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13 Composition Rules Every Photographer Should Know

Rules of composition everyone should learn

Struggling to create stunning compositions? I’ve been there. Composition is a tricky subject to master; some photographers spend years developing their skills with limited success.

Fortunately, creating good compositions isn’t as hard as it might seem. Artists have developed a handful of rules (guidelines, really) that allow you to create balance, flow, impact, and beauty without tons of practice.

In this article, I share my favorite 13 photography composition rules – all tried and tested methods for improving your image arrangements. So read through the article. Memorize the rules. And then watch as your photos are transformed!

1. The rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is the most famous compositional rule there is, and for good reason: It really is a great way to produce balanced, dynamic compositions, and it’s pretty easy to master. But how does it work?

The rule of thirds states that you should place your key compositional elements a third of the way into the frame. It even comes with a handy set of gridlines to help you out:

Composition rules in photography

So if you’re photographing a beach sunset scene, instead of putting the horizon line smack-dab in the middle of the frame, you’d want to place it along the upper third or lower third gridline.

Composition rules in photography

And if you’re photographing a cluster of trees in a field, instead of putting the trees in the center of the shot, you’d want to position them a third of the way from the right or left edge.

By the way, if you can position your main subject at the intersection of two gridlines (i.e., a third of the way from two image edges), you’ll get an even more powerful result.

In general, rule-of-thirds compositions feel balanced. But they feel dynamic, not static, which helps the viewer better engage with the shot. Nice, right?

2. Symmetry

Symmetry refers to areas of reflection across the frame. It’s a great way to produce powerful, in-your-face images, the kind that feature lots of tension – though you do need to be careful not to create photos that are a bit too static (see my discussion of the rule of thirds above!).

You can create vertical symmetry by including subjects that reflect across the horizontal axis, you can create horizontal symmetry by including subjects that reflect across the vertical axis, and you can create diagonal symmetry by including subjects that reflect across a diagonal. Any of these options can work, though each effect will give you a different result, so I encourage you to experiment and see what you think.

Composition rules in photography

The toughest part about using symmetry is actually finding symmetrical subjects. Bear in mind, however, that you can still create a symmetrical effect by featuring roughly – but not perfectly – symmetrical elements.

Trees, for instance, are roughly symmetrical subjects, so you might position one in the center of the frame so it divides the composition in two.

Pro tip: For the most compelling results, aim to fill the frame with your symmetrical elements. Physically get in close, or use a telephoto lens to really punch in.

Composition rules in photography

3. Layering

A photograph isn’t just a flat image; it can have depth, texture, and layers that guide the viewer’s eye. The concept of layering can elevate your photography to new dimensions – quite literally.

Composition rules in photography

First off, think of your photograph as a stage with multiple layers: the foreground, the midground, and the background. These aren’t just arbitrary divisions; they’re strategic zones where you can place different elements to create depth.

Take, for example, a beach scene. The foreground could be filled with shells and pebbles. Your midground? Maybe some frothy waves or children playing. And the background can showcase a fiery sunset or an ocean stretching to the horizon.

Composition rules in photography

But don’t limit yourself to just three layers. More layers can add complexity and richness to your image. Sometimes you’ll find multiple layers even within a single “zone,” like several rows of trees in what you’d typically call the “background.”

What if all your layers are far away? No problem! Even distant layers can add to the composition. A skyline behind a row of trees and a mountain range? That’s a multi-layered photo that draws the eye and keeps a viewer engaged.

4. The rule of odds

The rule of odds states that the most pleasing compositions include odd numbers of elements.

So if you were photographing a group of shorebirds, you’d want to include three, five, or seven sandpipers; if you were photographing a rural landscape, you’d want to include one, three, or five telephone wires, grain silos, or barns; and if you were photographing a food flat lay, you’d want to include three, five, seven, or nine grapes, blueberries, or oranges.

Composition rules in photography

Photographers argue over what makes the rule of odds such an effective composition technique, though it may have to do with our capacity to group items. The brain groups in pairs, so while an even number of items is easily groupable, an odd number of items will always leave out the final element – causing the viewer to become further engaged.

The rule of odds is most commonly used by still life, food, and product photographers. It’s easy to adjust a still-life arrangement to include three, five, or seven vases, and the resulting compositions look amazing.

Of course, you can also use the rule to improve your landscape, group portrait, and even architectural images. Simply count your elements, exclude or include objects as needed, then capture the final image.

5. Negative space

Negative space refers to areas of emptiness in an image, such as:

  • White sky
  • An expanse of sea
  • The side of a metal building
Composition rules in photography

Note that negative space can also be made up of areas that are so heavily textured that they feel empty, like:

  • A brick wall
  • A stand of leafy trees
  • A grass lawn

So what’s the rule of composition? Simple: The best images tend to include plenty of negative space because it helps the viewer breathe.

