19 photography composition rules to take your photography from meh to wow! Get up close and personal with these composition techniques to see instant improvement in your photography.
You might already have heard that “rules are meant to be broken”, which is fine. In fact, sometimes breaking the rules is great and adds to the story of the image. However, if you don’t know the rules of photography composition, you won’t know how to break them intentionally.
Why 19, why not 20, I hear you ask? Well, I rather like the Rule of Odds – see composition technique number 19 for details.
Why photography composition is important
A well composed photo is engaging, which is the purpose of photography, to engage and interest the viewer. Your photograph can be focused, well exposed and nicely lit, but if it’s poorly composed, it will never be great.
Photography composition, applied well, helps the viewer see, understand and appreciate the photo. These rules (I prefer to say composition techniques) exist, because over time creatives have learned how:
- Humans appreciate an image
- The human eye works
- The brain reacts to an image
It goes way, way, way back to a very long time before cameras were invented. The rules of composition apply to art in general, not just photography. By the end of this article you’ll be able to:
- Recognize composition techniques used in the great works of art
- Create better photos
Download our photography composition pdf – a fantastic 1 page infographic of all 19 photography composition rules mentioned in this tutorial!
19 photography composition rules – let’s go!
There are more, but start with these first 19 composition techniques for better photos…
1. Rule of Thirds
Of all the photography composition tips we’ll list, the one you might already have heard of is the Rule of Thirds. It’s usually the composition technique beginner photographers start with. This rule is particularly easy if you have a grid view in your camera viewfinder.
You’ll see that your view is divided into nine sections by two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. Like the grid in the below photo.
Let’s look at the vertical lines first. Do you see the four points where the lines intersect? These are the thirds of the image. If you place your subject at either of these vertical lines, you’ll have a far more pleasing image.
Now let’s look at the horizontal lines. Placing a horizon in an image at either the top horizontal line or the bottom horizontal line creates a much more interesting image than if the horizon is in the center of the image.
When photographing a person, place the eye closest to camera on one of the intersecting points.
This has nothing to do with hanging photos on a wall. It’s a composition technique that uses something as a frame around your subject in the scene. Framing a subject within an image guides the viewer’s eye to your subject. You can frame your subject using an endless variety of techniques.
Examples of man made frames:
Natural frames include:
- Tree branches
Your subject can also create a frame, such as:
- Posing by positioning arms or hands around her face as a frame
Think about the athlete Mo Farrah and his “mobot” pose. When he places his arms in the air, bent at the elbow with his hands on top of his head. Not only is he creating the M shape of his name with this pose, he’s also directing the viewer’s attention to his face, framed by his limbs.
This ensures that, no matter what else is happening in the image, your eye is drawn to his smiling face.
Further reading: How to use Framing as a really easy Photography Composition Tool
If something is repeated once or twice, it makes the photo interesting. If it’s repeated several times it becomes a pattern, which is listed below.
Repetition in photography composition leads the viewer’s eye to your subject in much the same way as leading lines work, so you’ll find that you’ll often combine these two composition techniques when creating an image.
Color, shape, parts of objects or even whole objects can be repeated for strong composition.
Further reading: How to use repetition to make your photos irresistible
4. Leading Lines
This is another photography composition technique for beginners, because it’s easy to pick up and, once learned, you’ll never “unsee” leading lines. They are the equivalent of placing a “you are here” arrow on a map.
Leading lines in composition do what they say on the tin. They are lines that lead the viewer’s eye to the subject, the main focus of the image. Leading lines can also be used to direct a viewer’s eye out of the image. In fact, leading lines will direct the eye to wherever you want it to go, because our eyes follow lines.
Like frames, leading lines can be naturally occurring, such as:
- A row of clouds
- A line of trees
They can be manmade, such as:
- Converging buildings
When photographing people, leading lines can be created by:
- Your subject’s limb placement, using arms and legs lead the viewer’s eye to the subject’s face
Leading lines don’t even have to be straight! Think of a meandering country lane, or river leading to the focal point of your image.
Further reading: How to use Leading Lines for awesome photography composition
5. Negative Space
Leaving space around your subject gives it “breathing room” within the frame. The minimalism of this photography composition technique ensures that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the subject.
Negative space is the space in your image that is empty.
