Photography 101: Guide to Photography Composition

Photo of a camera during the process of setting up a photo and getting the ideal photo composition.

When it comes to photography, the rules of composition are rules that all photographers must live by, whether they are experts with years and years of experience, or absolute beginners having just picked up their first camera and looking to learn the photography basics. The rules of photography composition are crucial to all photographers, and when combined with an understanding of lighting in photography, they are the key to any successful photograph, so here is a guide to the fundamentals of photography composition:

Landscape or Portrait (Horizontal or Vertical)

The start to every photo. It’s the first decision we make: do we want a horizontal photo or a vertical photo. It depends on so many factors, the main one obviously being the position of the elements you’re going to photograph. Hell, it can even depend on whether you intend to use your photo for Instagram. Get it right and you’re on your way. Get it wrong and it just isn’t going to work.

Photo of a house during the winter months in Iceland, photographed using a landscape (horizontal) photo composition.
Photo of a house during the winter months in Iceland, photographed using a portrait (vertical) photo composition.

The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is perhaps one of the most important and commonly used rules followed when it comes to photography composition. Simple to understand and implement, it simply helps the photographer offset any primary elements within the photo in a more aesthetically pleasing way, rather than placing them in the centre of the image. It’s crucial when planning any photography and is the basis to most rules in photography composition. It is also commonly used as a guideline in landscape photography, when determining how much of the sky to put in an image (usually the top 2/3).

Photo showing the rule of thirds in photography composition.

The Rule of Space

Giving your subject room to move within the frame generally makes for more visually pleasing images. For starters, as mentioned above with the Rule of Thirds, we position the subject off-centre, and it also helps give more of a sense of movement, even without introducing motion blur. You can also take a creative spin to it and leave the space behind the subject, showing the audience where the subject has come from!

Photo depicting the rule of space in a photography composition context.

Using Leading lines

Leading lines are one of the most important elements in photography composition. They naturally lead the viewer’s eye to a certain region within the photo and tell them where they should be focusing their attention.

Leading Lines photo in photography composition guide

Cropping

Yeah, you heard me. From day one, we usually get the misconception that cropping is just going to reduce the size and quality of your photo, but that just isn’t true. As a general rule of thumb, try to get your composition right in camera, primarily to avoid deleting pixels in post. However, that might just not be possible sometimes. And don’t underestimate the power that cropping can have on the composition of your image. Check out the photo below. Two ways of achieving the look. a) stitching photos into a pano. Given the photo has moving subjects, lets rule that one out. b) Selective cropping. Most likely, the photographer has cropped the image, cutting out segments of the top and bottom of the photo. The result is a panoramic looking image, where the diagonal leading line runs in a pleasing-to-the-eye way from corner to corner. Just keep in mind that the photographer has only removed empty space from the image.

Cropped photo example in photography composition guide.

Using negative space

Pun fully intended with this. Go on, laugh - it’s funny!

Ok, on a serious note, introducing negative space into your images can eliminate most if not all distractions, allowing your audience to focus solely on the primary subject of the photo and leaving them with nowhere else to look.

Negative space example photo in photography composition guide.

Centred Composition & Symmetry

There’s just something about symmetry that is pleasing to the eye. Experimenting with symmetry and geometry can lead to really interesting and captivating images. Though be careful: if you are working with symmetrical elements in your image, distractions can have much more impact.

Example of symmetry used in photography composition guide.

Leaving Room for Imagination

Some things are best left to the imagination. By framing only parts of the subject within the photo, you allow the viewer a little room to imagine what is going on in the part of the environment that isn’t within the frame. It’s a great way of getting your audience to engage with the photo!

An example of leaving room for imagination in photography composition guide.

Framing the Subject

Finding natural elements within the frame can really help with framing the primary subject and guiding the viewers’ focus. They are also a great way of making your photos a little more creative and unique without making them look unnatural.

Example of a frame within a frame for photography composition guide.
Example of framing elements for photography composition guide.

Filling the Frame

Filling the entire frame with the subject can be a great way of creating visually captivating images and allows the viewer to focus on elements that wouldn’t usually be noticed otherwise. The perfect example is a closeup of an animal’s face. Though be careful not to get too close, as not showing enough of the subject may confuse the viewer as to what the photo is actually of.

Example of filling the frame as a photography composition example.

The Rule of Odds

A relatively simple rule which simply suggests that an odd number of primary elements within the image will be more aesthetically pleasing than an even number. It seems a little difficult to get your head around, this simply imagine looking through a window, like in the image below. Your attention is naturally drawn to the window in the centre, rather than those on the sides. Were there only two pieces of glass, our attention would be torn between the two as there would be no centre element drawing us to one of them. Make sense?

Example of the rule of odds in photography composition guide

Creating Depth

Don’t forget about the depth of field of the photo. We usually talk about the aperture setting used, whether all elements within the image are in focus, or only some, which will of course depend on the distance between yourself and the subject. However, we often forget to add something to the foreground. By covering part of the image with an out-of-focus element in the foreground, we can really enhance the sense of depth within the image, though be careful not cover too much of the frame and end up introducing a distraction!

Example of creating depth of field in photography composition.

Colour Theory

Of course, let’s not forget about the colours. It’s often overlooked as one of the factors that affects the composition of a photo, but there is no doubt that where we position elements within the frame will also depend on the colour of the elements. This is where photography composition reaches a whole new level, though it usually only applies to types of photography where we have more of a say on where the elements sit within the frame, such as in product photography. Nevertheless, an understanding of colour theory will certainly come in handy! Check out this guide on the fundamentals of colour theory.

Example of the use of colour theory in photography composition.

Don’t forget about the story!

The most important rule. Sometimes, the power of the story is going to outweigh all the other aspects of the photo. Stop panicking over blurry photos, or whether the elements of the photo are compositionally balanced. Just focus on capturing the story, which at the end of the day is what photography is all about!

Example of the importance of focusing on the story in photography composition.

And that’s it! There are many more things that can be taken into account when thinking about composition in photography, though those are the fundamentals! Implementing these rules can enormously elevate the quality of your photos and is a great way to take your photography to the next level. Plus, it becomes even more fun when you understand the photography rules of composition and can find creative ways to break them!