What are the rules of composition in photography? Spoiler: There are no rules. But here are some trusted techniques to help you master composition and add another level of skill to your photography.
Words by Urth HQ
Composition is something every photographer needs to give attention to at some point in their practice. This article will help you build your understanding of photography composition so a good photograph may be visualised long before you pick up the camera.
What is Photography Composition?
Composition refers to the visual arrangement of elements within the frame. A tree to the left, a bridge to the right and a portrait subject smack bang in the middle — this is an example of composition.
Composition types like rule of thirds and leading lines, although recognisable as photographic terms, are actually borrowed from art history. The relatively new medium of photography drew inspiration from Renaissance painters, for example, and adopted these compositional techniques.
But you don’t need to be an art historian to understand composition. Composition is often assimilated subconsciously and without any prior compositional knowledge, we can look at a photograph and determine that it’s framed in a good way or a bad way.
Photography Composition Rules & Techniques
Yes, there are composition rules, but we should first outline that these rules aren’t set in stone. Consider the following photography composition rules and techniques simply as guidelines. They exist to encourage compositional thinking, and are certainly meant to be broken once a basic understanding of composition is gained.
RULE OF THIRDS
Rule of thirds composition is something you may have heard about already. It’s a very simple yet effective premise and can really add some compositional flair to your photographs.
We have a natural tendency to want to compose an image centrally i.e. when photographing a tree, we may place the tree in the centre of frame. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (symmetry is often a great compositional tool), but be aware of the risk of creating an underwhelming composition.
You want to instead split your frame into 9 rectangles (3 by 3 as seen below) and line up the tree, or whatever elements within the frame, along one or more of the lines or their points of intersection.
This creates far greater visual interest and impact. Try experimenting with composition through your viewfinder by framing a scene centrally, and then by using the rule of thirds.
If visualising a grid of 9 rectangles is difficult for you, check your camera menu for the Grid function. The rule of thirds is so popular that most digital camera manufacturers include a 9-rectangle grid that can be selected to overlay your LCD screen.
Leading lines is a common composition technique used to direct the viewer’s attention in a specific direction. As a photographer, you can use roads, pathways, bridges or linear patterns to provide a viewer with a guided reading of the image.
The visual language of this composition is essentially communicating: “Follow the lines. What I really want to show you is at the end.” It’s a really simple yet helpful concept that often pairs well with symmetry and a central composition.
But leading lines composition can function best when using curved lines instead of straight. The curvature of a leading line provides a more interesting journey for the viewer. This is particularly important in landscape photography because the aim is to translate the outdoor experience effectively. Curved leading lines demand the viewer undertake their own visual journey in your photograph.
NEGATIVE SPACE PHOTOGRAPHY
When beginning photography especially, you may experience a natural inclination to photograph things, to fill the frame with as much information as possible. Although filling the frame is a compositional technique, an often more powerful one is not filling the frame. Simplicity is key.
Negative space photography allows your subject to be seen without the overwhelming distraction of complicated backgrounds or other elements. It’s you communicating to the viewer: “This is all I want you to see.”
Take this below example. The focus of the image is the surfer. Isolating the surfer with negative space around them immediately brings the viewer closer to the artist’s intended vision.
GOLDEN RATIO PHOTOGRAPHY
The golden ratio is a classic example of a composition technique borrowed from art history. It’s often referred to as the ‘Fibonacci Spiral’, named after Leonardo Fibonacci, a mathematician from 1200AD, and has been used by artists and musicians ever since (Beethoven composed his famous 5th Symphony using this tool!).
The mathematical equation for which the golden ratio term is derived is very convoluted. If you’re a brainiac and want to learn how maths influences composition, click here for some formulaic homework.
In layman’s terms, the golden ratio is a ratio of approximately 1.618 to 1. It seems unnecessarily complex but truth be told, it’s kinda the same as rule of thirds composition. See the example below.
Instead of dividing the frame into 9 rectangles, the golden ratio frame is divided into a grid of squares. This grid forms the basis for the Fibonacci Spiral and helps position subjects within the frame.
To put this technique into practice, draw an imaginary Fibonacci Spiral on your grid (this can be left to right, right to left or upside down), ensuring elements within the scene are in the appropriate places to create a powerful flow for the viewer. Think of it as a swirling leading line.
Photography Composition Examples
Here are some photography composition examples ranging from rule of thirds to the use of foreground depth. Take note of how the elements and subjects within the frame are arranged. Which composition resonates with you the most?
Photography Composition Tips
The above are all composition tips and techniques used historically in the photographic medium. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned professional, a return to this compositional thinking is great for your photography.
Experiment and familiarise yourself with these composition tips. Aim to implement one type of composition per shoot i.e. on your next shoot, try and use leading lines only. After a while, you’ll be able to visualise a great image before you pick up the camera.
Understanding the rules and techniques of composition is something every photographer should strive for. You certainly won’t stick to these compositions forever but practicing them and understanding why they’re common will mean they eventually and naturally reside in your photographic wheelhouse. Having this base compositional skill set will allow you to trust your intuition and make creative rule-bending decisions in the future.
Learn From the Masters
Emulating your heroes is an important stepping stone in the emerging photographer’s pathway. Adapting your mindset to mimic photography legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams can yield fantastic results but also help you develop your own unique way of compositional thinking.
For some additional reading, see How Henri Cartier-Bresson Captured Candid Moments as well as How Ansel Adams’ Visualisation Techniques Will Better Your Photos.