5 Steps to Better Composition

5 Steps to Better Composition

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A Guest Post by Andrew S Gibson – author of the brand new eBook – Beyond Thirds.

Here are five tips for improving your composition. You may be surprised to learn that none of them involve the rule of thirds. There’s a good reason; it’s one of the first things photographers learn, so most of you are aware of this ‘rule’ (I prefer to think of it as a guideline) already.

Learning the rule of thirds is a bit like taking driving lessons and being told that you press the gas pedal to accelerate and the brake pedal to stop the car (and nothing more). It covers the basics, but you know that there’s a lot more to driving than that. It’s the same with composition.

1. Stop Composing According to the Rule of Thirds


The thing is with the rule of thirds is that sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The thirds are not always the best place to position the subject. The above photo is a good example – the symmetrical shape of the hood ornament demanded a central composition. How do you know when to ‘break’ the rule of thirds? Read on to find out.

2. Be aware of Balance


One of the questions I ask myself when I take a photo is what is the relationship between the subject and the rest of the image? How do the two balance out? This is something that I judge by feel more than anything else. A balanced image has a peaceful, harmonious feel. The photo above is balanced – the three monkeys and the chinese chess pieces have an equal ‘weight’ within the composition. The warm colours are also quite harmonious and in balance with each other.

You may wish to create a more dynamic image – in which case see tip 4.

3. Simplify


Make you compositions as simple as possible. You can do this by excluding anything that isn’t necessary. Often this just means moving closer to your subject so that there is less stuff in the background. You could also use a longer focal length, as the narrower field of view excludes more of the background.

Another technique is to use a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus. The idea is to try and eliminate anything that distracts from the main subject of your photo. That’s what I did with the above photo, to concentrate attention on the flower.

4. Use Lines to Create Dynamic Tension


Lines are a powerful element of composition, and the viewer’s eye naturally follows any lines in your images.

One use of line is to create a sense of depth. You can do this with lines that travel from the front of the image to the back. Diagonal lines are more dynamic than straight ones. Horizontal lines are least dynamic of all. The line of the altar in the above photo, taken in a temple in Shanghai, creates a strong sense of movement and depth.

5. Work the Subject

If you find a good subject, sometimes it’s a good idea to take lots of photos. The key is to think about what you are doing, rather than ‘machine gunning’ away. Ask yourself how you can improve the composition. Try taking photos from different angles, or with a different focal length. This is called working the subject, and you’ll often find that it helps you take stronger images.

Beyond Thirds

You can learn more about composition by buying my latest eBook, Beyond Thirds, from Craft & Vision today – it’s only $5!

Andrew S Gibson is a freelance writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. He is the Technical Editor of EOS magazine and writes photography eBooks for Craft And Vision. including The Evocative Image and Beyond Thirds. Follow Andrew on Facebook here.

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Some Older Comments

  • David June 28, 2013 01:54 pm

    Thank you for all the photographic tips, being new to DSL camera the tips are really helpful.

  • PaulB January 15, 2012 01:55 am

    Nice little article, not sure the simplify example was that simple?

  • valerie December 11, 2011 04:42 am

    It seems to me that almost every eye-catching photo actually uses one of the rules of thirds ~ whether consciously or not. Of course, there is an exception to every rule, but just as it is in life. . . there are very few of them.

    These are excellent photos, but I have to agree that the author is using the rule of thirds that I am familiar with and use quite often. Even on the last one, the focal point is crossing the right vertical line of thirds.

    Thank you for all the helpful information! These are great tips whether using the rule of thirds or not.

  • Robin Oberg December 7, 2011 05:16 pm

    In defense of the author, the point of focus is not always the point of interest. Sometimes your eyes are supposed to go to the bokeh. On the ornament photo here I actually looked at the out-of-focus part first.

  • Marco December 4, 2011 08:17 am

    The comments here about the "rule of thirds" is really interesting. So many different definitions of what the rule of thirds is exist. The author here uses the definition that I learned in which you divide the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically and then place your point of interest on one of the intersections. Thus the image of the hood ornament breaks the rule since it is centered from side to side even though the focus point is on the vertical third line. That leads to another definition that I have seen which simply says to divide the image into thirds EITHER horizontally or vertically. This is the one used by those who are commenting that it conforms to the rule of thirds. Definitions matter so much and can often lead to confusion.

  • Vicoy R December 2, 2011 11:10 am

    Oops... I guess the author kinda mentioned DOF under Step 3: Simplify...

  • Michael December 2, 2011 11:05 am

    Technically the first image under the title stop composing under the rule of thirds actually follows the rule, with the point of focus sitting directly through a line in the bottom third

  • Vicoy R December 2, 2011 11:02 am

    I think it should be added that you need to appreciate how to use Depth of Field as an additional Step to Better Composition. All the sample pics given have a shallow DOF. Composition should take advantage of DOF as a means of isolating a subject or making the viewer appreciate the whole field of view.

