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The rules of composition

Treat these "rules" as guidelines


Where you place the horizon in your image can have a big impact on its acceptance by viewers.  Picture courtesy of Karen Meeks.
Where you place the horizon in your image can have a big impact on its acceptance by viewers. Picture courtesy of Karen Meeks.

We call them the Rules of Composition, but in practice they are guidelines. If they were true rules, they would need to be followed in every case, and we wouldn’t recommend that, because the photography conditions you come across won’t always fit the rules. (Click on a heading at page-bottom for some of the basic rules. Others are found throughout this Composition section.)

WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?

The rules, or as some people call them, the laws of composition are based on patterns identified in several artistic works that are commonly-accepted as having good composition. The theory behind the rules is that by following these same patterns in your photographic composition - that is, the way in which you assemble the elements of a scene in accordance with the rules - the odds are in your favor that your image will look properly or pleasingly-composed.


WHO USES THEM?

Many artists and photographers use them daily in their work – some instinctively and some by dint of effort. They are taught in visual design and art classes. They are particularly useful to the photographer who feels her or his photography could benefit from better composition.

If you are not sure how to change a scene’s composition to improve it and to better tell your picture’s story, fall back on the rules of composition, and then judge the results. But, if you are pleased with a composition that conveys the meaning you want in your images, even though it completely violates the rules, then just ignore them. Go for what pleases you and for what you feel portrays your image’s message best. If applying the rules would negatively impact your picture’s meaning, the rules should be broken.

When you are pleased with a composition, and when you feel it conveys the message you are after, go for it. You are probably right.
When you are pleased with a composition, and when you feel it conveys the message you are after, go for it. You are probably right.

Move around a scene that has several elements in it to look at it from differing viewpoints, al the while visualizing how best to combine the elements for a good composition.
Move around a scene that has several elements in it to look at it from differing viewpoints, al the while visualizing how best to combine the elements for a good composition.

VISUALIZATION

It is difficult for many photographers to see a scene as an assembly of lines and shapes in addition to its real-life appearance as a subject in context, and then to visualize how to manipulate the relationships of those graphic elements to achieve a better composition.

If you are among those photographers, the only way to learn is to force yourself – to look for graphic elements and potential relationships among them in a scene, and then to experiment with ways of re-arranging them in accordance with the rules of composition. If this seems too tedious, remember that it is a learning process. As in any learning process, the tedium will eventually be replaced by a natural, almost automatic ability to compose scenes instinctively. Over time, your images will take on a different look, and their viewers will begin to react to them more favorably and to more clearly see your message and the artistry in them. Sound far-fetched? Don’t think you can get there from here? Hogwash! It’s not far-fetched, and you can do it. Better composition is within your reach, whether you are naturally artistic (which gives you an edge) or devoid of any sense of design.

Visualization of effective composition grows in you with practice and perseverance in consciously applying the rules of composition. Before too long, your images will have an innate influence on the emotional and intellectual response of their viewers, and you will be on your way to mastery.


WHAT DOES GOOD COMPOSITION ACHIEVE?

In a word, control. You perhaps expected to hear something like “an artistic, pleasing image, or a harmonious balance among the elements of a scene,” and indeed those things and others can be accomplished through good composition, but they don’t get there by accident. The photographer places them there on purpose in order to deliver the message and control the impact of his or her image.

The word "control" is appropriate, because without control, there is no order - only randomness and disorganization. If the photographer does not exercise control through composition, the image will appear muddled, the photographer's message will be obscured, and the photograph will have little meaning.

WHAT KIND OF CONTROL DOES EFFECTIVE COMPOSITION PROVIDE?

An accomplished photographer can lead the viewer’s eye through his or her work by the careful placement of shapes, color and lines right to where he or she wants the viewer’s attention to be centered. A photographer who is skilled in composition can also control the emotional content of his or her image, thereby controlling the emotional reaction of its viewers. How, for instance? Well, by incorporating serrated, sharp shapes and lines in the image, the photographer can imply motion, action and even tension, whereas gentler lines and shapes bring out more peaceful feelings and induce calm. That is just one example.

The photographer who took this picture had total control over its elements, right down to the model's pose.
The photographer who took this picture had total control over its elements, right down to the model's pose.

This picture is about lines and mood. The bright lines of the railings lead the viewer's eye to an inconclusive, vanishing dark point, creating a sense of mystery and interest.
This picture is about lines and mood. The bright lines of the railings lead the viewer's eye to an inconclusive, vanishing dark point, creating a sense of mystery and interest.

WHAT ABOUT INTELLECTUAL CONTROL?

If the image not only captures peoples’ attention, but also provides them with insight, or causes them to ponder its meaning or provokes them into thought, then the image has intellectual merit.

The balanced placement of opposing elements can induce thought. Viewers are almost forced to ask “why?” The image may pique their curiosity, or stimulate anger, pity or humility - just some emotional reactions from among the many feelings an effective composition can arouse.

To use this control – this creative power over the way the viewer will perceive the image – the photographer must understand how different shapes, forms, lines, colors, patterns, tones, scale, texture and their inter-action will affect the viewer, and then he or she will be able to incorporate them into images that meaningfully convey what he or she wants the image to state.


MASTER THE RULES OF COMPOSITION

To attempt to communicate ideas without effective image composition is hopeless. Understanding and practicing the rules of composition are good starting points for the beginning photographer on the road to mastery of the craft.

Click on a heading below for some of the basic rules. You will come across others throughout this Composition section. Be sure to apply the rules of composition to all of your photography, even though you might have to (and should) stop and think before you trip the shutter. It won't be long before you smoothly and easily take well-composed pictures without having to think about the rules, because they will either have become a part of your picture-taking or you will know when it is best to make your own rules.

Conscientiously apply the rules of composition with every photo you take until it becomes second-nature to you. You will be amazed at how much your photography improves.
Conscientiously apply the rules of composition with every photo you take until it becomes second-nature to you. You will be amazed at how much your photography improves.
Further information...

Balancing colors

Horizon placement

Lines

Patterns and symmetry

Rule of Thirds

Shape and form

Size of objects

Planes
Related topics...

Shooting angle

Design exercise