The 10 Rules of Photo Composition (And Why They Work)

Varvara May 05 2022

Poor photo composition can make a fantastic subject look pretty boring, but a well-framed scene can create a wonderful picture in most situations. That's why we've selected our top 10 photo composition rules to show you how to take your pictures from the mundane to the brilliant.

Don't think that you have to remember each of these laws and apply them to every photo you take. Instead, spend a little time practicing each one and they'll become second nature to you when you're out with your camera. 

Rule 1. Simplify the scene

When you look at a scene with the naked eye, your brain quickly selects people of interest. The camera doesn't discriminate, however - it captures everything in front of it, which can result in a messy, messy image with no clear focus. When you look back at the shot, you don't have an eye to calm down.

You need to choose your subject and then choose a focal length or camera viewpoint to make it the center of attention in the frame. This way you communicate to the viewer what is important in the frame. You can't always keep other objects out of the picture. Try to keep them in the background or make them part of the story.

Rule 2. Fill in the frame

When you're shooting a large format scene, it can be difficult to know how big you want your subject to be in the frame and how much you should zoom in on it. In fact, the most common compositional mistake is to leave too much empty space in a scene. This makes the subject smaller than it needs to be and viewers can get confused about what to watch.

To avoid these problems, consider zooming in to fill the frame or getting closer to the subject in question. The first approach smooths out the perspective of the shot and makes it easier to control or exclude what is shown in the background. However, by getting physically closer, you can get a more interesting shot.

Rule 3. Aspect Ratio

It's easy to get stuck in a rut and take every picture with the camera held horizontally. Try rotating it to get a vertical shot instead, and adjust your position or zoom setting as you experiment with the new style. You can often take both horizontal and vertical shots and crop them later. 

After all, it would be a coincidence if all your real-world subjects matched the proportions of your camera sensor. Try cropping to a 16:9 ratio for a widescreen effect, or the square shape used by medium format cameras.

Rule 4. Avoid the middle

When you're just starting out, it's tempting to put what you're shooting in the center of the frame. However, this results in fairly static, boring images. One of the ways to counter this is to use the rule of thirds, where you divide the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically and try to place the subject on one of those imaginary lines or intersections. However, this is an overrated approach.

Rule 5. Stick to guidelines

A poorly composed photo will leave your viewers unsure of where to look and their attention may wander aimlessly around the scene without finding a clear focus. However, you can use lines to control how people's eyes move in the frame.

Converging lines convey a strong sense of perspective and three-dimensional depth, drawing you into an image. Curved lines can take you on a journey around the frame that leads you to the main theme.

Rule 6. Use diagonals

Horizontal lines lend a static, calm feel to an image, while vertical lines often indicate permanence and stability. To convey a sense of drama, movement, or uncertainty, look for diagonal lines instead. With wide-angle lenses, you're more likely to tilt the camera up or down to see more of a scene.

You can also introduce diagonal lines artificially using the "Dutch Tilt" technique. You simply tilt the camera as you take the shot. This can be very effective, although it doesn't fit every shot and is best used sparingly.

Rule 7. Leave room to move

Although photos themselves are static, they can still convey a strong sense of movement. When we look at pictures we see what is happening and tend to look ahead. This creates a sense of imbalance or discomfort when your subject can only move outside the frame.

You don't only get this effect with moving subjects. For example, when you're looking at a portrait, you tend to follow someone's gaze and they need an area to get a picture of.

Rule 8. Unclutter the backgrounds

Don't just focus on your topic - also look at what's happening in the background. This is related to simplifying the scene and filling in the frame. Normally you can't normally exclude the background entirely, but you can control it.

You'll often find that changing your position is enough to replace a cluttered background with one that complements your subject well. Or you can use a wide aperture and a longer focal length to blur the background.

Rule 9. Get creative with colors

Light base colors really draw the eye, especially when contrasted with a complementary hue. However, there are other ways to create color contrast - for example, inserting a bright splash of color against a monochromatic background. However, you don't need strong color contrasts to create striking images. The key is to be very selective about how you isolate and frame your subjects to rule out unwanted colors.

Rule 10. Violate the rules

The image composition is somewhat similar to a visual language - you can use it to transfer your images to a specific message. It's often best to break a rule at a specific time. Remember, for every rule we propose, there's an awesome image that proves you can ignore it and still create an awesome photo!