"The only rule in photography is that there are no
rules". However, there are a number of established
composition guidelines which can be applied in almost any situation, to
enhance the impact of a scene. These guidelines will help you take more
compelling photographs, lending them a natural balance, drawing
attention to the important parts of the scene, or leading the viewer's
eye through the image. Once you are familiar with these composition
tips, you'll be surprised at just how universal most of them are.
You'll spot them everywhere, and you'll find it easy to see why some
photos "work" while others feel like simple snapshots. Can we do
without them? The jury's out on this.... but other elements in the
picture need to 'work' on their own and it's not easy to make them hang
together without applying a rule of one kind or another.... you may not
need to follow 'rules' but you do need the composition to work.
Check out this PDF
for things that can
be considered when setting up a shot. Good Composition is a key element
of good photographs yet is something that is hard to define. Instead of
looking at composition as a set of ‘rules’ to follow – view it as a set
of ingredients that can be used to make a great ‘meal’ (photograph).
Alternatively, think of it as a set of ‘tools’ for the construction of
a great image. The key is to remember that in the same way as a chef
rarely uses all the ingredients at their disposal in any dish – a
photographer rarely uses all of the ingredients of composition in the
making of an image.
Those Dreaded Rules... see this PDF
My own theory on photographic 'rules' is that, in the
early days of photography, when many people started to get interested
in it and form clubs and show their work, the leading practitioners
would try to imitate the traditional artists of the day in their
graphic design (even if the phrase hadn't been invented at the time).
However, early photography attracted more scientific people, with its
reliance on chemicals and physics, than artists (who were probably
quite happy to stick with paint). The scientific people became the
leaders of the clubs and societies but wanted to have members show
their work, so it could be analysed firstly on its technical qualities
and secondly on its artistic merits. They wanted to see who were the
best photographers in their clubs and, on a wider stage, the best in
the land. The big problem was that, in nearly all of these societies
(among them the forebears of the organisations that still rule), these
scientific people didn't really have much idea of art, so they studied
paintings and tried to set some rules that seemed to be prevalent in
the art world - so that they could pontificate and be judgemental on
their fellow photographers' work - the result of this was panels of
'judges' who could hide their ignorance of art and graphic design by
trotting out what had become the 'rules of photography' - and very soon
all amateur photographers (who wanted to compete or show their work)
had to follow them. Those early rules carried on in photo clubs and
'salons' through the years until, in the world of amateur
photographers, they became carved in stone.
In the meantime, of course, the traditional art world
of painting carried on developing with no rules... if it hadn't, there
would have been no Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Pollock etc. Society has now
moved on and, particularly since the digital age began, many more
people will experiment and be 'avant garde' with their images. There
was an inevitable clash of cultures for perhaps 25 years, but now we're
through that.... 'rules' can be discarded, anything goes. You still
hear them today... why? Because in most cases, those 'rules' could
actually improve most photographs!
Let's think of those 'rules' merely as guidelines,
something to practice and include in your work or to fall back on if
all else fails. There's no doubt that, by showing some
consideration of these rules, those holiday snaps can
improve, a mundane image can become something worth hanging on a wall,
or contributing to an exhibition.
The purpose of composition is to get the viewer's eye
to wander over a picture gently, following shapes and lines, rather
than hop around trying to 'resolve' what's in the image. These rules
can help that happen but it's not 'the law', so just consider the
'rules' as the 'traditional' arrangement - by not following them too
strictly you can introduce a different 'edge' to the image but by
totally disregarding them you may end up with a visual mess. In the
end, it's better to please yourself with your own composition - but,
being members of a camera club, you'll also be wanting to see how your
efforts fare when up against your peers..... and you may not win too
many competitions when you have 'traditional style' judges! So - will
you be brave and do your own thing, or follow all the 'rules' like many
Anyway, let's have a look at them....
The Ubiquitous - and
Much Derided - Rule of Thirds
It's been the favourite 'rule' of camera clubs since
photographs started to imitate 'art'. Imagine that your image is
divided into nine equal segments by two vertical and two horizontal
lines. Try to position the most important elements in your scene along
these lines, or at the points where they intersect. Doing so will add
balance and interest to your photo. Will they look old-fashioned and
appear to have been set up in some way? Yes, very possibly. Some
cameras even offer an option to superimpose a rule of thirds grid over
the LCD screen, making it even easier to use. Worth noting that,
historically, there was no 'rule of thirds' but many pictures did
follow some rules - and science has discovered something known as,
among other things, 'The Golden Ratio' (aka the 'Fibonacci Number').
