Does the left to right rule really matter in photography composition?

The left to right rule in photography composition may seem a little odd and it certainly is a little bit controversial. But rather know about a photography composition technique and decide not to use it, than not know it at all.

What is the left to right rule in photography?

The basis of the left to right rule in portrait photography is pretty much what it says on the tin. If a subject is moving from one side of your frame to the other, it’s best to photograph them moving from the left side of the frame to the right side of the frame.

The logic behind this is that in many countries we read from left to right.

It’s that simple really. Our eyes are used to moving from the left to the right. So we subconsciously expect a subject to move from left to right in an image.

Can you guess which composition techniques works well with the left to right rule? Keep reading to the bottom to find out.

Family dog walk moving from left to right of frame

Why is the left to right rule controversial?

What makes the rule of left to right controversial is that not every country reads from left to right. Even in countries that do read from left to right, many photographers feel that the direction in which we read is irrelevant to photography composition.

From my point of view, I’m not going to rule out a potential shot, just because the subject is going in the “wrong” direction. Besides, you can always flip the image horizontally afterwards, as long as there are no written signs in the image to give the game away.

I do, however, generally observe the rule as a matter of course.


So why bother with the left to right rule?

The reason why you should know about the left to right rule, and apply it if possible, is because if you ever want to enter your image into a competition, this could be one of the factors that the judges take into consideration.

I say “could be”, because you can never really know what photography judges consider important. Now that you know about it, however, you’re better prepared for entering photography competitions.

I also feel that it’s good practice to think through all elements of composition before taking a shot, or positioning yourself to take a shot.

When to use the left to right rule

I’d advise using any rule of composition in photography whenever you can so that it becomes automatic. Then, when you’ve really got to know all photography composition techniques, you won’t have to think so hard when composing an image.

So, if it’s possible to direct the movement from left to right, rather than from right to left, go for it.

Examples where you have some control:

  • Portrait photography
  • Fashion photography
  • Wedding photography

Slowing down before photographing is always a good idea, because it gives time to consider everything and so construct a better image.

The only exception is if something is happening in front of you and slowing down or repositioning means missing out on the shot. Obviously, then of course, shoot first, think later, or at least while shooting.

Examples are:

  • Street photography
  • Sports photography, such as motor racing

Examples of the left to right rule in photos

Woman in front of fairground ride going right to left

The above image is how the photo was taken. The movement of the ride is from right to left, which technically isn’t correct in photography composition. It doesn’t bother me, but if I wanted to make it technically accurate, I could simply flip the image horizontally and the movement would then be from left to right.

Woman in front of a fair ground ride flipped horizontally for left to right movement

Girl walking around a sun dial from left to right of shot

The above image follows the left to right rule. If it didn’t, however, I wouldn’t be able to flip it as the numbers would then read backwards. 

Father and child running from left to right

The father and child playing is another example of applying the left to right rule as they’re moving from the left of the frame to the right.

When applying the left to right rule in photography composition, it’s also a good idea to consider the rule of space and the rule of thirds.

Leave us a comment

If you have any questions about the left to right rule in photography composition, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my photography composition tips have helped you to understand how to use the left to right rule, share that too.

7 thoughts on “Does the left to right rule really matter in photography composition?”

  1. I do think that an image has a significantly different feel when flipped. It is not only about reading text. In mathematics graphs have the axes cross on the left (bottom left in maths, top left in computing), so the time progression is always left to right. A graph of weight, high on the left and low on the right is someone losing weight. So we are used to a left-right, top-down flow.

    • Hi James. That’s really interesting about graphs. I’ve never given it any thought, but now that you mention it, I see it. Just like photography composition – until we’re aware of why something is the way it is, we don’t really think about it, but know somehow that it is either right or wrong. Thank you for this info!

  2. The left to right rule is culturally loaded, as you mentioned we read English from left to right. The negative space helps to add energy and a feeling of movement to images. Perhaps it is more closely aligned with the rule of thirds in that regard. Either way, left to right or flipped, the strategy makes for more dynamic images. Cheers!

  3. I am still confused!! when viewing a photo of two people, is the person on the left in the picture, the person that is on MY left as I look at it!??

    • Yes – “left of frame” refers to the left side of an image as you look at it and also the left side of the image as you look through the viewfinder or at the LCD on the back of your camera.


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