20 Important Photography Composition Rules You Need To Know

João Leitão
Updated on February 20, 2019

Composition in Photography

Composition in Photography
Composition in Photography

What’s composition in photography?

It’s how a portion of the world our eyes see, is included and arranged in the restricted space of a photo.

Before we move forward, I must make clear that in the art of photography we must be careful with strict rules. On this page, I will help you improve your photo composition skills with twenty important photography composition rules you need to know.

Main questions related to the art of composition in photography:

  • What do we leave out?
  • Do we want to highlight a specific object or do we want to include as many elements in the photo as possible, without any order?
  • And how do we arrange them?
  • How do we cut out those elements that will take our audience’s eyes away from what we want to focus on?

Most of the principles of photo composition have been used for hundreds of years in different art forms. But what matters is what the traveler wanted to show or record at the time they shot.

Sometimes is a personal and intimate photo, something the photographer took for himself, without worrying about how his audience will take it.

Other times, you want to make art, freely and unhinged, to get something creative or kind of crazy.  

However, if you want to please as many people as you can, cater to an audience, think about the public success of a photo, then, in that case, it’s best if you use some methods and techniques that one way or the other will contribute to please whoever sees the picture later.

Composition Rules You Need To Know:

  1. The Rule of Thirds
  2. Clean Margins
  3. In Symmetry, the Center
  4. From Left to Right
  5. Keep it Simple
  6. Use Light as a Pointer
  7. Between Even and Odds… Choose Odds
  8. Triangle Instead of Square
  9. Close-Ups
  10. Sense of Scale
  11. A Frame Inside a Frame
  12. Lines that Lead the Eye
  13. Fill in the Photo or Not, That is the Question
  14. Pairing Objects
  15. Photo Balance
  16. Rule of Space
  17. Isolating the Object
  18. With or without people?
  19. Alternative Perspectives
  20. Playing with Colors

Photography Composition Rules

Photography Composition Rules
Photography Composition Rules

1. The Rule of Thirds

This is the most famous rule of composition but, like any other one of the rules, it’s not meant to be followed blindly. Only if you want, and if your intuition and experience over time tell you you should.

It means splitting the image into nine areas of similar size. Three lines and three columns. You can do it in your mind, but most cameras have a grid option on the screen that helps you visualize the composition space.

The point is to place the focal elements of the photograph on the lines or, even better, on where the lines intersect. The rule of thirds helps us dodge the natural inclination to place our focal point of the image right in the center, which doesn’t work as well as we’d thought.

It’s a logical assumption. Shouldn’t the focal point of our composition be in the center? But in fact, composing the image like that diminishes the overall impact, and we end up devaluing what we wanted to highlight. You should put the focal point on where the lines intersect, preferably on the right side as we’ll see soon.

Under this rule, we’ll also try to align the horizon with one of the two longitudinal lines of the thirds. But, of course, this is just a general guideline that may or may not work in the specific context of a photo. Again, take these rules with a grain of salt.

2. Clean Margins

This is one of the cases when this is an actual rule and not just an idea or a technique: it is crucial that you keep the margins of a photograph clean of loose and distractive elements.

Anything that disturbs the visual harmony in the margins of our composition will distract whoever sees the image and thus remove the spotlight from the element we wanted to focus on.

Some mistakes are easily avoided. We obviously would never leave half of a person in the background of an image, close to the composition margin. But sometimes we leave things behind that aren’t so obvious. These are very easy slips precisely because we’re focusing all of our attention on the center of the composition. It’s important to let go of that natural urge and pay attention to what’s happening near the margins. We don’t want to cut out anything, and we don’t want to break the flow of lines, we don’t want any elements that are visually distracting. We want a clean, neutral margin.

On the other hand, these are the easiest mistakes to correct when editing a photo. All you need to do is crop here and there, and you’ll have the perfect framing.

3. In Symmetry, the Center

I already told you that there’s nothing strict or fixed about rules. I just told you about the rule of thirds and the importance of fighting the urge to put our focal point in the center of the picture, and here I am contradicting myself. If it works in a particular scenario, centering could work, of course. Symmetries are one of those situations, that split the image in two, from an imaginary line in the middle. Where there are sharp lines, you’ll probably find exciting solutions that focus in the center, such as photographing architecture or roads.

4. From Left to Right

Our mind processes the visual information from our eyes from left to right. It’s a habit that comes from reading, at least on the Western side of the world because in other cultures it would be different. That’s why we should always try to keep the focal point of our photo on the right side.

So what happens when we’re looking at a picture? Our eyes will start visualizing the image from the left side, and when we find the focal point of the photography, there’s a sense of accomplishment. It helps a photo to have an impact!

