The Rules of Composition (Well, they are really more like Guidelines than Rules)

March 06, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

What Are The Rules Of Composition (and why do we care)

As we have previously discussed, Photography is not all about light. There are many different factors and techniques that help make good and great images. Many of these focus on composition and, having been developed over time, are well known and coined as “The Rules of Composition”.  That being said, different people will recognize different sets of these rules, perhaps thinking that some are more important than others.


Some Common Rules & Guidelines Of Composition

  • Rules of Thirds – Probably the most well-known of all the Rules, this tells us to draw 2 evenly-spaced vertical and 2 evenly-spaced horizontal lines across our frame and the cross points (Power Points) where they meet is the best location for our Subject.


This rule works because when we look at a Subject centered in the frame, our eyes have no where else to go (other than looking at our Subject). The image is static and then our mind gets bored. When we place our Subject at one of the cross points, our mind searches other areas of the frame to bring it into context. These images are considered dynamic as they entice our mind to move around the frame. This movement makes looking at our image more exciting.


  • Rule of Odds – This is the next most common Composition rule. This rule tells us that our images are more appealing when we have an odd number of Subjects (1, 3, 5, etc).


This is because “image tension” is created with odd numbers, thus creating a “visual dynamic”. Care must be taken when using this rule for if there is more than one Subject, they usually must be relating to each other or to the story our image is telling.


  • Lines (Leading Lines, Diagonal Lines, Curved Lines, etc) – Another common and well used compositional technique is the use of lines to “lead” our Viewer into our image and to our Subject. Lines can be made up of many different elements including man made lines (ie; roads, paths, bridges), natural lines (streams, rivers, edges of objects) and perceived lines (lines we image in-between or leading to different objects, sometimes created by differences in lights and darks or patterns).


When using lines, its important to understand what they do within our image. Do they lead our Viewer to or away from our Subject? Are they straight lines creating a contrast between different elements or diagonal lines creating visual movement? Do the lines form “shapes” like rectangles or triangles that create visual tension and help to give our objects form and structure?


  • Simplification – This rule tells us that it’s better to keep the image simple and clear of distractions so that our Subject is the primary focus. In a sense, this rule is about “elimination & reduction”, removing anything in the image that does not serve the purpose of supporting our Subject. When using this rule, remember, less is more!!!


Although many may want to include environmental elements in our images (to give our images a sense of time and place), to do so, even a tiny bit, may distract the Viewer from the Subject and should therefore be avoided.


  • The Golden Rule (also known as the Golden Ratio Rule, Fibonacci’s Ratio, Phi Grid, etc), Golden Triangles & Spirals - These rules help to define the placement of various elements in our image and when followed, they create a flow visual between the objects. These rules are typically derived by mathematical formulas (ie; GR = a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.6180339887498948420 and is created by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part. Did you get that?).


Appearing in many forms of nature and science (including flower pedals, spiral galaxies, sea shells, etc, in famous architecture such the Parthenon and Egyptian pyramids and famous works of art such as with the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and The Birth of Venus), studies have shown that when used to define the placement of our Subjects, Viewers find these images more attractive then when not used (ie; when observers view random faces in an image, the faces they feel are most attractive are those where the Golden Ratio proportions define the width of the face and the width of the eyes, nose, and eyebrows.


Not a mathematician? The Rule of Thirds combined with Leading Lines may approximate a simplified version of these formulas.


  • Rule of Space – This rule is about motion, or at least the perception of our Subject having the ability to move.  As such, leaving “just enough” negative space for our Subject to move from and into creates a natural flow in our image.


When creating an image with a moving object, you want to place the Subject with space behind (to give the impression of where our Subject has been) and a greater amount of space in front (to create the impression for where your Subject is going).


  • Fill The Frame – This rule tells us to get close and fill a significant amount of our picture with our Subject. Following this rule accomplishes several goals. Mostly, it allows our Subject to be obvious while eliminating any possible distracting objects.


How do you follow this rule? Identify your Subject and fill as much of the frame with your Subject as possible. Then crop in tight, look at it and then crop again. Don’t be afraid of cropping too much as long as the Subject is in focus. Don’t be afraid of cropping off some of your Subject (the heads and body) to emphasize other parts of your Subject (the eyes). The larger the Subject in our image, the more details and interest our Subject may have.


  • Balance & Symmetry – This rule is one of the least understood in Photography. Balance and Symmetry implies the left and right (or top and bottom) of our image draws the Viewer’s eye equally. Balance helps to add a calmness to an image but can also lead to an image being static and uninteresting. Images that are out of balance, can create visual tension and make our Viewer uncomfortable. Out of balance images are not necessarily bad as they can define a sense of flow and movement for our eyes by leading our Viewer into the image and supporting the Subject.


When deciding to use Balance or Out-Of-Balance, first decide what type of story and emotions are you trying to achieve and then determine how the placement of elements in your image support this story.


