10 Essential Rules for Photography Composition

Top tips for composing great photos

A photographer setting up a night shot of city lights.
@Chalabala via Twenty20Owner

In photography, composition is the way subjects and elements are arranged in a photo. Think of all the great photographs you’ve ever seen. The camera settings can all be perfect, but if the composition of a photo isn’t right, then you probably won’t remember it. That’s why composition is such a big deal. To help you nail photography composition, here are a few tips that are sure to help you take your photographs to the next level.

These photography composition tips will work with any kind of camera you choose to pick up, whether it’s a DSLR, point-and-shoot, or a smartphone camera.

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Consider the Whole Image Before You Snap the Picture

An image of a hereon at the beach that was photobombed by a fisherman.

Photobombs may be fun if you’re just playing around, but when you’re trying to take the perfect picture, that fisherman hanging out in the background is the last thing you want to include. Make a habit of pausing for a few seconds before you trigger the shutter to ensure that only the images you want included are in the picture. If there are unwanted elements, either change the perspective of your photo, or decide if you have the Photoshop skills to remove it without damaging the image.

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Balance is Important in Photography, Too

A tulip in a field of daises, to illustrate photograph balance.

In Photography, balance is a way of arranging elements in a photograph so they have equal visual weight. Those elements can be subjects, objects, colors, even gradients of light. Balance is often accomplished using juxtaposition — elements that contrast each other. The use of contrasting colors can balance a photo, with the primary color being the first subject and the contrasting color being the secondary subject. Light and shadow perform the same function. But of course, you can always use people, landscape, or objects to create the balance an image needs.

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Change Your Point of View

An alternative point of view in a picture of a dog at the beach.

Photographic point of view is how the photographer sees a subject, and how they convey the subject to those who view their photographs. If you’re tired of seeing the same photograph shot by dozens of different photographers, dare to look at your subject differently. Lay down on the ground and shoot up. Get high and shoot down. Get on the same level as your subject. To create really stunning photographs, you have to learn how to change your perspective so those who view your photographs can experience something new.

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Get Comfortable With the Rule of Thirds

A grid overlayed on a photography illustrating the Rule of Thirds.

The Rule of Thirds is one of the best known photography composition tools you can add to your bag of tricks. Essentially, the Rule of Thirds suggest placing an imaginary grid over your photos that divides them into 9 equal parts, like a tic-tac-toe board. Then, align the subjects and elements in your photo along the grid lines and intersection points in your imaginary grid. This helps provide balance and places the subject of your photo in a location that will naturally draw the viewer’s attention. Fortunately, many DSLR cameras have options that allow you to view the grid as you’re taking the photograph.

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Simplicity is Everything

A single shell on the sand.

Nothing can take away from your primary subject like having too much going on in a frame. The busier an image is, the harder it is for the viewer to determine what the primary focus of a photograph is. For that reason, the well worn phrase “Keep it simple” applies to photography, too. Don’t try to cram everything into one frame. Instead, choose one element that tells the story you want to capture and focus on it.

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Lead the Viewer’s Attention With Lines

Two lines of cherry trees in bloom, illustrating leading lines in photography.

Leading lines are lines or rows (they can be oriented horizontally, vertically, or diagonally - they can even be curvy) that draw the viewer’s attention to a specific point in a photograph. In some cases, the leading line is the subject of the photograph, as with winding roads that are often captured. In other cases, leading lines take viewers on a journey to the focal point of the photo.

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Fill the Frame

An image of saw grass that fills the frame.

A rule that goes hand-in-hand with the Simplicity rule is to fill the photographic frame completely, or close to completely. Whether you’re taking landscape pictures, portraits, or macro images, if you really want to capture the viewer’s attention, give them nothing else to focus on. A full frame is one that also contains detail and makes the subject easy to focus on.

If you’re shooting portraits, capture the subject from the shoulders up, and make sure the eyes are in focus. With a full frame, viewers will focus on the eyes as a way to understand or ‘know’ the person in the photograph.

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Use Negative Space to Your Advantage

An image of a poplar flower with negative space in the background.

Negative space is space that contains not discernible element, and it can be used in the background of an image to direct the viewer's focus on the subject. In a photograph, negative space can be black, or white, or some other color entirely. What’s important is that what the viewer sees when they look at the photograph is the subject. The negative space ensure the focus of the image falls where it belongs.

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Find Interesting Patterns

A pattern in photography demonstrated by a field of tulips.

Our world is full of patterns — images that are repeated in some way — and patterns make for interesting photographs. Look for patterns in nature and in man-made structures. They often appear where other people may not see them, and you can create stunning photographs to help highlight those patterns.

Like patterns, symmetry can be striking in a photograph. When elements of a photograph are symmetrical, they face each other while being exactly the same (think of arches, buildings, bridges, staircases, and objects that reflect on the water). Images of symmetrical subjects can be challenging to shoot, but are worth the effort.

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Break All the Rules

A photography of a peony that breaks photography rules.

The purpose of rules is to guide you in creating great photographs. But to really compose images that are emotionally moving and visually stunning, sometimes you have to break the rules. So what if the subject of your image isn’t going to fall perfectly into the Rule of Thirds or have an unusual viewpoint. What matters is that you capture the image that tells the story you want it to tell. Practice these rules till you’re really good at them. Then spend some time breaking the rules. You might be surprised with an image you never dreamed you could capture.

More About the Rules of Composition

The rules included in this article are only a few of the most important compositional strategies you’ll encounter. In addition to these, you should learn about the Rule of Odds, Golden Triangles, the Gold Hour and the Blue Hour, and how to use depth of field (and other camera settings and shooting modes) in photo composition. And that just scratches the surface of the tips that will help you take better photographs regardless of whether you use a DSLR, point-and-shoot camera, or you stick mostly to mobile photography. However, mastering the rules we’ve covered here will dramatically improve your photograph composition so you’ll start seeing improvements almost immediately.