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Rules of Composition in Photography

Dhanashree Patane Mar 17, 2020
The composition of a photograph is a major aspect that defines whether or not the photo is impressive. Following certain methods and a little calculation can go a long way in redefining a picture. This story enlists the rules of composition in photography for that perfect visual.
You don't take a photograph, you make it.
-Ansel Adams
Photography is a beautiful, creative, and most expressive art form. Since it is creative, ideally, there cannot be any rules set. However, there are some basic rules or guidelines in photography, which differentiate 'creative photography' from merely clicking random pictures.
One major factor in photography basics is composition. It is the way each element is spaced and framed in the picture. In short, it defines the overall value of the image, which is defined with how each element is assembled in the photograph. Without proper composition, no element, color, or light can bring out excellence in an image.
Before we begin, understand that it is not mandatory to apply all the rules in your picture. While shooting, you will be dealing with many subjects and diverse backgrounds. So, look for exact slots that help you apply these rules.
Keep an open and creative approach towards each subject. A good composition is fueled by a natural sense of design, so you will know what makes a good composition, to which you can simply add these tips.

Basic Rules of Photographic Composition

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is an integral part of any creative art design or photo. There are certain segments that the human eye perceives with great interest in an image. To achieve this, it is important to understand the subject of your picture, and enhance it in the best way possible. The rule of thirds is just a simple way of doing so.
Divide your scene using 2 horizontal and 2 vertical lines. This way your picture should be divided in 9 equal parts. The points at which these lines intersect are the best places to place your subject.
This creates great balance in the composition. You need not position the subject exactly at the intersections of these points. Try to place it close to or along these lines.
In both the images, the subject of importance is placed at the points where the lines intersect.

Line of Horizon

Landscape photography gives you some of the best natural compositions. To add a creative edge to the landscape, use the horizon line below or above the middle of the frame. In exceptional cases, this line can be in the center, which is when you are composing a picture with reflections of the subject.
The line which divides the horizon lies in the lower half in this image. It balances the image and generates focus on the beautiful shades of the sky.
The rocks and sea are important in this image. So, the horizon line in the upper half of the image does the work of creating space for focus at the bottom.

Rule of Odds

Have you noticed that it is always easier to create a good composition when the number of objects or subjects in the frame are odd. For example, if you place three berries, you can easily arrange them in a way that creates good focus (you can easily create focus on the middle element, as the rest that surrounds it creates an even frame).
On the contrary, if you place 4 berries in the composition, creating focus becomes a challenge. It may sound like it is too much about the numbers, but you might want to give it a try. It works!
In both the images, including an odd number of elements in the composition have helped create focus and balance.

Guiding Lines

Certain elements have strong leading power on the human eye, like fences, roads, and stairs; basically lines and curves that may lead the viewer to an important element or to the focus of your image. They draw the viewer deeper in the composition, with strong perspective and depth.
So, using these lines in the right way in your composition can easily attract the viewer to a clear focal point in the picture. Using lines that are diagonal, horizontal, zig-zag, curvy, or vertical can also add a creative dimension to the image.
The curve and the lines on the road create a visual journey and motion in the image.
The fencing creates an illusion of depth and leads the viewer's eye.


Repetitive patterns help create an interesting composition if the frame is filled with the pattern. The pattern or design that repeats can create an impact on the other elements in your composition. Use creative vision to find patterns in the background. A subject can be used as a pattern too.
Example, if you have a basket full of red chillies as the subject, zoom in and take a closeup and tight-framed shot of the chillies. To add an element of focus in this pattern, place a contrasting element like a yellow or green chilly in the composition. This creates an impact as you make a pattern, and suddenly shifts focus by breaking the flow of pattern.
The green apples in a tight composition create an interesting pattern. Placing a red apple among them, breaks this pattern and adds a dramatic effect.
Natural forms like leaves also make great patterns. The detailing on the leaves make it more appealing.


Texture instills an image with a slight depth and detail. Any element that has texture attracts the viewer as compared to a plain visual, as it tempts the viewer to imagine the feel of the texture. In most cases, a good composition with texture can be achieved with a closeup and cropped shot of the image.
To promote the detailing in the texture, think about the angle, and most importantly, the direction of light. Creating shadows, mid-tones, and highlights, by using effective lighting, will create depth and a stunning texture.
The detailed wooden texture enhances an otherwise plain image.
The faded color and rough texture of the boat adds value to the composition.

Leaning Inside the Frame

For compositions that include people, animals, or birds, the subject should face inside of the frame. If the bird or animal is in motion, or you are capturing any action, make sure there is enough space in the direction of the action of the subject. This completes the composition of your photograph, as it informs the viewer more about the subject's action.
The action of the swan is not hindered in the composition. It's direction of movement is inside the frame of the composition.
The calmness of the woman's gaze is not blocked as it travels inside the frame.


A decent space in the composition does not suffocate the viewer's eye. A composition that lacks this space freezes the movement of the image, leaving the viewer feeling uneasy, with an imbalanced photograph, where the subject gets nowhere to go, except out of the frame.
Along with focus on the man and his rafting action, the composition gets space to lend a sense of completion to his action.
The dandelion gets more space to float as it is blown, making way for the action in the image to travel.


