such lines. Another is a broken line, such as a row of stones or a horizontal line made of tree branches. To be most effective, leading lines should guide the viewer’s attention into the frame, to the main subject of the image, not out of it.

Horizontal and vertical lines create a sense of stability in an image. Our eyes are accustomed to seeing horizontals and verticals. For example, the rectangle with its parallel lines is a common shape. You might apply the rule of thirds or golden rectangle to position these lines, putting them on a grid line.

leading line.

Diagonal lines and triangles add visual tension. When we see diagonal lines or triangles, we feel the tension and have a tendency to want to stabilize it.

5. The Horizon Line

By strategically placing the horizon line within the frame, photographers create a sense of balance and harmony in their photos. This composition rule leads to a more engaging and dynamic viewing experience. Specifically, the horizon line adds depth and dimension to the image, conveying a sense of scale and perspective in photos.

This is a powerful tool that photographers use to create visually striking compositions. By understanding how to effectively utilize this rule, photographers elevate their images and capture the attention of their audience. Whether shooting landscapes, seascapes, or cityscapes, incorporating the horizon line into the composition creates captivating and memorable photographs.

horizon line.

6. The S-Curve

A photography composition technique that adds unique appeal to an image, the S-curve is a variation on leading lines. The S-curve features unconventional angles with curved lines such as roads, rivers, or various elements. This technique creates a sense of movement, flow, and balance within the image.

The gentle curves guide the viewer’s gaze, creating a visually pleasing and dynamic composition. This technique is particularly effective in landscape photography. The S-curve adds depth and dimension, creating a strong composition. Its function is similar to that of leading lines, guiding the eye toward the primary subject.

s-curved road.

7. Negative Space

Negative space surrounds the main subject with a blank area. The amount of negative space to leave depends on what you want the image to tell the viewer. However, too much negative space becomes a distraction. We use negative space to emphasize the main subject. This may create a sense of loneliness or a vast unknown. Also, a photograph with negative space might contrast the smallness of a living thing with the magnitude of the world.

mockingbird negative space.

Negative space is often requested in commercial photography. It may be referred to as “copy space.” That is an area of the image where an editor or designer could add text.

However it’s used, negative space involves simplifying the image, reducing the number of visual elements. Leaving negative space gives more visual weight and prominence to the main subject of the image.

8. Symmetry and Centered Composition

Symmetry relates to beauty, the exact correspondence of form on opposite sides of a dividing line. Generally, the composition is centered. Symmetry catches the eye. Incorporate symmetry in your images and you increase the quality of your compositions. 

Our minds have been exposed to symmetry or dynamic symmetry since the day we were born. So, it is a valuable rule to add to your photography composition principles. When you encounter a scene with symmetry, embrace the opportunity. Compose a photograph to emphasize and balance elements within the scene.

Symmetry in architecture.

9. Patterns and Textures

Patterns add an aspect of interest to your images. By incorporating repeating elements, similar objects, or textures, patterns create a sense of rhythm and visual interest in a photograph. We find patterns in various subjects, such as architecture, nature, or everyday objects. When used effectively, patterns can add depth and structure to photography composition.

pattern and texture of a flower.

10. Break the Pattern

Some composition principles benefit from being broken. Breaking out of a pattern adds pop to an image. A single color or shape stands out in the midst of many similar colors or geometric shapes grouped together. It grabs the attention by disrupting the repetition or symmetry in an image. It adds intrigue and dynamism.

Breaking the pattern appeals to the eye by challenging the viewer’s expectations. Therefore, it introduces an element of surprise and uniqueness, making the image stand out.

broken pattern.

11. Balance the Elements

A balanced image creates a harmonious composition. By distributing visual weight evenly, photographers create a sense of equilibrium, adding visual interest to their photographs.

By carefully positioning various elements of an image within the frame, we create a variation of symmetry. This balance may be created with contrasting colors or different shapes that create a visually appealing and impactful composition. It adds a sense of equilibrium in the photograph.

balanced composition.

In the above photo, the trees in the foreground and the rock formation in the background create a balanced image.

12. Frame Within a Frame

This is a time-honored composition rule and technique. Frame within a frame invokes a sense of intimacy and focus. This technique involves incorporating elements in the foreground to create a visual border around the main subject, adding depth and viewer focus to the image.

This compositional principle draws the viewer’s attention to the focal point of a photography composition and creates a sense of context or perspective within the natural frames of the image. In addition, by framing the main subject within a secondary frame, photographers create a sense of scale and perspective.

frame in a frame.

13. Fill the Frame

This photo composition rule is just what it says it is. By filling the frame with the subject, photographers highlight the details, textures, and colors of the main focal point of the image. This technique allows the viewer to focus solely on the subject without any distractions, creating a visually appealing and impactful photograph.

To completely fill the frame adds a sense of intimacy and closeness with the subject, drawing the viewer in and enhancing an attractive composition. What’s more, it eliminates unnecessary elements, resulting in a clean and uncluttered image.

This technique is particularly effective in portraits or close-up shots of objects. By capturing intricate details that might otherwise be overlooked, filling the frame is a powerful composition technique that intensifies the visual appeal of a photograph.

headshot of a women filling the frame.

14. Isolate the Subject

An effective photography composition technique is isolating the subject. By employing shallow depth of field, framing, or negative space, the photographer draws the viewer’s attention directly to the main subject of the image. Another method to isolate the subject is to remove the background in post-processing.

