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 composition 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
Composition 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
First 19 photography composition rules
There are many more ways to compose photos, but start with these first 19 composition techniques for better photos:
- Rule of thirds
- Leading lines
- Negative space
- Balancing elements
- Differential (selective) focus
- Depth of field
- Fill the frame
- Left to right rule
- Rule of space
- Rule of odds
For detailed explanations on how to use each rule of composition, click the link in each section to go to the full article.
Download my photography composition pdf – a fantastic 1 page infographic of all 19 photography composition rules mentioned in this tutorial!
Now let’s take a brief look at each composition rule.
I overlayed the rule of thirds grid on this image so you can see how I positioned the model with her eye closest to camera at the intersection of the grid. You can see more rule of thirds examples here
1. Rule of Thirds composition
Of all my photography composition tips, the one you might already have heard of is the Rule of Thirds composition. 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 above 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 the placing your subject in the center of the frame.
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 on the rule of thirds grid.
Using the out of focus panelling around the cutout window in the hide, as well as my partner, to frame the elephant leads the viewer’s eye directly to it as the main focus
2. Framing photography composition
Framing in photography composition 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 (aka subframing) 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 does he create the M shape of his name with this pose, he also directs the viewer’s attention to his face, framed by his limbs.
This ensures that, no matter what else is in the image, your eye is drawn to his smiling face.
I use this location a lot for portraits, because of the repeating pillars that form great leading lines to the subject
3. Repetition in photography composition
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.
If an element is repeated once or twice, it makes the photo interesting. If it’s repeated several times it becomes a pattern (another photography technique mentioned further down).
Color, shape, parts of objects or even whole objects can be repeated for strong composition.
This is the same location as the image above a few months earlier. Gotta love those leading lines!
4. Leading Lines in composition
Leading lines in photography composition is another photography technique for beginners, because it’s easy to pick up and, once learned, you’ll never “unsee” leading lines. They’re the equivalent of placing a “you are here” arrow on a map.
Leading lines in composition are the lines in a scene 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.
The negative space in this image is also active space, because the subject is looking into the space
5. Negative Space in photography composition
Negative space composition is one of the ways to use space in photos. 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 empty space in your image, also known as white space, because of it’s use in print media.
The color wheel, showing the layout of colors so that you can plan the best colors to use in photos
6. Color in photography
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.
Colors opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary colors, so work well together in an image.
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.
I included the ruined pier in the background as a balancing element for the couple on the beach in the foreground, as it adds a second point of interest to the image
7. Balancing elements in composition
Balance in photography composition creates harmony (balance) or tension (imbalance) in an image, depending on how you use it.
An example of balanced composition is when you have a strong subject in the foreground, including a smaller element in the background balances 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 harmony and 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.
I used selective focus to focus on the dog in the foreground for a slightly different family photoshoot
8. Differential (selective) Focus photography
Differential focus in composition directs the viewer’s eye to where you want them to look, the main subject of your photograph.
To achieve differential focus in photos, focus on your main subject and blur the background with a narrow depth of field. The blurred background (see composition technique no. 12) contrasts with the in focus subject, so the subject holds your attention.
Differential focus, also known as selective focus, is a well known photography composition technique, especially popular in portrait photography.
Get full details on how to use all these composition techniques in one place for easy reference!
The symmetry of the gate both frames and leads the eye to the main focus of the subject. We didn’t need to encourage the boy to start climbing the farm gate and I just had to wait for the right moment to take the shot
9. Symmetry in photography composition
I personally like all things to be asymmetrical, but symmetry in photography composition 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, using symmetry is a good way to do it.
I was on a beach walk when I noticed the repeating color pattern of the beach huts. Once I stopped to frame the photo I also noticed the patterns formed by the repeating elements of locks, hooks, panels and roof shapes.
10. Patterns in photos
Using patterns as a photography composition technique is visually appealing and calming. Patterns in photos are formed by repetition of similar elements, such as:
Patterns create harmony within an image and are a wonderful photography composition tool that entertains the eye. The trick with patterns is to make sure that they fill the frame (more about this photography technique below).
You can highlight pattern in a scene by inserting an object to break it, which instantly adds another level of interest to the image.
On this family photoshoot in a strawberry field I stood a few rows back with a long lens and waited for the right moments. I created depth by including the layers of vegetation as foreground, middle ground and background interest to highlight the subject
11. Depth (layers) composition techniques
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 create depth to make it more appealing in a three dimensional world.
