New To Photography:Rules of Composition

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This page is a chapter in the book Composing a Picture.

[top]So what makes a great image that might win POTW or POTM and not just another picture?

There are some basic rules of composure that generally work and once these are understood and practised you can compose better pictures;
further you know when and how to break the rules to create stunning images.

Once you have a good grasp of basic rules, you will notice more photographic opportunities that are around you.
We call this getting your ‘eye’ for photography, and will help you create your own photographic style.
This is the key difference between a happy snap and a stunning photograph.

[top]Rule of Thirds

The ‘rule of thirds’ has been around for a long time (it appears as early as 1797 as a rule for proportioning scenic paintings), and is the most well known rule of composition used in photography and the arts. The rule states that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centring the subject would.

[top]KISS (Simplicity)

The ‘keep it simple silly’ rule is just what it says. You should keep your composition relatively simple. If you have zoomed in close to your main subject, use appropriate Depth of Field to make the background out of focus, or make sure that nothing in the background interferes with the main subject, thus removing any distractions. This stops unwanted elements pulling the viewers eye away from the main subject.

[top]Leading Lines

Use leading lines to draw the viewer's eye through the photograph. This is an especially powerful technique to draw the viewer's attention to one or more intended subjects or a single focal point. Please be careful when using leading lines, make sure the lines don’t distract the viewer or lead them away from the main subject. The use of roads, water courses, fences, walls etc. can be useful as leading lines.

[top]Straighten the Horizon

How many times do we see images being CC’d with comment ‘horizon not straight’? The best solution is to fix it in the camera first and use Post Processing as a last resort. Sometime breaking this rule can be very powerful. Eg. Some of the best motorsports images are tilted.

[top]Symmetry and Balance

Rules are made to be broken so sometimes you just have to throw out the rule of thirds, and just place your subject dead centre, sometimes it just works. Symmetry may invite harsh CC; some may say it’s not interesting enough or even boring. Don’t be afraid to break the rules. Subjects that can work well with a symmetric composition are architecture, landscapes and flora.


Using the natural surroundings to frame your composure can add more meaning and focus to your main subject. We can use almost anything as a frame, eg. tree branches, bushes, archways, tall buildings and doorways. Keep the focus on the main subject, and use a high f/stop when you need more depth of field.

[top]Perspective (Angles)

A different angle or perspective can often add impact to a photograph. Think lines, angles and height. Try crouching down, kneeling , climbing up higher, moving to the left or right. Better still, try to take a photo from a different angle, through a window, doorway, or an archway. Experiment with lenses. You could even invest in a fisheye lens, which will give you a whole new perspective on everything.


The right colours in a photograph can create deep emotion and mood. Blues and greens are cool. Yellow and orange are warm colours. Colours can be used to create certain effects. Using colours effectively can create the “wow” factor for your image. Monochrome (B&W) can also be used for stunning effect.


Using the available light is another technique that can make an image zing. Again angles come into play. Try using back light, side light and front light. Light through a window can have subtle effects. With any situation you may need flash to fill in your main subject.

[top]Get Closer, Get on Eye Level

Getting closer to your subject generally helps a lot. This rule has great benefit for Birds and Wildlife. Being at eye level or even lower works very well when photographing children.

[top]Have fun!

If you’re not having fun you’re not doing it right! Think about and understand the rules. Practice using the rules, but also step out and try something different, you never know... you may be our next comp winner.
Remember: A good image is usually technically correct, a great image is one that makes people react emotionally. Be creative!
Previous: New To Photography:Basic Composition Composing a Picture Next: New To Photography:The Golden Ratio

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