Adding too many elements in the composition may spoil the attraction of the image. Do not clutter the composition with a heavy background and equally focused subject. Keep the background simple if your subject is in focus and close. Basically, decide what is important, and keep the rest of the composition simple and neat.
The image depicts simplicity, with the focus and importance on the autumn leaves, while the rest of the elements and background are kept subtle.
The girl in the image is easily highlighted with a simple prop - her colorful umbrella.


Distributing space in the photograph so as to create balance is important. When drawing the viewer towards the subject and focus, most people use the rule of thirds. However, since in most of these cases the subject dominates only one side of the frame, the other side is left empty.
This creates an imbalance in the photograph. So, even if you are using the rule of thirds, make sure that the image is always well-balanced by a secondary element/point of interest in the background.
The strong focus on the tea cup is well-balanced by placing other elements in the background.
The lighthouse in this image attracts the viewer, but in a subtle way. The viewer's focus is balanced by including a wooden foot bridge in the composition.


A wide image no doubt fills the picture, but sometimes, the subject gets dissolved against the background and other elements. The subject does not get the required focus and importance. In such cases, your composition should have just enough space and background to give adequate focus to the subject.
Crop the remaining area. This way, you can also change the alignment of the subject. For example, if the subject is in the center of the composition, cropping it in a way that more space is distributed in all but one side of the image, can create an interesting composition.
Cropping the bird has helped create focus in this image. The closeup has added attraction and visual appeal.
The subject of importance is clear in this image as the background is cropped. The viewer is easily attracted to the subject and detailing.


Photography is a 2-dimensional medium of expression, but it sure can create the illusion of depth in an image. Adding depth to an image by adding elements or objects in the foreground, middle, and background, will attract the viewer. The human eye can differentiate these layers, thus viewing an image which has depth.
One can also use elements that complement each other in the composition, by color, nature, or similar aspects. Overlapping is also another technique that can be used to add depth to the image, by partially obscuring one element or object in the composition from another.
The perspective and including elements in a specific angle and diminishing focus creates a feeling of depth in this image.
Multiple layers of mountains behind each other add depth to the beauty of this landscape.


The background is another important element in any composition. If the background is too loud, the focus of the image is divided or cluttered. So, even if the subject is attractive and focused, the photograph will look plain because of the background.
Choose backgrounds that do not draw attention away from the subject. In most portraits, choose plain backgrounds, without too many obtrusive elements. You may blur or remove focus from the background if there are too many elements that are distracting.
Though the image has an even tone, the subject of focus is enhanced and focused, by keeping the background low and blurred.
In this image, a simple technique of using a contrasting and dark background has added focus and beauty to the composition.


Framing the composition is a very easy way to create focus. You will find that nature is filled with elements that can divide the photograph in such a way that the subject is in clear focus, and the frame also looks like a part of the subject.
The wooden doors act like a frame to the bamboo plants in the background.
Shooting this image at a specific angle and direction creates a cave-like structure, to act like a border or frame, creating focus on the natural patterns of these mountains.


Colors add emotion to the picture. They can engage the viewer with attraction. Using bright colors, many add a fun element in the picture, while sepia and gray tones add a warm, vintage tone to the picture.
Depending on the subject of focus, and what you want to convey through your photograph, choose colors accordingly. A dull and gray landscape can be appealing with even a small, bright chimney or roof. Similarly, brightly-placed flowers in a plain or white background add a peaceful, yet colorful edge to your composition.
The bright red house adds just the right amount of energy and attraction to the neutral background.
Using bright colors in the background and elements has added playful and happy emotions to this composition.

Diagonal Lines and Compositions

To add a dramatic touch to the image, use diagonal lines in the image. If you work with wide angles, there is more room for perspective, thus creating opportunity for diagonal lines. A shift in focal length or position can also help achieve this composition.
While most horizontal or vertical line compositions may lend a standard look to the photograph, using lines that travel diagonally will help bring out a fresh and unstable perspective. They also part a sense of movement and force to a subject.
Even with simple elements in the composition, the picture looks stunning, due to the diagonal angle and tilt used when shooting.
The diagonal lines created on the road add motion and appeal to the otherwise dark tones of this image.

Shapes and Symmetry

If one observes shapes, it will be noticed that they actually make a very good element in a composition. Patterns and symmetry can be found in nature, and man-made objects too. can be used to define and draw the focus of the viewer to the subject. To add more drama to an image with symmetry, break the symmetry at a certain point in the composition.
The symmetry of the Ferris wheel creates an interesting and balanced composition.
The shape, symmetry, and angle create depth, balance, and a stunning picture.

Viewpoint and Angle

A stunning viewpoint and a different angle can create an impressive composition. Once you choose the subject, think of the viewpoint that you will be shooting it from. This angle is what will make the difference in what the photograph conveys to the viewer. Try to move out of conventional angles, like shooting at eye level. You may want to try different viewpoints, like from ground level, high angles, closeup shots, etc.
A low-angle shot adds intensity to this image.
This image creates an illusion with the steep angle of the buildings against the blue sky.
Experimentation is the key to new and creative ideas. Remember, you cannot think only along the rules and in the box to create great images. If your visual intuition comes across a composition that does not fit in the rules, but is attractive and stunning, let go of the rules.
However, to break the rules, you have to master them first. Understanding the basics is important, after which, you will easily relate to these guidelines.