Create layers in photography composition 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.
I used a wide aperture to create a blurry background for shallow depth of field to isolate the model from the woods
12. Depth of field in photography
Using depth of field in composition is a choice between shallow depth of field (blurry background) or deep depth of field (front to back sharpness).
Shallow depth of field is a common composition technique for 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 for front to back detail (or sharpness).
One of my go to viewpoint for a family photoshoot, because it’s fun and different. This was in my studio, but the great thing about this shot is that you can do it anywhere
13. Viewpoint composition
Changing your position, and therefore your photography viewpoint dramatically changes the image. Getting down low to photograph your subject, or positioning yourself at greater height than your subject creates a very different image.
Using different viewpoints adds more drama to your photography composition than the expected eye level, standing height viewpoint.
Another one of my favorite locations, because of all the triangles that I can include in the composition, as well as in my model’s poses
14. Triangles in photography composition
Because triangles in photos create dynamic tension, they make an image’s composition interesting. While vertical and horizontal lines feel stable in real life, diagonal lines create a sense of movement, because things will roll off a diagonal surface. Plus, the diagonal lines of triangles are like a big arrow leading the eye to the subject.
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.
Every photoshoot I do includes some closeups, because when you fill the frame, you bring the subject closer to the viewer which creates more connection
15. Fill the frame in photos
Fill the frame composition is one of the easiest photography techniques for beginners to learn, so I think it’s often overlooked.
Filling the frame achieves two objectives:
- When your subject fills the frame, they’re closer to the viewer, so the image is immediately more engaging and feels more intimate.
- If the background is busy and distracting to the composition of your image, filling the frame with the subject cuts out the distraction.
In portrait photography you can completely fill the frame with their face for an attention grabbing image. To photograph patterns (mentioned earlier) with maximum effect, fill the frame with the pattern.
One of my must do images with every newborn photoshoot, because the baby’s feet in the father’s hand says so much using simplicity and minimalism
16. Simplicity in composition
Simplicity composition and minimalism in photography is a pleasing and restful as technique that’s also eye catching.
When you photograph a single subject without any distractions, you draw the eye straight to the subject. As with filling the frame, simplicity can 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”.
The next two photography composition techniques work together – 17 & 18
For this image I was just lucky that she was going from left to right of frame. I did, however, track her expected movement around the sundial so that she was positioned with the rule of thirds
17. Left to right rule in photography
The left to right photography composition rule is based on the principle that, in western languages, we read from left to right. Therefore it states that we also read photographs from left to right.
The rule is controversial, however, because it doesn’t take into account languages that read in other directions.
If movement is shown in a photograph, according to the rule of left to right, the movement should go from left to right. Examples of the left to right rule are a:
- Motorbike racing past from left to right
- Person walking from the left of frame to the right
- 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 in photography
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 in photography composition.
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.
Our eyes automatically go to where a subject is moving to or looking in an image. We imagine the continued movement of the subject into the space within the frame. We’re also curious to know what the subject is looking at.
If you break this photography composition rule with space behind the subject, instead of in front, 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 photography technique also ties in with one of my earlier photography composition tips about using negative space. It’s another example of how the rules of composition often overlap.
This rule of odds photo works, because father and son are looking at each other, tying the family together
19. Rule of odds in photography
The rule of odds composition works, because an even number doesn’t make the main focus of an image clear. With odd numbers the eye is led there naturally, so it’s easier for the viewer.
Odd numbers work incredibly well in portrait photography composition for large group photos, because with even numbers our eyes bounce between the subjects. Dividing an even numbered small group into two odd numbered groups creates a calming circular motion. Dividing a large group into an uneven number of smaller groups stops our eyes from automatically trying to count all the members.
To supercharge the impact of the rule of odds, combine it with:
- Leading lines
- Diagonal lines
- Rule of thirds
Because odd numbers are easier for the viewer, it makes the composition stronger.
I know the rule of odds contrasts with the composition rule of symmetry mentioned earlier. However, it again proves that for every image there’s a composition technique just right for the situation.
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.
Why 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.
My 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 still think 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 my 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.
Final thoughts on the rules of photography composition
Once you’re proficient in the rules of composition, 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 composition rules do you knowingly break?
If you have any questions about my photography composition tips, let us know in the comments.
Also, I love good news, so if my rules of composition in photography have helped you, share that too.