  • Patterns, Textures & Shapes (Oh My) – This rule tells us that using such objects in our image can help to give depth, structure and a sense of rhythm and balance. Patterns, textures and shapes can be found almost everywhere, we only need to look for them. One of the main ways of using patterns is to keep isolate them from their surroundings.


  • Color – This is one of the most noticeable aspects Viewers first notice about your image (even if they don’t realize it). Intense well saturated color with sharp contrasts make people notice your images but you must be careful. Use of color can grab the Viewer’s attention but color also sets the mood. Different colors set off different moods; warm colors (yellow, orange and red) usually set a warm and comfortable felling while cool colors (blue and black) elicit feelings of coldness and isolation. When using color, don’t overdue it as your image will then seem fake and un-natural. De-saturating your images or converting them to Black & White, allows your Viewers to focus on other aspects of you image, such as shapes and textures. 


  • Depth and Depth of Field (DOF) – Photography is a 2-dimensional medium expressing the world that is in 3 dimensions. One of the ways of simulating this depth is by creating a foreground, middle ground and background. This can be done using objects and/or layers of light and dark. Another method for creating this is by restricting what is in focus and what is not. By keeping our Subject in focus and gradually reducing the focus of objects father away, we create the illusion of depth (this can be done even with objects that are close as in flower and macro photography).


  • Framing (also known as Aspect Ratio or Viewpoint) – This rule represents the size relationship between the short and long sides of your image (usually width first, then height). Some of this may be predetermined by your camera and sensor (a 35mm film and most DSLR cameras have a 3:2 aspect ratio, most micro four-thirds cameras use a 4:3 aspect ratio) while cropping can allow you to change this (4”x5”, 8”x10”, 16”x20”, and 11”x14” = 5:4 aspect ratio derived from 4”x5” film cameras).


How does aspect ratio change how you compose your image? If you take a picture using a 3:2 ratio with your Subject in a rule of third position and then print it on an 8”x10” photo, your Subject will no longer be in the rule of third position.


What to do? There are several tips you might consider. Before taking a picture, see if you can adjust your camera’s aspect ratio using the camera settings. When taking a picture, leave room along the edges to do final cropping during post processing or printing by reducing your lens focus length (maybe even breaking the “Fill The Frame” rule). If you do crop during post processing, make sure you turn the “delete pixels” setting off so you can later go back and re-crop if necessary. As a final tip, feel free to “add pixels using your photo editing software (ie; content aware fill).


  • Orientation – This rule describes how you take and display your images. Typically, landscapes are horizontal (longer) and portraits are vertical (taller). This rule (guideline) does not always have to be followed. Some landscapes can be tall, and portraits can be long. It all depends on your Subject and the story you are trying to tell. While you should always consider your orientation during capture (when taking your picture), you can reconsider this orientation during your post processing (provided you have captured enough pixels around the edges to change the orientation).


  • Watch Your Background – When we first start taking pictures, our backgrounds are often cluttered with too much “stuff” that distract from our Subject. Background are notorious for containing distracting elements or bright spots that lead our eyes away from our Subject. This is probably the most common mistake most photographers make.


When viewing an image, does every element support the image’s Subject or distract from it? Are you telling a story that MUST contain environmental elements or do they take away from the main story? These are questions you must ask yourself, but to answer, you must understand what elements attract the Viewer’s eyes. Some of the more common background distractions may be:

  • Bright spots – Our eyes are naturally drawn to bright spots and objects (like a fly is to a light bulb).
  • Areas of contrast – Likewise, our eyes are drawn to intense contrasts between light and dark.
  • People (and Animals) – Always wary of danger, seeking safety in numbers or looking for food, the natural animal that we are is constantly evaluating our surroundings.
  • Saturated colors – We are drawn to intense bright colors, but do they always tell the story we wish to tell?
  • Items in focus - Always trying to make sense of the worlds around us, we look at objects and then try to organize them into something recognizable.


  • Photoshopped – Digital photography allows us to edit and create images like never before. From simple adjustments of cropping and sharpening to creating composite images from our ever growing library of photographic files, we are only limited by our skills and imagination. That being said, just because we can do a thing, does not always mean we should. 


Great care must be taken so that our image tells the story we are intending. If the story is one of nature, moving our saturation slider too far to the right will make the scene look un-real as our image takes on colors that are un-natural. If the story is one of graphics and patterns, bright, intense, over saturated colors might be just what our image is calling for. After making your post processing adjustments, take a step back and try to fully evaluate what you have done. As in the Rule of Simplification, sometimes less is more.

There are many more Rules of Composition that may or may not help tell the story of your image. Although useful to follow, they do not work for every image, and in fact, many great images can be (and have been) created by “Breaking the Rules of Composition”. Thus, is might be best to think of these “Rules” more as “Guidelines” then as actual rules that must be followed. The Rules (Guidelines) of Composition can be extremely useful when first learning how to make good images and/or in learning why an image is great. It’s also interesting to note that when following some “Rules” others may be broken.


As the photographer and artist, it is up to you to decide what rules to follow and what rules to break.



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