Knowing which colors work well together, and as opposites, helps you use color as a creative photography composition technique.
Color theory is a composition tool used in all areas of design to create pleasing designs with impact, such as graphic design, fashion design and interior design.
Alternatively, a spot of color in an otherwise monochrome image creates a wonderful element of visual interest. (Not color added in post production to a black and white image, but a flash of color in an otherwise nearly colorless scene.)
Don’t be tempted to use the spot color tool when editing an image. Although we’re talking about photography composition tips, I’m sneaking in this important tip.
A black and white image with part of the image in color very, very rarely looks good and most times looks bad and dated. An exception is the 1993 film Schindler’s List where red as a spot color was used with exceptional skill to add to the story. But that was a long time ago.
Further reading: How to use color for eye catching photography composition
7. Balancing Elements
When you have a strong subject in the foreground, it helps to have a smaller subject in the background to balance the foreground element. This is particularly so when also using the rule of thirds as a composition technique.
When you balance elements in an image, you create interest for the viewer.
This may seem to contradict my earlier photography composition tip on negative space, but that’s the advantage of so many composition rules. Some photography composition techniques work better with certain scenes and it’s up to you, as the photographer, to judge which rule of composition will work best for your photograph.
Further reading: Essential tips for creating balance in photography composition
8. Differential (selective) Focus
A great way to direct the viewer’s eye to exactly where you want them to look, at the main subject of your photograph, is to use differential focus (also known as selective focus).
To achieve differential focus, ensure that your main subject is sharply in focus with a narrow depth of field. The blurred background contrasts with the in focus subject, so the subject holds your attention.
Differential focus is a well known photography composition technique that’s especially popular in portrait photography.
Further reading: How to use differential focus to make your photographs pop
For further information on achieving a blurred background, check out photography composition technique no. 12 (depth of field) in this list.
Get full details on how to use all these composition techniques in one place for easy reference!
I personally like all things to be asymmetrical, but in photography composition, symmetry works very well. However, sometimes breaking the symmetry works well too, simply because the break highlights the symmetry.
When you start looking, you’ll be surprised by how much symmetry you see around you, both manmade and natural. If you’re going to break the rule of thirds, symmetry is a good way to do it.
Further reading: Using symmetry in photography composition for great results
We’re half way through our photography composition tips. Are you feeling creative and inspired?
Using patterns as a photography composition technique can be very visually appealing. They are are formed by repetition of:
Patterns create harmony within an image and are a wonderful photography composition tool. The trick with patterns is to make sure that they fill the frame (more about this composition technique below).
You can also highlight the pattern by inserting an object to break it, which instantly adds another level of interest to the image.
Further reading: Make it interesting – use patterns in photography composition
11. Depth (layers)
Just as layering your clothes creates a more interesting outfit, layering in photography creates depth and a more interesting composition.
Because a photograph is two dimensional, we need to work hard to give it depth and make it more appealing in a three dimensional world.
Layers in landscapes are created by ensuring there are foreground, middle and background elements to draw the eye into the scene. When one layer overlaps another, the viewer’s eye automatically separates them out and sees the depth in the image.
Further reading: Use layers in photography composition for immediately awesome photos
12. Depth of Field
Using either a shallow depth of field or a deep depth of field is a choice you make when composing an image.
Shallow depth of field is a very common composition technique used in portrait photography. Isolating the subject by creating a blurry background with a shallow depth of field, draws the viewer’s attention to the subject.
With landscape photography composition, a deep depth of field is usually the aim to create front to back detail (or sharpness).
Further reading: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition
Changing your position, and therefore your viewpoint, can dramatically change the image. Getting down low to photograph your subject, or positioning yourself at greater height than your subject will create a very different image.
Different viewpoints will certainly add more drama to your photography composition than the expected standing height viewpoint.
Further reading: 4 of the best viewpoints for impressive photography composition
Because triangles create dynamic tension within an image, they make the composition interesting. We’re used to the stability of vertical and horizontal lines. The diagonal lines of triangles are like a big arrow leading the eye.
Of course this doesn’t mean that you have to run around looking for triangular shaped objects to photograph to apply this photography composition tip. Triangles can also be implied.