The simplicity of this rule evokes strong emotions and makes the primary subject memorable to the viewer. Meanwhile, it stretches a photographer’s decision-making skills. But done artfully, it results in an interesting photography composition with a sense of intimacy and connection between the subject and the viewer.

subject isolated by blurring the background.

15. Simplicity and Minimalism

When we strip away distractions and eliminate unnecessary elements, we create a powerful and impactful image that draws attention to the main subject. This approach allows for a clean and uncluttered composition, highlighting simplicity and emphasizing negative space in the frame.

Simplicity and minimalism enhance the emotional impact of an image, allowing the viewer to connect more deeply with the subject. By paring down the composition to its essential elements, this approach can evoke a range of emotions, from tranquility to contemplation to introspection.

minimal composition.

16. Foreground – Middle Ground – Background

A photo composition technique with immense visual appeal, the use of three different planes, or layers, the foreground, middle ground, and background adds a sense of depth and dimension in an image. This can be accomplished by applying the horizontal lines of the rule of thirds.

The foreground serves as a visual anchor, drawing in the viewer’s eye and providing a point of entry into the photograph. Then, the middle third of the image serves as a bridge between the foreground and background, adding context and enhancing the overall composition. Finally, the background adds depth and additional context to make an interesting composition, providing a visually pleasing backdrop that complements the main subject.

This technique is popular in landscape photos and often provides natural compositional elements that lend themselves to the rule of thirds, creating an immersive and captivating photograph.

17. Rule of Odds

Composing an image with an odd number of subjects, rather than an even number, creates a visually stable photo. Indeed, the rule of odds balances the image and lends a sense of harmony. With an odd number of subjects, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the center subject, an agreeable point of interest. This technique brings depth to a photograph, making it more engaging for the viewer.

This technique can be used in a variety of settings, from portraits to landscapes, leading to compositions that engage the viewer. Consequently, it is one of many simple, yet effective, composition techniques that photographers use to create more compelling images.

rule of odds.

18. Angles and Point of View

Angles and point of view are powerful techniques to captivate the eye. By carefully selecting the angle from which a photograph is taken, photographers manipulate the perspective and create a sense of depth and dimension. Whether it’s a low angle that emphasizes the subject’s dominance or a high angle that provides a unique vantage point, angles play a crucial role in conveying the intended message or emotion.

Additionally, the choice of point of view can greatly impact the composition and storytelling aspect of a photograph. For instance, a close-up shot with a zoom lens immerses the viewer in the subject’s world. Meanwhile, a shot from a wide-angle lens captures the grandeur or scale of the setting.

Overall, angles and point of view are essential composition techniques. Use this rule judiciously to create visually compelling images that resonate with the viewer.

low angle photography.

19. Add People

Bringing people into a photography composition enhances the visual impact. By adding human subjects, photographers convey emotions, tell stories, and create a sense of scale and perspective. Equally important, people can serve as focal points, drawing attention to the image and adding a dynamic element to the scene.

Whether capturing candid moments or carefully posed portraits, including individuals in a photograph draws the viewer into the image on a personal level. Additionally, human beings provide a sense of context, helping to establish the setting and atmosphere of the scene.

human element.

20. Incorporate Color

Color plays a crucial role in photographic composition as it has the power to captivate the viewer. By strategically incorporating different hues, photographers create a visual impact that enhances the overall aesthetic appeal of an image. Careful selection and arrangement of colors can evoke various emotions and moods, adding depth and meaning to the photograph.

Whether it’s the vibrant and energetic tones of a sunset or the harmonious blend of complementary colors, the use of color in photography allows for endless creative possibilities. It not only grabs attention but also helps to guide the viewer’s gaze, highlighting key elements and creating a sense of balance within the frame.

Photographers and designers study and utilize color theory to create color combinations that complement each other and are visually striking. We have an informative article on color in photography that is an excellent primer.

colors.

21. Add Contrast

Contrast is a powerful tool in photographic composition. Enhance the appeal of an image by incorporating contrasting elements. Light and dark, color and monochrome, or sharp and soft focus. As a result, contrast leads to dynamic and striking images.

For example, a photograph with strong contrast between a brightly lit subject against a dark background creates a dramatic image. Or, the juxtaposition of vibrant colors against neutral background elements depicts a more serene composition. Thus, the skillful use of contrast in photography can elevate an image from ordinary to extraordinary, leaving a lasting impression.

orange with black color background contrast.

22. Black and White

Black and white photography involves more than just a lack of color. As one of our composition tips, it holds a unique appeal for viewers. We focus solely on the interplay of light and shadow, texture, and form. This enhances the visual impact of the subject, evoking a sense of timelessness and nostalgia. Also, it lends a certain elegance and sophistication to the photograph

A monochromatic palette emphasizes the contrast and tonal range. With the simplicity and purity of black and white images, photographers evoke a range of emotions, from a sense of tranquility and serenity to a feeling of drama and intensity. On the whole, it is a powerful method to convey emotions, tell stories, and capture the essence of a subject in a visually striking manner.

b&w.

In Closing

These photo composition rules, guidelines, and tips are intended to boost your creativity. But they are not hard and fast rules. Rather, consider them as composition guidelines, meaningful, tried and true principles that work. Once you master these rules, use them, go beyond them, and break them when necessary to create even more compelling images.

Hopefully, this article advances you in your photography journey. Apply these rules, combine them, and adapt them into your work. If you have any questions or comments, please submit them in the space below.



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