Fundementals: Rules of Composition

Desolate Central Station

Learning composition and explaining composition is difficult. It is one of the most difficult parts of photography and even the best photographers can improve and finds new ways and angles to their compositions. For some people it’s easier to understand and ‘get’ than it is to others. I have read several articles and books on the subject, and the approach is different for everybody, because composition is an expression of how you see the world and choose to present it. But people see the world in different ways and therefore also capture the world differently.

I will try to explain once again, what has been explained countless times before, in hopefully a new and easier way to understand it.

The whole purpose of composition is to place the objects in your photo (dog, ship, house, person, whatever) in a way that makes the photo interesting, not only for you, but for others to look at. The art of composition is to keep the viewer captivated for more than just a split second. Keep the viewer fascinated for at least a few seconds.

Another way of saying ‘rules of composition’ could be ‘systematized ways to organize objects in a photo, so that it will captivate the viewer’. Being educated in mathematics and computer science, this is something that I like. Mathematicians just love rules and computer scientists works with structures in a structured way.

Rules are also good to get a start with, until you see what works and what doesn’t work. In the end it’s all about balancing the objects in the photo.

The strength of the composition

You can talk about ‘how strong a composition is’. The strength of a composition is how well your composition works and how clear you have placed the objects in your photo. You composition can only be as strong as the weakest point. If you for instance have a large portion of your photo to be a boring sky, heaps of green grass or lots of beach sand, this usually gives some dead areas or space. This will be a weaknesses in your composition. And your composition will not be stronger, than that weakest point.

You can create a stronger composition by “eliminating” weaknesses. Too much sky, lower the camera or zoom in. Or maybe even change your vantage point, keep moving the camera until you are satisfied. Even small changes can make a huge difference.

Try by kneeling or maybe use a tripod to go even closer to the ground. This way you can eliminate a lot of dead area between you and the first interesting point in your photo. In other situations you have to use your feet to get to a new vantage point or perhaps even drive to a new place.

In general you can say, that if you pass something think you see something interesting, there is usually is something worth photographing, but it may just not be from the angle you see it. You may have to move around to find the good and strong composition or maybe wait to another time. There may be to many people or maybe the light isn’t right. When you are taking landscape photos you are very dependent on the light and the sky. If the sky is wrong, you just have to wait. Or take the shoot and accept, that it won’t be very successful shot.

The rules of composition

Some of the old school photographers, says there is no such thing as ‘rules of composition’. That may be so, but there definitely exists guidelines that you, as a beginner, can find much help in. As I said, composition doesn’t come easy to everybody and you have to learn to walk one little baby step at a time.

Rule number 1: Rule of thirds

This is probably one of the most well known rules. The idea of the rules of thirds is that you divide your photo into three horizontal and three vertical sections, and try to place your objects in them or along them, like in this case, where I placed the christmasy viking ship along one if the lines of the thirds.

Rule of thirds example

I am tempted to write forget about the rules of thirds, but before dismissing it, let’s discuss it first. The rule of thirds is really a simplified version of a slightly more complicated rule called the Golden Ratio. Some call the Rule of Thirds the poor mans version of the Golden Ratio.

Rule number 2: The Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio, it is also called Divine Propotion or the Golden Mean. You have probably heard of it in school, and if you were like me, you didn’t really get it, because it didn’t really interest you. Lets have a look at it:

Golden ration example

It’s easy to see why this rule is being simplified to the rule of thirds. They look almost the same, only this one is much harder to draw exactly on a white piece of paper. The idea is that the ratio between the two numbers A and B (A divided with B) is approximately 1,61:

Golden ration example shown

If you really have a need to understand the mathematics behind the Golden Ratio, I recommend you that read about it on wikipedia.

But why is this Golden Ratio as it is? The Golden Ratio comes from a fixed ratio, that you see in the nature quite often, and therefore it is assumed that humans like to see it. Since the dawn of time (well, at least since the 14th century), the Golden Ratio has been thought of, as an aesthetic way of building your composition – or building your house around. Architects use it a lot too.

Already, you can be tempted to think, that this is just to complicated, the rule of thirds is just fine for me. Don’t let yourself be tempted. There is something about the golden ratio, that actually works, whether it is exactly 1.61 or something close to it. The Golden Ratio has worked for centuries and is considered to be aesthetic great.

The Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio compared

The primary objective of both of the rules, is to put things off the center of the photo. Have a look at the centered Viking ship. This is what you as a tourist do, when you point your camera at anything. You place the object right in the middle, and bulls eye – you got it! But it usually isn’t that photo that captivates people.