Further reading: 5 ways to use triangles in photography composition
15. Fill the Frame
This is one of the easiest photography composition techniques for beginners to learn, so I think it’s often overlooked.
If the background is busy and distracting to the composition of your image, fill the frame with your subject.
When photographing a person, this could go so far as to completely fill the frame with their face. To photograph patterns (mentioned earlier) with maximum effect, fill the frame with the pattern.
When you photograph a single subject without any distractions, you draw the eye straight to the subject.
The use of simplicity and minimalism as a photography composition technique is very pleasing and restful. Simplicity can also be created by getting close and zooming in on an aspect of the subject.
To see minimalism and simplicity at its finest, Google “Edward Weston minimalism”.
Further reading: How to use simplicity in photography composition for striking photos
The next two photography composition techniques work together – 17 & 18
17. Left to Right Rule
This photography composition rule adheres to the principle that, in western languages, we read from left to right and doesn’t take into account the languages that read in other directions. Therefore it states that we also read photographs from left to right.
So, if movement is shown in a photograph, according to the Rule of Left to Right, it’s good photography composition to have that movement going from left to right. Examples are a motorbike racing past from left to right, a person walking from the left of the frame to the right and a bird flying from left to right.
When using this element of composition in photography, it’s always good to incorporate the rule of space, detailed below.
18. Rule of Space
A photograph is contained within a frame, so the subjects are also contained within that frame. By giving the subjects room to move in the frame we observe the Rule of Space.
There should be space in front of the subject, in the direction in which the subject is moving, to allow the subject “room to breathe” within the frame. As a viewer, we can imagine the continued movement of the subject into the space within the frame. Our eyes automatically go to where the subject is moving to.
If you break this photography composition rule and have the space behind the subject, you cut short their journey, which jars the viewer’s eye. If that’s part of the story you’re telling, that’s great, otherwise, it’s best not to jar your viewer.
You’ll notice that this rule of composition ties in with one of our earlier photography composition tips about using negative space. It’s another example of how the rules of composition often overlap.
Further reading: Why the rule of space is so powerful in photography composition
19. Rule of Odds
Odd numbers work incredibly well in photography composition. I know this contrasts with the composition rule of symmetry mentioned earlier. However, this again proves that for every image there’s a composition technique just right for the situation.
The rule of odds works, because sometimes an even number can be distracting, because the viewer’s eye might not be certain where the main focus is. With odd numbers the eye is led there naturally, so it’s easier.
Because odd numbers are easier on the viewer, it makes the composition stronger.
Further reading: Why the rule of odds dramatically improves photography composition
Why are there so many rules of composition in photography?
3 reasons why you should know several of the composition rules…
- Not every rule applies to every scene, so knowing a variety of composition techniques gives you greater expertise. Also, you want variety in your photography, so the more you know, the more varied and interesting your photography will be.
- Using several photography composition techniques together in an image strengthens the composition. So most images use more than one technique.
- Some techniques contradict others, but knowing the rules of composition means that you know when to use which technique and which combination of techniques works.
New photographers need to learn photography composition early on
Learning photography composition techniques as a new photographer gets you used to thinking about creating strong composition as a matter of course.
Our ebook gives full details on how to use all 19 techniques and you’ll have it all in one place for easy reference…
Why the rules of composition in photography work
If you’re still thinking that these are just a bunch of made up rules, even though they’ve been used in all forms of art and creative design for hundreds of years, you’ll be interested to read our tutorial on Gestalt theory in photography. It’s the psychology behind how we view the world around us.
Understanding the Gestalt principles that make up Gestalt theory makes applying the rules of composition just fascinating.
Further reading: Harness the power Gestalt theory in photography
Final thoughts on the rules of photography composition
Once you’re proficient in the rules of composition, you can consider breaking them to achieve a particular result.
Just as we observe the rules to achieve good composition, when breaking the rules there needs to be a good reason. Otherwise, your image may appear poorly composed, as opposed to thoughtfully and purposefully composed.
As I mentioned at the start of this tutorial, there are more than just 19 photography composition techniques, but we’ll keep them for another time. That’s enough rules for one day!
How many of these photography composition rules do you use?
Or (for the rebels here) how many do you knowingly break?
If you have any questions about our photography composition tips, let us know in the comments.
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