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 eight 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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
3. 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.
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.
4. 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
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.
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!
5. 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.
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.”
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!
6. 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.
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:
- Fallen logs
- 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.
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.
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!
8. 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.
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!)
Photography composition rules: final words
Well, there you have it:
The eight 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.
So good luck, and enjoy composing!
Which composition rule is your favorite? Which do you plan to use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!