  • Catani December 2, 2011 04:40 am

    I think that´s a bit of "imprecision" when the author says "...the thirds are not always the best place to position the subject...", because the "object" on a given composition is not necessarily the whole piece or person or building or tree. Frequently, the "object" that needs to be positioned according to the rule-of-thirds is just a part of the overall object. It´s the very case of the example given in the picture: despite the fact that the photographer´s aligned it to the bottom line, there´s a rigorous obedience to the rule that can be seen when we observe the distribuition of the lines, the relative "weight" of each part of the object.

    On the other hand, the author is right when he says that rules are to be broken sometimes. The ability to do so is the quintessencial of a true artist. :)

  • terryg December 2, 2011 04:17 am

    THANK YOU. I've been struggling with the "Rule" of 3rds ever since I first heard of it, and I think it makes images unnecessarily awkward. I have plenty of formal art & design training, so I prefer to go with how the balance feels with what I'm trying to accentuate, and the Rule of 3rds just mucks it up......

  • Josar Zulu December 1, 2011 09:07 am

    Actually, the picture under point 1 is following the rule of thirds.

  • Dewan Demmer November 30, 2011 10:23 pm

    I like this little article.
    I would say that to ignore the rule of thirds, first be sure that you understand the rule. I say this as recently I have found myself almost ignoring the rule without thinking about it, and only once I looked did I realise that its because I understand what I use the rule of thirds for. The fun is that once I am willing to work beyond the rule of thirds so often the final result conforms anyway.
    Balance is so true, we like things to balance out somehow its a people thing :P
    Simplify sounds so easy but can be so hard darn it ! Lines well I am working on them, in their own time.

    I was going over what I just read and said and realised we are always dealing with lines, strange I never noticed it. Here is my example of working around the 3rds rule and working on my lines.

  • ccting November 30, 2011 05:28 pm

    rule of third.... ??!!??

  • Thomas November 30, 2011 11:56 am

    I'm not sure why so many people seem to think the first photo is composed according to the rule of thirds. The ornament is central, can't people see that? The in focus bit is at the bottom. It's not on one of the thirds.

  • Martin Soler HDR Photos November 30, 2011 09:21 am

    Thanks for the tips. You're quite right about them. Even though I know about the rule of thirds I'm often dead-center with my pics. Can't say they are better or worse than others but they turned out that way and I'm quite happy with them. Here's one http://martinsoler.com/2009/11/22/la-rose/
    and here's another:

    I specifically like the idea to keep the shots clutter free. It's probably the hardest guide to respect but often the most efficient.

  • João Almeida November 30, 2011 02:13 am

    It worries that the author of a book called "Beyond Thirds" when illustrating that you don't always have to follow the rule of thirds chose a photo that actually uses it...
    Want a classical example of not following rule of thirds? Reflections: placing the horizon of a still lake in the middle usually works muck better.

  • Ben November 29, 2011 08:15 pm

    I downloaded the ebook and I just wanted to say that it's brilliant - the best five bucks I've ever spent. Thanks, guys!

  • Tarique Sani November 29, 2011 03:01 pm

    As pointed out by Chris Baldwin and others your illustrative picture for breaking rule of thirds in fact follows it very strongly

  • Judd November 29, 2011 01:45 pm

    Yes! Think about it and not 'machine gun' away, great advice...

  • Chris Baldwin November 29, 2011 01:03 pm

    The rule of thirds is a rule because it works....and it works more often than not...your hood ornament is in fact following the rule and is better for it. The largest, most focused and hence most important part of that image is in the bottom third of the frame....There are always pictures that look better without being thirded? but I wouldn't be ignoring composition rules to often....it takes practice to know when to break rules.

  • Steve Coleman November 29, 2011 12:42 pm

    If you're shooting something that "flows", either literally or figuratively, position it so that it flows into the center rather than off the side of the image.

  • Scottc November 29, 2011 10:15 am

    A great article, and not the "usual" advice heard about composition.


  • Marco November 29, 2011 09:08 am

    In addition, many photo print services only offer 3:2 and 5:4 ratio prints such as 16"x24" or 16"x20" prints. In those cases, you can plan your image for the ratio that you wish and then mat it how you want as in a panoramic 2:1 ratio image of 12"x24" or 10"x20" mat opening over the before mentioned prints and maybe trim some from the image to frame. It is all up to you and your vision. Think outside of the "box" imposed by equipment.

