What are the Rules of Composition?

(Repost – first posted Sept 2009)

Now I have started taking photos and posting them in forums for feedback, I am dealing with the question of composition. What is it? How do you do it? What is good composition? What are these Rules I hear about?

The way I think about it, all the elements of photography are like food ingredients, and the composition is the final cooked product. Sometimes it takes good and looks awful, sometimes the other way around, and sometimes you nail it and it looks good, tastes good and smells good šŸ™‚

But with photography there is an extra stage in the image processing which adds a layer of complexity around what you can do once you have crafted your image in camera.

I am quite confused with some feedback I am getting, because it seems to be conflicting. Its not bad feedback at all, and has been useful, its just different to what I already knew. So lets review the rules of photography composition – in no particular order:

1. Rule of Thirds

This is not new to me in that I was taught to divide a scene up into thirds and make it balanced. Particularly for landscape shots, don’t have the horizon across the middle of the image (unless you are doing a mirror reflection in a lake and thats your only option)

But now I am seeing people recommend that the key points of interest should be at the points where the lines intersect. This is new to me. I have seen this idea also called the Golden Section Rule.

2. Directional Lines (or converging lines)

Can be straight or curving or S shaped. Use these to bring the eye to the point of interest in the image. Paths, roads, fences etc fulfill this. Not new to me but the extra bonus points for having them finish in a corner is.

3. Geometric shapes

The idea behind this is to position key elements of the image on the points of a geometric shape – the one mentioned often is a triangle. This is new to me.

4. Framing the Image

I discovered this one for myself – use something within the image to frame the point of interest – shoot thru a door way or a window or an archway are classic examples. Or a tree and a solid branch do nicely as well.

5. Have the light behind you

Now I know that this rule is made to be broken, cos sometimes it just isn’t behind you. But for a silhouette it needs to be in front of you (but with the subject in between you), side lighting is very effective when used well, lighting thru objects like flower petals. I guess the idea here is that you need to see the light and use it creatively and have the image properly exposed for the light you are using. Oh and dont point your lens into the sun, it will damage the camera sensor and I dont think is good for your eye either !

6. Colour

Colour provides a point of interest and the eye is naturally drawn to the colour. Also individual colours have their own issues depending on the light – white blows out easily in direct light and you lose detail. Red can have a similar effect – can be very difficult to get texture and detail out of bright red flowers. Shiny surfaces have issues with over blown highlights as well. I am struggling with the blown highlights.

7. Texture

I guess this is about ensuring if there is detail present to make sure you capture it, wood grain, raw stone, fine details in leaves, feathers on birds etc.

Also related here is closer up images with the same texture – pictures of a tray of eggs, lots of strawberries, pebbles, marbles, a mass of leaves or branches. Similarity has a certain appeal here.

8. Symmetry

A symmetrical image is naturally pleasing to the eye. However the lack of this can be challenging in its own way – whether you manage to pull that off I guess has to be decided once you try?

9. Positioning of Key Elements Off Centre

This is another one I think beginners struggle with, I know I do. This is about using many of these features at once to support the Key Off Centre Element. And about balancing out the rest of the picture. And where the eye travels across/around the image.

10. Reflections

There are millions of images of pretty mountains reflected in lakes, and the really good ones are …. really good. But this is about thinking outside the square – reflections in puddles, in mirrors, in windows or other shiny surfaces. About framing the image so it may only be the reflection (and you have to guess?) or in other creative ways. I look forward to playing with this one.

11. Silhouette

Never had a chance to be able to try this, but I have seen some stunning images. I think you have to put a bit of planning and forethought into this one. And be careful not to shoot into the sun and damage the sensor.

12. Backgrounds

This is a big one, and I know when taking photos of flowers in gardens etc that it is a big one. If you can, pick an undistracting background if you have a particular point of interest to highlight. Unless of course the background is part of the point of interest. Use the right aperture to either blur out the background or include in the image. And if you have a specific point of interest (like a flower) a contrasting colour makes the image stand out more – I see lots of close up flower images with either a black or a white background, very stark and simplistic.

13. When shooting animals or people focus on the eyes.

Now this is new to me, but since I have been experimenting with shooting birds, I can see what a HUGE difference it makes to the feel of the image. Although I have a cute duckling photo where he has his tiny eyelids closed for a quick nap and I think its adorable šŸ™‚

14. Fill the frame with the subject

This is the one I am struggling with, I have been advised not to crop so tightly but the reason I do is I picked up this snippet of advice somewhere along the way. Perhaps it is a matter of individual preference? I am experimenting with including more background and we shall see.

Wow, thats a LOT of stuff to think about! I know sometimes when I have time, and room to move around and get a different viewpoint or perspective, I might unconciously process some of these, and there are some obvious things that might jump out at you (shadows in wrong place, a distracting element, messy fore/ground etc) but there is a lot of other stuff to remember.

I guess I just have to keep shooting and asking for advice and just seeing what works. Im wondering if you have to train your ‘eye’ to see some of these things? Is that the advantage the really good photographer have, they naturally ‘see’ this stuff and have an innate ability to capture it, where I have to grind away at it. I hope I can learn, but I’m having fun trying šŸ™‚

Some of the websites I used for reference – they have lots of photos to help explain the concepts:

Digital Photography School Rules of Composititon

Amateur Snapper Rules of Compostion

John Harvey Photo Rules of Composition


About lensaddiction

Mad keen photographer figuring it out as she goes!
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4 Responses to What are the Rules of Composition?

  1. Pingback: So I got Freshly Pressed! | Learning to See Light

  2. Sherri Stone says:

    Great post! It is so challenging and thrilling when we get it right but there is so much involved in photography – from setting up the controls on the camera, picking the right lens, composition as you’ve mentioned to finally getthing the photograph.

    • lensaddiction says:

      Composition in some ways I think is the hardest skill to master, esp if you don’t have a natural knack or inclination for it.

  3. Pingback: Up for Discussion – Composition | Leanne Cole PHOTOGRAPHY

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