Object centered example

The question is ‘how much’ to put things off center, to make it an interesting photo. What I could do as well it to place the ship on the far right:

Object in the right hand side example

Which would be very unusual, but it doesn’t really work.

It’s really all about balance in the photo. If you put something very far to the one side, you have to have something to work as a visually counter weight. When you do this kind of thing, some would say, that you are breaking the rules of composition, but you’re really not, you are just using something that is more complex. You are balancing the objects in the photo. This is a far more advanced topic.

By using the Golden Ratio as a guideline to position objects, you put something off center, without completely tipping the balance of the image. The more you put it to the side, the more you have to be aware of the balance. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons why the Golden Ratio works better than the Rule of Thirds, because it is a more subtle off-center position, than the third is.

The Golden Ration is just so much off the center, that you know it’s clear that the photographer did it on purpose, while it’s still not so far to the side, that it tips the photo. The thirds move close to tipping the photo.

How to I find the Golden Ratio when I shoot photos? Well, I used to have both a Nikon and a Canon camera, and both provide grids, the Canon had a grid of thirds, while the Nikon has one of quarters, but none of them have the Golden Ratio. So I have to guess.

I know it’s a sweet spot somewhere between the center and the third.

But don’t worry, If you didn’t quite get it right in the camera, you can always crop your way to it. just make sure, that you have a little extra to crop away.

Rule number 3: Lead in lines

The purpose of a lead in line, is to lead the viewer into the image, to discover what goodies you have put into the photo. Let’s have a look, at this photo below. The road coming from the lower left corner works as a lead in line, that guides the viewer towards the sun and sky.

Sunset From the Old Mound Not far from my home town Roskilde in Denmark, lies this mound from the Bronze Age. From this place you can see for many miles around. This photo I have created using Lightroom and Gimp.

But more subtle lines exist too. From both the lower left and right corner, the lines created between grass in the sun and shade make lines that point to the sun too.

There are many ways to archive lead in lines. Roads are good, just as piers and jettys are. They work as strong lead in lines. But as you can see, more subtle ones, like streaks of light can be used to. In the example below, only light leads into the photo.

Lead in sun rays

Below I used the railings of the stairs to carry the viewer below ground and the buildings above, carry the viewer far into the photo.

Denmark - Kings square metro

Rule number 4: S-curves

S-curves are works well too and usually the also work as lead in lines to lead the viewer through a photo like this one:

One of the gems in Europe is Queyras in France. A large national park, with outstanding nature and spectacular view points. On the way to Lac Miroir (Lake Mirror)

Rule number 5: Framing

This is one of the classic rules as well. By framing your primary subject, which could be a grand view, you make the photo more interesting. However this rule is so well used, that it to my opinion can backfire, because the photo can seem almost too constructed. So you have to try to use it in a subtle way or in an unorthodox way to get the most of it, but then it will work very well indeed. This one is a bit too obvious to my taste, but more subtle ones can be used, like branches from trees, doorways and other things.


Rule number 6: Foreground, middle ground and background

When shooting landscapes, cityscapes and architecture, you must think in terms of foreground, middle ground and background. It can be done in many many different ways. In the example below, the foreground is the ground on which I stood. It was high above the gorge. The bridge and the gorge itself is the middle ground. The mountain with snow on the top and the all of the clouds are the background.Leading lines

If you think in these terms: foreground, middle ground and background when you frame you shot, you are on the road to a successful photograph. The foreground doesn’t have to be a huge pretty building or anything fantastic, it can just be anything, a rock, a stick or even just dirt or ground. Whatever you can find nearby or by moving around a little bit.

If you are photographing a beautiful sunset, look for something to include in your photograph, even a plain rock or a piece of wood lying around will work great. A rock or wood can look very good on photographs. In the example above, it is really just the ground with grass on it, that works as foreground, but it looks good.

Rule number 7: Points of interest

Unless you are making patterns or abstract photos, points of interest are important. It may be a nice building, a rock or the sun if that is included. If the sun is included in your photo it usually is the strongest point of interest, but you should include others, no matter how beautiful the sunset is. By including more than one point of interest in your photo, you will give the viewer more to look at, and keep the viewer captivated for a longer time. Lead in lines and s-curves can be used to guide the viewer from one point of interest to another. This usually works well.