This is not a simple division in thirds, but a much more accurate ratio
of 1:1.618. Check
this out. The Golden Ratio is found in ancient buildings and
in all kinds of places....
See this. A mystery or a sample of ancient knowledge?
Placing your main subject off-centre, as with the rule
of thirds, creates a more interesting photo, but it can leave a void in
the scene which can make it feel empty. You might try to balance the
'weight' of your subject by including another object of lesser
importance to fill the space. Portraits or other pictures where the
subject, human or other animal, is looking to one side, appear to work
better when some extra space is given for that subject 'to look into'.
That's not to say you mustn't have a person close
to the edge and 'walking off' or 'looking out to' the nearer edge of
the image. That can add a different dimension.... when the remainder of
the pictures has something to balance it or to note for its own sake.
When we look at a photo our eye is naturally drawn
along lines. By thinking about how you place lines in your composition,
you can affect the way we view the image, pulling us into the picture,
towards the subject, or on a journey 'through' the scene. There are
many different types of line - straight, diagonal, curvy, zigzag,
radial etc - and each can be used to enhance our photo's composition.
Symmetry and Patterns
We are surrounded by symmetry and patterns, both
natural and man-made., They can make for very eye-catching
compositions, particularly in situations where they are not expected.
Another great way to use them is to break the symmetry or pattern in
some way, introducing tension and a focal point to the scene - perhaps
a quite different element or colour. Patterns can include repetition of
a line or shape.
Before photographing your subject, take time to think
about where you will shoot it from. Our viewpoint has a massive impact
on the composition of our photo, and as a result it can greatly affect
the message that the shot conveys. Rather than just shooting from eye
level, consider photographing from high above, down at ground level,
from the side, from the back, from a long way away, from very close up,
and so on. This isn't so much a 'rule' as a basic requirement to find
the best angle.
How many times have you taken what you thought would be
a great shot, only to find that the final image lacks impact because
the subject blends into a busy background? Worse still, the proverbial
'tree growing out of his head'. The human eye is excellent at
distinguishing between different elements in a scene, whereas a camera
has a tendency to flatten the foreground and background, and this can
often ruin an otherwise great photo. Thankfully this problem is usually
easy to overcome at the time of shooting - look around for a plain and
unobtrusive background and compose your shot so that it doesn't
distract or detract from the subject. If you have the ability (i.e. the
lens) to shoot with a very wide aperture, you can usually throw the
background so far out of focus that it can 'dissolve' into a soft,
Because photography is a two-dimensional medium, we
have to choose our composition carefully to conveys the sense of depth
that was present in the actual scene. You can create depth in a photo
by including objects in the foreground, middle ground and background.
Another useful composition technique is overlapping, where you
deliberately partially obscure one object with another. The human eye
naturally recognises these layers and mentally separates them out,
creating an image with more depth. The best landscape images include
depth - if not, they are in danger of being quite dull 'record' shots
even of the most spectacular scenery. So the most interesting landscape
images tend to have a point of interest in the foreground - not just
that range of mountains ten miles away.
The world is full of objects which make perfect natural
frames, such as trees, archways and holes. By placing these around the
edge of the composition you help to isolate the main subject from the
outside world. The result is a more focussed image which draws your eye
naturally to the main point of interest. If there's absolutely nothing
that can help to frame your subject, consider adding, with your
photo-editor, a slight vignette for the edges of the frame.
Often a photo will lack impact because the main subject
is so small it becomes lost among the clutter of its surroundings. By
cropping tightly around the subject you eliminate the background
'noise', ensuring the subject gets the viewer's undivided attention. Do
not take sweeping images with a lot in the scene and then rely on
cropping with your editor - you may need to crop so much away that the
remaining area doesn't have sufficient resolution to make a quality
With the dawn of the digital age in photography we no
longer have to worry about film processing costs or running out of
shots. As a result, experimenting with our photos' composition has
become a real possibility; we can fire off tons of shots and delete the
unwanted ones later at absolutely no extra cost. Take advantage of this
fact and experiment with your composition - you never know whether an
idea will work until you try it. Consider bracketing your shots for the
One ingredient that can mingle in with all the above is
Colour. There can be some striking contrasts in colours, e.g. yellow
with blue, red with green, that can turn some pictures into abstracts
or make them memorable. The colours in an image and how they are
arranged can make or break a shot. Bright colours can add vibrancy,
energy and interest – or they can distract from focal points. Colours
also greatly impact ‘mood’. Blues and Greens can have a calming
soothing impact, Reds and Yellows can convey vibrancy and energy etc.
