Photography Composition Rules And Techniques

This short guide to photography composition covers the rules of some composition techniques, useful for beginners and anyone wishing to improve their photography skills.

The Rule Of Thirds

The rule of thirds is the most popular and well known photography composition technique. It involves splitting the image into equal sections by placing two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines onto your image. Some cameras have an option to use this grid in the viewfinder and on screen. The idea is to place objects of interest at one of the points where the lines intersect or along one of the lines. This creates a visually appealing layout as opposed to placing your subject directly in the middle of the frame or elsewhere.

The Golden Ratio

This technique is very similar to the rule of thirds and has been known about for a long time as a way of creating aesthetically pleasing, balanced compositions. While the rule of thirds splits the image in to equal sections- 1:1:1, the golden ratio uses something called a Phi Grid to split the image into sections of 1:0.618:1. This is a little confusing, but easier to understand when shown visually. The golden ratio isn’t just used in photography though, it’s also used in art and can even be seen in nature.

Leading Lines

Leading lines are very common in photography, and they’re useful for leading the eye through the scene towards the main subject in your image. They can be vertical or curved lines which usually start at the bottom of a photo and lead into a point of interest. Anything can act as a line, for example a path, fence or river. The leading lines can also be the main subject in your photo, this works well with interesting patterns, such as a line of trees or foliage.

Balance

An easy way to balance a photo is to place the subject directly in the middle of the viewfinder, but this often creates a very boring photo so should be avoided in a lot of instances. A better choice is to place the subject off centre, or at one of the points covered already in the rule of thirds. But placing the subject to one side of the scene can often create a very unbalanced photo, especially if it’s a very minimalist photo, and so to balance the scene out you can place another subject about the same distance from the edge on the opposite side of the scene.

Patterns

Patterns are a very interesting subject to shoot, and they can be found almost anywhere. Unexpected patterns in nature usually make a good photo, perhaps a pattern of flowers or a spiders web. You can further emphasize this pattern by breaking it in part of the image, by placing another subject in the scene that doesn’t conform to the pattern.

Symmetry

Symmetrical patterns are good subjects and they can be found in both natural and unnatural subjects. The symmetry can take many forms, for example if you cut your image in half you could aim to have the same things on each side of the image or just subjects that are the same size or distance from each other. This works well with patterns of objects. To emphasize the symmetry and pattern more, try breaking it by placing a subject in the scene that doesn’t conform.

Framing

Framing your subject usually involves placing a natural subject around your main subject to help lead the eye to the main subject. For example you could use trees, arches or mountains to create an interesting frame for your subject.

Foreground

The foreground is usually the subjects nearest to you in the scene, towards the bottom of the photo. Try to include a subject in your foreground to add interest and also help to lead the eye into the background of the photo. For example, for a landscape shot you could use some rocks or plants for your foreground, or in an urban shot you could include a sign or a bench.

Background

Once you’ve decided on your main subject, take a look around your scene to choose a background that isn’t going to distract the viewer or ruin your photo. Usually a minimalist background works well if you intend on throwing it out of focus. If you want the background to be a blur, try using a wider aperture (small F number) to throw it out of focus.

Depth

You can add depth to your photo by using leading lines and placing subjects in your foreground and background to give the viewer a sense of the size of the subjects in your scene. Using a small focal length or a wide angle lens can further emphasize the size of your subjects, but with wider lenses this can warp the scene, making the subjects closest to the lens appear larger than they are, but this effect is usually intended.

Keep It Simple

Don’t over complicate your scene, often the most simple photos are the best. If there’s too much going on in a photo it can look messy, and the viewer might not know what to focus on. This is common for beginners, and they zoom right out because they don’t want to leave anything out of the scene. Don’t include things in your scene that aren’t needed, choose your main subject and compose your photo around it, making it as simple as possible but still interesting. Zoom in to exclude unwanted objects and use a wider aperture to throw everything else out of focus.

Fill The Frame

Try to fill as much of the frame with your subject as possible, by zooming in and using wider apertures. Only include in the scene what is absolutely essential to the photo, and crop out anything that detracts from the photo or would leave it looking cluttered.

Leave Some Space

Leaving some space to the edge of your subject is important especially for portraits and wildlife photography. It gives the subject some context, and if the subject’s looking at something in the scene it’s a good idea to leave some space into the direction in which they’re looking. But leaving space behind the subject in the direction they’re not looking, or if there’s nothing of interest there, wouldn’t work, and often creates an unbalanced looking photo.

Viewpoint

Almost every photographer shoots at eye level, and this works in a lot of photos, but it also makes for a more interesting photo to get down on the ground or a higher viewpoint of your subject. For example getting down low and on a level with your subject when taking photos of animals or children gives a sense of their point of view, and is a lot more interesting than taking a photo of them from above.

Colours & Contrast

Colours have the ability to create contrast in your scene and a more interesting photo. You could try taking out some of the colours in post processing, and leaving one or two in, or you could try reducing the saturation of the whole photo to give it an old fashioned look.

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