One of the gems in Europe is Queyras in France. A large national park, with outstanding nature and spectacular view points. On the way to Lac Miroir (Lake Mirror)

In the photo above the trunk in the foreground is one point of interest, but the stream is another one. Then there are a couple of yellow autumn colored Larch trees and far up in the background there is mist with the sun shining into it. These are different objects or points of interest in the photo.

Rule number 8: Focusing

What must be sharp, has do be sharp. If you are shooting landscapes, that means pretty much everything has to be tack sharp. Are you shooting portraits, you want only the person to be on focused (in fact it is the eyes you have to focus on), while the background is out of focus and blurry. In the case of a portrait, if the eye(s) are not sharp, the whole portrait fails. This makes the person (or other object) pop out and stand clear. If the background is sharp too the person blends more into the background.

Here’s an example where the whole photo fails, because the foreground is not sharp.

I think it’s a quite cool composition, because I have made a crescent half moon out of three levels of rock. I kind of like that, but the whole photo fails because the rocks in the foreground is unsharp, while you can count every single tree down in the canyon. And this is half around the world, and I can’t go back and re-shoot this photo.

Rule number 9: Odd numbers

For some reason an odd number of objects work better than an even number of objects. E.g. a sole tree on a hill top works better than two trees. Three large boulders work better than two or four. You can also see things as ‘a group of trees’ and ‘a group of stones’, if some stones or trees are closer than others.

The old hammer mill

The photo above has got three in the foreground and three buildings in the background.

Remember it just adds to the weight of the composition, a photo doesn’t fail with two objects, but it will most probably get stronger with one or three objects.

Rule number 10: Repeating objects or shapes

You can with success use repeating objects or shapes to convey a sense of depth into a photo. If the viewer can sense the depth in a photo, it adds to keeping the viewer captivated. It could be a row of trees that goes into the photo. Each tree will seem smaller, but the viewer will know that it is not true, and therefore translates this into depth. Depth is an important factor in many photos, in particular landscapes and cityscapes. It adds to the strength of the composition. Here’s an example of repeating arches that continue into the image.

When you get a little more advanced, you start using similar shaped objects, which are of different nature. That could be a person standing in front of a tower, and by placing the person, so that on the photo the person is positioned next to the tower, the human brain translates it into depth, because the human brain knows that the tower is much bigger than the person, though the both stand tall from the ground.

Here’s an example of London Tower Bridge. The Dolphin works as a tower too, and so does the Shard in the background.

The London Tower Bridge is one of the worlds most well known landmarks. Photo by: Jacob Surland,

While the Dolphin, The Towers and The Shard (The sky scraber in the background) seem the same size, they are quite different in size. The Shard is more than a 1000 feet tall and the Dolphin is Dolphin sized. The towers are somewhere in between. This adds both repeated objects and but also very much to the sense of depth.

Rule number 11: Break the Horizon

By breaking a horizon or a virtual horizon, like the line where the water meets the sand or on a beach, you can add to the strength of the composition as well. This usually requires, that you change your vantage point to a very low vantage point. In this case the roof of the church goes breaks the horizon and makes the photo more interesting.

The Beauty of Noravank

Rule number 12: Center the reflection

If you take a photo of something that reflects in the water kind of 1:1, like mountains that reflects in a body of water, it usually works very well if you place the line of reflection in the middle. Here you can see an example of it.

Morning glow in Milford Sound

Rule number 13: Don’t chop things off and give space to them

I think this is the rule that I use the most for the time being. I learned it from Duncan Macarthur ( on his workshop. The idea is that if you have room for it, don’t chop off a cloud, the top of a tree or a rock at the edges of a photo.In this photo I have chopped of the top of the tree on the left, the tree trunk is chopped of too as well as the rock in the lower right corner.Dont chop things off

This doesn’t work as well as the complete photo:

One of the gems in Europe is Queyras in France. A large national park, with outstanding nature and spectacular view points. On the way to Lac Miroir (Lake Mirror)

Notice that the rock in the lower right hand corner has got a little space to the edges. The has the trunk. This is important.

A more subtle version of “don’t chop things off” is “don’t overlap things”. This photo fails because the lamp overlaps the tree. I would reshoot if I could, but I didn’t notice it by then.20120527-Luxemburg-237There is a lot to think about when you take a photo. But my primary focus currently, is “don’t overlap or chop of things” and “give space to things”.


4 thoughts on “Fundementals: Rules of Composition

  1. Beautiful article. Well written and I “got it”.
    Since my bio reads “Grammar Police”, may I bring to your attention that your text should ” three boulders in the fore and three BUILDINGS in the background. It is written as “bouldings.”

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