On the other hand, if we keep the focal point on the left side, our mind quickly absorbs what matters and moves on looking for more visually relevant information, when it doesn’t find it, observing that image ends with a slight sense of frustration.

An excellent way to test this principle is mirroring a photo with a photo editing software and looking at the results. I bet you the reader will be more pleased by the same picture if the focal point of the image is on the right side.

5. Keep it Simple

Try to keep the scene you’re capturing as simple as possible. The more information our mind has to process when we look at a photo, the less impact the image will have. Why give visual information that’s irrelevant or even counter-productive? With this in mind, look for subtle backgrounds and compose the image in a way you’ll exclude as much as possible the elements that aren’t part of the story you’re trying to tell.

6. Use Light as a Pointer

Light attracts attention. When looking at a photo, our eyes tend to look for the area where there’s light. You can use this to increase the highlight on the primary target of the photograph. It’s not always feasible, of course. Unless we’re using special equipment to manipulate light, which won’t happen when we’re traveling, we’ll have to do our best to work with the conditions around us. Observe the rays of light that penetrate a darker environment, like a house or a part of the woods, and find out where they’ll fall. We’ll never know if we’ll find a unique opportunity.

7. Between Even and Odds… Choose Odds

For some reason, the asymmetry of an odd number of elements seems to have a more significant impact on a picture. When you’re creating your photo composition, opt for an odd number as much as possible. Whether it’s a portray of a person or the picture of the towers of a castle, cars in a race. Anything.

8. Triangle Instead of Square

If you can control the elements of a photo during composition, opt to frame them in an imaginary triangle shape instead of a square or a triangle. Do you need an example? Think of the classic group photo. Let go of the traditional pattern of lining up people on one row in the bottom, then another one, and one more in the end with the tallest people. It’s a very classic format, right? So next time you photograph a group of people, try to line them up following an irregular pattern, preferably a triangle. You’ll see the result is not only refreshing, but it will catch the attention of people who see the photo.

9. Close-Ups

A close-up shot is a trick that works well to give life to an image and give the photo a tridimensional. This composition technique creates a forward focal point that serves as a guideline and provides depth to the rest of the picture. This solution works particularly well with wide angle lenses.

10. Sense of Scale

Some scenarios lose meaning without references to establish their dimension. Some of the most common cases happen when photographing elements of different sizes. An example? A dune. Out of context, a dune can be a tiny pile of sand or a mountain. The absence of scale confuses us because, in reality, a dune is a dune and we can only tell them apart based on size. The same thing happens with a waterfall or a rock formation. The photographer can and should consider all this to get results. We can turn something small into something big, and something big into something small. It’s the magic of photography. But if we want to give a precise idea of these objects, we must include something in the composition that raises no doubt about the size. It could be a person or a fixed size object. To show how small an insect is, for example, we can place a spoon, a bottle cap, a pen. To showcase how big a cliff or a beach is, we can include people, a car, a house.

11. A Frame Inside a Frame

It’s easier to imagine a photo like a frame. A frame where we can include the world we’re observing at that magic moment we shoot. Inside it’s like a painting. It’s a real frame, then. A composition that works well is to find another structure, an element that limits the space we want to show, that catches the attention of the person seeing the picture. Some examples of frames include windows, arches, niches in castle walls, or even natural elements like tree trunks or caves.

12. Lines that Lead the Eye

With this composition technique, the photographer will use geometric lines to lead the photo observer to the focal point he wants to highlight. These lines don’t have to be straight, although this is the most common shape used by photographers. If you manage to structure your composition using a line that’s not straight, congratulations! It’s not an easy task, and the result is usually outstanding. Although this is a technique based on lines as a tool, the photographer can turn them into the main subject of the image.

13. Fill in the Photo or Not, That is the Question

In the scope of photo composition, this is one of the most contradictory questions. The right answer falls on the photographer’s personal decision and how he reads the scene. On the one hand, if you fill the photograph with the focal point, we make sure the person seeing the picture focuses on what really matters. Be it a person, an animal, or a structure, by completing filling the space with our subject, even if we have to sacrifice parts of it, we are giving it the maximum exposure. But sometimes it pays off to provide the viewer with what we call negative space, like the ocean or the sky or even a blurred background. Anything that’s not too detailed or too distracting. In this case, although our main subject doesn’t fill in the image entirely, the negative space highlights it. It’s as if the eyes of the viewer focus on the only element that stands out, catching their attention.

14. Pairing Objects

Some people call this composition technique juxtaposition because it consists of including two main subjects in the same photo. But don’t take it literally, it doesn’t always mean placing one over the other in the same picture.

This composition method follows two opposing variations. One of the options is to include contrasting elements, such as old and new, classic and innovative, big and small, rich and poor. Any of these or other combinations work well capturing the viewer’s attention, piquing their curiosity and leading them to take a closer look, capturing unique moments, places, or events. On the opposite side, juxtaposing similar elements also creates exciting results. When using this method, it enhances certain elements that interconnect naturally.