In other words, don’t compose your photos with too much active space (i.e., positive space); the result will feel overwhelming. Instead, offer a mix of positive and negative space, like notes and rests in a musical score.

One cool technique here is to find a main subject – a point of focus in your composition – then surround it with negative space. The negative space will direct the viewer toward the main subject, and the composition will be far more powerful.

Composition rules in photography

And if you’re looking to create a very breathy, peaceful composition, try choosing a lone main subject, then fill the rest of the image with negative space. The final composition will look beautifully minimalistic!

6. Foreground interest

Have you ever looked at a landscape photo and felt like you could walk right into it? That’s likely due to a technique called foreground interest. In essence, it involves placing an object—be it a rock, a flower, or even a stream—close to the camera, in the foreground of your shot. This subject grabs your attention before your eyes wander to the background. It’s like the visual equivalent of an opening act that warms up the audience for the main event.

Composition rules in photography

One thing to note is the importance of lens choice. A wide-angle lens is your best friend here. It allows you to capture both the foreground element and the background in one frame. That way, you can create a sense of depth and three-dimensionality that’s truly immersive.

Aperture settings also play a huge role. If you want everything from the foreground to the background to be in focus, you’ll need a narrow aperture. Think f/16 or smaller. However, be prepared to focus carefully; a slight misstep and either your foreground or your background could turn out blurry. This is where practice comes in, so don’t shy away from experimenting.

Composition rules in photography

Now, this technique is often seen in landscape photography. But don’t limit yourself. It’s just as effective in cityscapes, street photography, and other genres. In essence, whenever you want to add depth to a photo, think foreground interest.

7. The rule of space

The rule of space is a composition technique commonly used by portrait photographers, event photographers, wildlife photographers, bird photographers, and even automotive photographers – really, any group of photographers who deals with humans, animals, or moving subjects.

Why? Because the rule of space states that you should give your subject space to either:

  • Look into
  • Run into

Say that you’re photographing a perching bird. If you follow the rule of thirds (above), you would want to position the bird a third of the way into the frame – but should it look toward empty space? Or should the bird look toward the edge of the frame?

According to the rule of space, the bird should look toward empty space, not the edge of the frame. That way, the image feels more open and less cramped.

Composition rules in photography

Similarly, if you’re photographing a moving plane, the rule of space encourages you to include plenty of empty sky in front of the plane (and very little sky behind it), so your main subject has room to “move.”

Composition rules in photography

Now, like the other compositional guidelines in this article, you don’t always need to follow the rule of space. Adding negative space behind the subject (instead of in front of it) can create an interesting sense of tension. But in general, the rule of space does work well, so I encourage you to try it out!

8. Leading lines

Leading lines are elements that lead the eye around the scene, and they’re a powerful way to create flow, add depth, and emphasize the main subject.

Composition rules in photography

Leading lines are frequently used by landscape photographers to direct the viewer from foreground to background. The photographer arranges the scene with a subject in the background (such as a mountain, a tree, or a sunset), then finds some sort of foreground line that guides the viewer’s gaze. The resulting image boasts lots of depth and plenty of foreground-to-background flow, plus the background subject gets some much-needed emphasis.

Common leading lines include:

  • Roads
  • Fallen logs
  • Rivers
  • Lines in the sand
  • Cracks in ice
  • Jagged rocks

That said, leading lines can also be used in portrait photography, street photography, architectural photography, and much more. An outstretched arm can lead the eye through a street scene toward an interaction between subjects, while a subtly bent hand can lead the viewer to the face of a portrait subject.

When you’re just getting started with leading lines, you may struggle to find them, but don’t give up. Train your mind to look for relevant lines, and pretty soon, you’ll be seeing them everywhere.

Composition rules in photography

9. The odd one out

Patterns are compelling. They offer a rhythm that can make an image visually pleasing. But let’s talk about breaking the pattern, the proverbial wrench in the machine, the odd one out.

Imagine laying out spoons on a table for a photo. Perfectly aligned, they create an almost hypnotic pattern. But then, you replace one spoon with a knife. Just like that, you’ve created a focal point that instantly grabs attention.

Why does this work? Well, the brain loves to solve puzzles. A pattern offers a sort of visual rhythm. The break in that pattern? It’s like a skipped beat that makes you pay attention. The viewer’s eyes will start at the break and then move around, exploring the rest of the pattern.

Composition rules in photography

This concept isn’t just limited to inanimate objects on a table. Think about a flock of birds and one is flying in the opposite direction. Or a street filled with red cars and a single yellow one stands out. These breaks in pattern can happen organically in the world around you.

