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Four Rules of Photographic Composition

Before I dove head first into the world of photography (there was no toe-in-the water transition period for me), I hadn’t ever considered or learned about composition. I thought it only had something to do with painting. If I was going to take pictures of real life, I didn’t imagine that I would be saying to the man running for the bus, “excuse me, could you please step into this third here?” I disregarded composition entirely. Then there came a point where I began intuitively setting my manual settings without much thought. I was suddenly left with loads of time on my hands while shooting to, not necessarily bother my subjects with moving around in a scene, but to move myself appropriately and be quick enough to catch something in the split second when it was naturally well composed.

So if you are like me and you haven’t yet considered composition, here are a few rules to get you going. Naturally, rules are made to be broken. But you can’t break the rules until you have mastered them. More on that another time. Here are four hard and fast rules of composition I can’t live without:

Four Rules of Photographic CompositionThirds – This may be the most widely known rule of composition among photographers. There’s even an option in most DSLRs to switch on a visual grid in your viewfinder. This rule states that for an image to be visually interesting, the main focus of the image needs to lie along one of the lines marked in thirds. For example, according to this rule, a horizon shouldn’t be smack bang in the middle of a photo, but on the bottom third. A single tree in a field should be aligned with one of the two vertical lines.

Four Rules of Photographic CompositionRule of odds – The rule of odds states that images are more visually appealing when there is an odd number of subjects. For example, if you are going to place more than one person in a photograph, don’t use two, use 3 or 5 or 7, etc. Of course this is a pretty silly notion for an engagement shoot, right? Or a wedding shoot. Or a family with only two kids. But when possible, when you are not just shooting real life but composing images (still life, family groups, flowers) remember the rule of odds. Studies have shown that people are actually more at ease and comfort when viewing imagery with an odd number of subjects. I’d be very interested to know the different opinions readers have for why that is. I’ll share mine in the comments below.

Four Rules of Photographic CompositionRule of space – I used to get this rule mixed up with the rule of thirds. The rule of space probably comes naturally to you and you don’t even know it’s a rule of composition. The rule of space says that in order to portray movement, context and the idea that the photo is bigger than just the part that you’re seeing, you need to leave clutter free ‘white’ spaces. For example if you’re photographing a runner, give him a space to run into. Don’t photograph him with all the space in the world behind him because this doesn’t help the viewer  picture the forward motion & the space he has yet to run. If you’re making a portrait of a woman laughing at something not in the photo, leave space in the direction where she is laughing. This leads the viewer to wonder what’s just beyond the boundaries of the photo. What is she laughing at? The reason I got this mixed up with the rule of thirds is that naturally, when giving your subjects space, they will be placed in a third of the photo.

Four Rules of Photographic CompositionViewpoint – Often referred to as POV, point of view is the most basic of composition rules. And it’s as simple as clicking the shutter. You are  your viewer. Your camera is their eye. If you photograph a dog at eye level, your viewer will be viewing the dog at eye level (which gives the idea/feeling of equality). If you photograph a dog from below, your viewer will be seeing the dog from below (a low shot gives the notion of dominance). If you photograph a dog from above, you are projecting a feeling of your viewer’s superiority in relation to the dog.

What’s your favourite rule of composition? What goes through your head each and every time you compose a shot?

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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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