Let’s picture a scene in Havana, Cuba. An old American 1960s Chevrolet, its driver with a cigar on the corner of his mouth leans against the car. Behind him, at avenue Malécon, there are two buildings, one of them built in the 1930s neglected and crumbling. Next to it, a new building, a small four-stories hotel. In this context, the photographer can choose which juxtaposition method he’ll use to get a unique photo. If he moves one way, he’ll photograph the car and the man with the old building behind, connection elements that complement one another and taking the viewer into a journey through time. If he takes a few steps in the opposite direction, he’ll create a contrast between the classic car and the driver that represent the past and the modern building, showcasing Havana as a city of contrasts.

15. Photo Balance

Although the rule of thirds is the best-known composition technique, sometimes resorting to it doesn’t make a satisfactory image, creating unwanted spaces that become an eyesore.

If we focus on an interesting subject and place it on the left side, we can create a space that’s too wide and unpleasant to the eye as we move our gaze to the right side. The solution is to find a secondary subject that balances the picture without diverting the focus from the central element.

16. Rule of Space

This an important rule, vital even, to use in photos of moving objects. In these cases, you must leave enough room to allow the viewer to see the object moving mentally. When photographing people, you should still consider using this technique even if there’s no movement. Usually, photos are better if there’s enough space towards the main subject the viewer must look at. Or towards the side the person is facing.

17. Isolating the Object

I don’t know if I should include this technique in the chapter about composition because it has nothing to do with placing certain elements in the photo. It’s about using optical methods, specifically manipulation of depth for a more vibrant result.

The goal here is to make an object stand out, especially if the background is visually confusing and disturbs the importance of our central element. In that case, if we can blur everything else, reducing the depth, we’ll highlight what we want keeping the viewer’s attention exactly where we want it to be.

18. With or without people?

This is a common situation when we travel. For example, we come across a beautiful street with amazing houses and our first reaction is to try to get a picture without people in it. People don’t fit in the image that caught our attention, so we tend to exclude them from the scene we’re about to photograph. Most of the times this is a mistake, and the result would be better if we let those people be part of our photo. People give the background a sense of scale, a natural feel, and they’re picturesque themselves most of the times. When in doubt, I advise you to take at least two pictures of the same place, one with people and one without.

19. Alternative Perspectives

This is a fundamental technique! Usually, we all see the world from the same perspective — some lower, some higher. But the human universe was thought and built in a way that we all see things the same way. Traffic lights, billboards. They all mean something to the human eye. Because people who are used to a particular embedded visual order, a photograph that challenges that habit immediately creates an impact and catches the attention of the viewer.

This is a technique based on the photographer’s ability to revolutionize, to innovate how we see the world, by creating new, surprising angles.

20. Playing with Colors

Certain color combinations work well, others not so much. Designers and other professionals who work with color combinations have been using a tool called “color wheel” for a long time. This wheel includes all the colors, and those that work better together are in opposing ends of the wheel. We can see which colors work better together at a glance. And that matters in color photography, or most of the photography that’s done these days.

If we use the “wheel,” we can quickly pinpoint scenarios that will come out well in a photo because certain complementing colors prevail.

What NOT to do in Photo Composition

Don’t crop out body parts, of humans or animals. If you don’t have a choice, don’t crop them at the joints. If you’re doing a portrait with a close-up, of course, you’re going to have to isolate the person’s head or bust, but don’t crop blindly.

Don’t forget to observe what’s around the photo. People tend to focus on the central area, and when they see the result, most times at the end of the day when they get home, they’ll realize they included distracting elements because they didn’t pay attention to what was happening in the margins.

Don’t crook the images, keep them in line with the horizon. It’s true that you can straighten it later using software, but that could mean you’ll lose essential elements and it’s best to do it right at first.

Final Words on Composition

I’ll have to repeat myself: no composition rule is actually a rule. Nothing is mandatory. Photographing is an art and innovating is allowed, recommended even. Travel photography isn’t any different, nor it has specific composition techniques. The several methods I mentioned are ideas that the travel photographer can use or not. More than rules, they’re techniques, tools that the photographer can use to get more compelling pictures.

A suggestion: after reading about all these composition techniques, take a look at some of the well-known photographers and try to identify how they implement those techniques in their work. You’ll be surprised with how quickly you can identify the formulas they made their photos so special.

In the meantime, when you go out in the world to implement these methods, be patient if the first results are not what you expect. Give it time. I suggest you focus on one or two techniques and try to use them in the environment around you. And remember you can always edit the images, deleting superficial areas and redefining the framing.

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