5 Simple Composition Rules to Dramatically Improve Your Photography


Compose Yourself and Your Images

Why is it that you can be standing with two photographers in the same exact setting, with two very similar cameras, photographing the same subject, yet one image looks like an ordinary snapshot and the other a work of art? What makes one of the images more fascinating, more meaningful and more powerful than the other one? What is it about the skilled photographer’s photo that takes it from ordinary to wonderful?

Of course there are numerous factors that can effect the outcome of a photograph. It could be the camera settings chosen, the quality of the lens that was being used, or even the decision to use a tripod or maybe add filters to the lens. More often than not, it is the composition that has the greatest impact on a photo. Composition is the conscious decision of how you organise all of the objects and elements in your photograph.

To take a snapshot you simply lift the camera, point it at a subject and take the photo with little or no consideration of how the image is composed. When taking a well composed image however, the photographer takes the time to consider the placement of all of the elements to be included in the image. They question what they try to communicate with the photo and how are they directing you to look at the main subject.

Numerous books have been written on the art of composition and there are dozens of composition methods that can be used to improve the quality of your images. There are however 5 basic composition rules that we can employ in our photography to have an immediate impact on your images.

5 Basic Rules of Composition

The Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is perhaps the most basic composition rule in photography and the one that is used most often. Quite simply this rule is all about getting the subject out of the centre of your image. Basically the Rule of Thirds involves dividing your image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically and placing your subject along the intersecting lines. This can be used in landscape photos to ensure the horizon does not cut through the middle of the image, or it can be used in portraits to offset the subject from the centre of the image. Quite often your camera will have a feature that will add the Rule of Third grid to your camera display to assist you. 


Leading Lines
Leading Lines are elements in the image that assist in guiding the viewer to the main subject of an image. The lines can be straight, curved, diagonal, converging and S-shaped. Each type of line can have a different emotional effect on the viewer, but that is for a different day. At this point, we are just talking about any element we can use to draw the viewer to the main subject. 


Depth of Field
Isolating your subject from the background is a wonderful composition rule to use, predominately in portraits. It draws the viewer directly to the subject of the image encouraging them to ignore what is out of focus in the background. This is achieved in part, by using a wide aperture. Of course this rule can also be used in landscape images to also isolate your subject from the background.


Foreground Elements
Adding an element in the foreground of your image, mainly in landscape images, can assist in giving depth to the image. It can assist in giving your two-dimensional image a three-dimensional feeling by creating the illusion of depth. You should be specific about your choice of a foreground subject and the perspective of its placement in the image. It can be anything of interest such as flowers, rocks, a tree or even a person. 


Fill the Frame
The idea behind filling the frame is to remove any distractions from the image that do not assist in communicating what you want to achieve from the image. This works when the background really doesn’t add any context to the image. This puts the emphasis on the main subject of the image. 


This is just a few of my favourite composition rules that I feel have had the biggest impact on my photography. A sixth one that I would also consider is to carefully explore what is in the background of your image. It is easy to overlook the power pole that is coming out of the back of your subjects head or the tree branch that makes them look like they are being impaled. There are numerous additional composition rules to also consider that include; Framing, Negative Space, Rule of Odds, Symmetry, Balance, Patterns and Colour Theory just to name a few. 

Like with any situation in life some rules were made to be broken and it’s no different when it comes to composition in photography. You do not need to adhere to the rules of composition by the letter, its up to your own artistic interpretation how and when to use these ‘guidelines’. You can choose to employ one of the rules of composition to your image or it may benefit from using more than one to achieve the impact you are hoping to communicate.

Even before considering the camera settings you should take a moment to ask yourself, “What am i trying to communicate with this photograph and how will I compose it?” Simply knowing a few of the rules of composition and beginning to consider where to use them will have a significant and noticeable impact on your photography.


The Complete Pixel runs regular  Workshops & Photo Escapes to assist you in developing your photography skills. For more information and upcoming dates and locations view our Complete Pixel Workshops page.

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Brian Bird
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