Five rules for better photo composition

Photo Composition

What makes a photo pleasing to look at? While correct exposure is important, I would say good composition is imperative. Anyone can take a well exposed photo but taking a photo that is also interesting and beautiful takes practice. So how do you take a well composed photo? Well there are some easy rules to follow that help with this.

When it comes to composition, if you keep these rules in mind when composing your shot, you’re likely to have a better photo than if you just snapped without any more thought. These aren’t rules you should feel you have to memorize and follow to the letter, they are more like guidelines of elements that make your photo more pleasing to a viewer. Composition is a fluid thing, what you see and what you find pleasing may not always fit within the rules of composition. Don’t be afraid to break the rules, there are plenty of great photos that have unique composition. With that being said, here are the rules of composition.


The Rules

Rule 1: Keep it clutter free and focused on a subject

If there is too much going on in your photo the viewer may not understand what they are supposed to be seeing. Focus on a single main subject with elements that compliment what you are trying to say about the subject. Try to fill the frame with just these elements, anything else that is in the photo just adds unnecessary clutter.

As you can see in the photo I wanted to focus attention on the SUV. Had I zoomed out you would have been able to see more of the building, people milling about and the SUV would have been small, making it difficult to tell what the true subject was. Here there is no mistaking this, and it makes you want to explore the contents of the SUV, imagining what the owner was doing before parking it here.

Jeep photo composition

Rule 2: Centered subjects get boring

A photo is generally more interesting if your subject is not always centered in the photo. You can utilize the “Rule of Thirds” to compose your shots. This is a technique where your image is split in thirds, both horizontally and vertically as shown in the illustration below.

By placing your subject on one of these imaginary lines you can use the surrounding scenery to add to the story you are trying to portray. If you use the Rule of Thirds you also want to balance the image with another secondary subject to keep the rest of the image from looking sparse.

Keep in mind the Rule of Thirds approach can be overused as well, try to be creative with your composition and don’t be afraid to break the rules.

 rule of thirds photo composition


Rule 3: Use the power of lines

Lines in a photo carry meaning, by learning how to use them you can create powerful images. Horizontal lines evoke a feeling of timelessness and stability whereas vertical lines give a sense of strength or growth. If you are looking to emphasize movement or action you can do this with diagonal lines.

Also, you can use various elements in a scene to cause the viewer’s eye to be drawn to a subject. You do this by using natural lines to shift the eye elsewhere in the scene. As you can see in the image the lines of the game surface as well as the lights along the edge lead your eyes up to the top where the points are scored.

This highlights this area and makes the photo more interesting by attempting to bring back a memory from childhood of hoping to score the most points while playing the game and watching as the ball landed into the numbered openings.
leading lines photo composition

Rule 4: Go big or go home

If you are going to break the rules, commit to it. If you are going to take a photo with the horizon at an angle you don’t want to leave the viewer wondering if it was on purpose or not. Give that camera a good turn and make it obvious that you wanted it that way.

This is what I did in the photo here. Clearly this sign hangs horizontally since you can see the bar below is at an odd angle, but I wanted to do something different with the shot.

A normal photo of an every day sign reading The Haunted Mansion Exit isn’t all that special. However, at this angle it makes the sign pop out a little more since it’s unexpected. Doing the unexpected is sometimes what makes photos really special.

angled photo composition


Rule 5: Symmetry

The world around us is full of symmetrical shapes like sea shells and buildings. You can use these elements to create beautiful symmetric photos or break the pattern somehow with an unexpected twist. You can also use these objects to create a natural frame for a subject, making the overall photo more interesting.

An example of this is the photo below. The boards and the lines create a very symmetrical design, lines that are equidistant from one another all going the same direction. The circular port hole breaks this symmetry and the toy anchor adds a bit of a twist to the overall photo.symmetry photo composition

Something that could have been very bland by itself is made unusual by these added elements without taking away from the symmetry.

So there you have it, composition in all its forms. There are limitless ways to compose a photo and you can either see something and make it happen or just try experimenting with different angles and views and see what works. Luckily with digital cameras there’s no need to worry, if you don’t like it there’s always the delete button.

Last up in this four part series I talk all about photo compression. Should you use RAW or JPEG? I’ll answer this question in detail for you. Here are links back to parts one and two in case you missed them!

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