It's very difficult to find objective rules on the use of colour.
Nature has its own way of using colour that we become accustomed to and
feel comfortable with - the blues and greens - while other colours tend
to be unnatural to some extent. All other 'rules' of photography can be
applied to black and white photographs - once colour is introduced, all
kinds of things happen.
Composition in photography is far from a science and,
as a result, all of the 'rules' above should be taken with a pinch of
salt. If they don't work in your scene, ignore them; if you find a
great composition that contradicts them, then go ahead and shoot it
anyway. But they can often prove to be spot on, and are worth at least
considering whenever you are out and about with your camera.
If you want to really immerse yourself in the theories
of composition there are many links on
this site, while one highly recommended book would be Michael
'The Photographer's Eye'.
A Little more on Composition
It's easy to forget that what you see in your
viewfinder is what you're going to capture, so it's worth scanning the
scene thoroughly first. When you're composing your shots, don't fret
about getting everything in. Instead, focus on capturing the essence of
the scene by following these tips, and try putting contrasting elements
together to create a striking shot.
- Think before you shoot
It's easy to forget that what you see through the viewfinder is what
you'll capture when you press the shutter, so it's essential to scan
the frame with your eye before you take the picture, moving carefully
around the edges of the viewfinder and into the scene. Look at the
elements in your photo and ask yourself whether they're working in
harmony with one another. Where is your eye being led? Are the colours
and tones balanced? And what's happening with the lines, shapes and
textures - are there any visual distractions? Is there any dead space
that detracts from the image as a whole? Take a walk around (when
possible) to look for different viewpoints – you may be able to find an
angle that allows you to cut out something that would detract from the
composition or something to include that improves it. Most D-SLRs don't
show the whole scene: you'll only see about 95% of what will be
recorded. 5% might not seem like much, but it's enough to change your
- Capture the essence
You don't always need to shoot the whole scene to capture its essence.
In fact, it's often impossible to fit the entire scene into a single
shot. A good example is when you're trying to photograph an entire bed
of flowers in a garden. Landscape photography, for example, doesn't
always need a wide view.... you can find isolated views which can still
sum up a whole mountain range. Rather than fretting about trying to
squeeze everything in and cursing your lens, compose your shots to fit
in the most essential parts of the scene. Use the Av mode on your
camera and set your lens for a wide aperture, such as f/2.8, to focus
on the foreground but blur the background.
Stunning abstract shots can often be found in the most mundane
locations, but you need to look for them. If you're used to taking
sweeping views of landscapes and cityscapes, try adopting a different
attitude when you're looking at a scene - look for shapes, colours and
textures that will make abstract patterns. Get in really close if it
needs it – and get rid of unnecessary elements. It's not easy.... but
one trick is to think of pictures that you could use in a “What's
This?” photo competition. Concentrate on only the composition and
you'll take the picture to a new level.
To help you to think differently about your compositions, try bringing
contrasting elements together. Capture the atmosphere of a city, for
example, by focusing on the top of an old building, while keeping
contrasting modern towers in 'balancing' positions in your composition.
Or vice-versa. Not only colours work with each other, or provide
contrast – it can be achieved with perhaps two styles of the same basic
object – an office block and an old church, or a “Poker Run” boat with
a sailing ship. A young fashionable student with a very 'proper' senior
- Odds and evens
Photographers (probably based on the works of other artistic styles)
have worked out that it's easier to make a pleasing composition with an
odd number of objects or elements. Naturally, when you're out and about
you won't always be able to move objects around, but you can move
yourself and your camera. This concept can be applied to portraits,
too. Try to shoot groups of threes at a wedding, for example. Three or
five trees really do work better than four or six.
- Leading lines
An effective way to draw people's attention into - not out of - your
images is to use leading lines. Look out for them when composing your
shots. Lead lines can be anything from a fence to a river or a shadow
line, and can be used to improve composition and draw attention to your
- Eyes have it
Portrait photography doesn't always have to be about traditional
head-and-shoulders shots. Don't be afraid to compose your shots by
zooming in to make more of your subject's face. Positioning people's
eyes in a top corner can make for a more striking composition, too. If
you include eyes, they really must be sharply in focus.
- Frame within a frame
Look for features that can work as a frame in your composition. The
branch of a tree, the arch of a door or a window frame are all
- Don't fixate on eye contact
You could get creative and try some portraits without any direct eye
contact. Try getting your subject to sit on a chair, looking out of a
window. This makes for a nice composition, plus you'll get better light
falling on their face. Get them to rest their chin on their fist to
bring another interesting element to your composition.