  • Marco November 29, 2011 08:56 am

    Another way to change your perspective and get away from the rule of thirds is to examine square format pictures. A square format often accents a peaceful mood image and often works best with symmetry. A variation of this is to format your image to the ratio of your symmetrical centered object to achieve a peaceful feel as in the hood ornament above. Just because your dslr camera likely uses a 3:2 ratio does not mean that is best for your subject.

  • Marc November 29, 2011 08:31 am

    I have been using the rule of thirds on and off for the past few years. What you say is very true, this rule doesn't always apply, it depends on what your intentions are with your photograph. I believe that a strong focused picture on the subject is better than a general wide-spread picture including the object. I enjoyed reading your tips.

  • dok November 29, 2011 07:50 am

    @jose : Well, actually when someone tries to give tips about composition, I guess crop cannot be one of them. Cropping is more or less when you fail your composition in the first place (changing the ratio is an exception of course)

  • Chris November 29, 2011 06:40 am

    @Erik Love the bridge picture! An original view of a much-photographed subject.

  • erik November 29, 2011 06:15 am

    "Crop" is done in post-processing, "getting closer" is done while shooting. The latter is preferred as the first will decrease resolution.

  • Jose Jimenez November 29, 2011 05:34 am

    I know that "dok", what I was pointing out is that nowhere in the article is the word "crop" mentioned, which is probably the more common term people think of in terms of composition.

  • dok November 29, 2011 04:47 am

    @jose jimenez : which just leads us to the third point of the article : simplify, notably by getting closer.

  • Jose Jimenez November 29, 2011 04:34 am

    another way of defining "simplify" would be "crop". Unless there is some specific artistic reason not to do so, eliminate any areas of the photo that do not add anything to the picture. I see many excellent photos that could be greatly enhanced by judicious use of cropping. You should always crop to draw attention to the subject of your photo.

  • Mridula November 29, 2011 04:08 am

    I wish I could get the rule of thirds right first. For this one of a reflection in a soap bubble, I cropped severely to get something like a rule of third.


  • Erik Kerstenbeck November 29, 2011 04:06 am


    Once again a great article with superb example pictures. I would like to add another..."Get Low"

    Sometmes shooting from a low perspective (ie belly to the ground) can be effective, like in this shot of The Brooklyn Bridge


  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer November 29, 2011 03:35 am

    I like the first two rules. Often with very long/tall/narrow subjects like in that hood ornament shot in the post or of this great egret: http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2011/6/16/photography-tip-use-portrait-orientation-for-long-tall-subje.html the rule of thirds would produce too much empty space.

    Balance is a good thing to think about as well. I think filling the frame with the subject helps maintain balance.

  • emilis November 29, 2011 03:11 am

    Isn't the first picture still using the rule of thirds just vertically? I don't think that photo would have worked, had its subject been placed in the actual center of the image.

  • Chris November 29, 2011 03:04 am

    Sorry... should say "on my blog"...

  • gawnu November 29, 2011 02:59 am

    Very knowledgeable and a nice explanation. Thanks...

  • Chris November 29, 2011 02:58 am

    Here is an article I wrote on ly blog concerning use of the Rule of Thirds"


  • Nicole November 29, 2011 02:58 am

    I agree that moving beyond the rule of thirds is good (like the complex grids of classical composition; those are fun), but I don't think your example pictures show that very well. All of them save the last one seem to be either split into thirds or use one of those lines as an anchor. That's just what I saw when looking at the pictures anyway.

  • Laurie Young November 29, 2011 02:12 am

    A great article. I was once told that the rule of thirds has the aconym ROT :-)

    I liked the point about keeping the composition simple. Remember that photography is not like painting. A painter starts with a blank canvas and chooses what to include in the painting, a photographer starts with a full scene, and has to decide what to remove.

    Btw, if you want to learn more about balance in composition, I can recommend this podcast http://cameradojo.com/2011/05/24/podcast-99-conversation-with-roberto-valenzuela-talking-about-balance/

  • erik November 29, 2011 02:08 am

    For a long time I thought I was using the rule of thirds when composing, a closer inspection revealed that I was actually using the golden ratio without thinking about it. The rule of thirds is a convenient approximation, but I personally think that if you deviate from it you get better compositions. To me these deviations seem to fit the golden ratio better. Trust you eye! And anyways, this guides are just that, guides.

  • gnslngr45 November 29, 2011 02:08 am

    The rule of thirds and the Fibonacci sequence both really help to get started in taking great pictures, but breaking those rules can propel you to another level. Don't skip it though out you will never "see" what you are doing and will just continue to take average pictures.




  • Juliana November 29, 2011 12:45 am

    Well... the first photo is actually using the rule of thirds, since the attention is drawn to the bottom third of the shot. As I understand the rule of thirds is not necessary for the focus to be on the corners of the image.