So, the next time you find a pattern, think about how to break it. Whether you’re setting up a still-life or wandering through nature, look for that odd one out. It’s an effective way to capture attention and make your photograph stand out.

10. Diagonals

Composition rules in photography

Diagonals are like leading lines, except they cut diagonally through the frame and don’t necessarily lead the eye toward anything.

Instead, diagonals are used to create a sense of movement, flow, or energy – with frequently beautiful results.

So when you’re out with your camera, try looking for tilted objects, such as leaning trees, house roofs, and building railings. Then change your angle, zoom in, step back, and do whatever else you can to include them in your photos. It can help to get in close and fill the frame with the diagonal, though that isn’t always necessary.

Composition rules in photography

And if you can’t find any good diagonals, you can always create one yourself by tilting your camera. The technique might be a bit unconventional, but it’ll imbue your photos with plenty of energy!

11. Triangles

Moving on, let’s explore the concept of triangles in composition. This shape serves as an powerful framework to organize your photo’s elements.

Composition rules in photography

Why triangles, you ask? They create a sense of balance and stability. Plus, they add a touch of dynamism to your shots. That’s because the three corners and the connecting lines guide the viewer’s eye in a perpetual loop. Your gaze travels from one element to the other without coming to a complete stop.

Finding triangles might seem tricky at first, but it becomes easier over time. And it’s not just about obvious triangles like those in architectural features. Even in a cluttered market scene or a busy street, groups of people can form triangles. Adjust your angle, and suddenly you’ve framed a dynamic, well-balanced shot.

Composition rules in photography

Say you’re at a park and you see a bench, a tree, and a lamp post. Arrange yourself so these three elements form a triangle within your frame.

This technique is all about recognizing patterns and then positioning yourself to capitalize on them. The next time you’re framing a shot, look for that hidden triangle. Whether it’s formed by people, buildings, or natural elements, it will add a layer of complexity to your composition without confusing the viewer.

12. The golden ratio

The golden ratio is 1.618, a number that constantly crops up in nature and tends to look very pleasing when incorporated into compositions.

What do I mean by this? Well, it’s possible to create a grid that is spaced out using the golden ratio. It works just like the rule of thirds – the goal is to position key elements along the gridlines – though it’s slightly more compressed in the center.

You can also use the golden ratio to produce a golden spiral overlay, which looks like the whorl of a nautilus shell. Then, by aligning key compositional elements with the spiral, you can capture unusually dynamic photos.

Composition rules in photography

Most photographers find the golden ratio grid far easier to use, but if you want to really take your compositions to the next level, memorize the golden spiral, then look for compositions that seem to fit. (Note: It’s tough to find an arrangement of elements that perfectly mirrors the golden spiral. Instead, search for elements that roughly follow the spiral; you’ll still get a powerful effect, but with a little less frustration!)

Composition rules in photography

13. Frame within a frame

Next in line is the “frame within a frame” technique, a favorite among photographers and Instagrammers alike. Picture this: you have a beautiful building you want to capture. Now imagine fitting that building within an archway or a window frame. What you’ve done is created a “frame” for your main subject.

Composition rules in photography

A doorway can offer an additional layer of context to a historic building, or a tree branch can add a natural touch to a mountain scene. This technique creates depth and draws your viewer’s eye straight to the subject.

But the challenge lies in spotting these opportunities. You’ll need to train your eye to see not just the subject, but also potential frames within your environment. Walk around your subject; sometimes a great framing element is just a few steps away.

Once you become aware of this technique, you’ll start seeing frames everywhere. It could be a bridge framing a cityscape, or an overhanging tree framing a trail. With practice, you’ll be able to naturally incorporate this technique into your day-to-day shooting.

Composition rules in photography

Photography composition rules: final words

Well, there you have it:

The 13 most useful rules of composition in photography. No, I didn’t cover every rule, but these are the big ones – and if you can memorize just a handful, your compositions will improve in leaps and bounds.

Don’t feel overwhelmed if you can’t apply all these techniques at once. Mastering composition is a journey, not a destination. Even seasoned photographers continually refine their skills, learning from each click of the shutter.

The beauty of these rules? They’re more like guidelines. As you gain experience, you’ll find your own creative ways to break or bend them. But first, you have to know them.

So, grab your camera and get shooting. Test these rules, tweak them, make them your own. The world is full of scenes just waiting to be captured through your unique lens. It’s time to make your mark.

Good luck, and enjoy composing!

Which composition rule is your favorite? Which do you plan to use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Note: This article was updated in October 2023 by dPS’s Managing Editor, Jaymes Dempsey.

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Elizabeth Halford
Elizabeth Halford

is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

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