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The List of Rules for Composition in Photography

Updated on December 11, 2013

The Rule of Thirds in Action

Rule of Thirds
Rule of Thirds | Source

More than the Rule of Thirds

So I always hear so much about the rules of composition but I have had a hard time of finding a list of all of the rules (or guidelines) for composing good photographs. Everyone seemly has heard of the rules of thirds but not much else.

The rules of composition are all of the things that have proven to make your art more aesthetically pleasing. The rules of composition were originally developed in art and extend into photography with no modifications with the exception that to follow the rules of composition the photographer sometimes be creative to get the desired results. Paint and brush artists can create any scene they want and photographers must consider angle, time of day, the golden hour, people walking in an out of the scene, perspective, lens selection and probably a lot more than that. So the rules of composition can become more difficult for the photographic artist.

The rules of composition were meant to be broken. Or should I say that the rules of composition sometimes contradict each other. For instance the rule of thirds often contradicts the rule of symmetry. I can’t think of a situation that both rules can apply simultaneously. Think of two buildings that balance each other because they are symmetrical. As an example think of one building on the left and one building on the right coming to a perspective point in the middle. The rule of thirds should not apply. So it will take some common sense and some experience to determine when to break a rule.

So here is the list of rules that I have researched over the last while and I’m sure there are more. Please leave a comment below to help add to this article!

Using Colour Effectively
Using Colour Effectively | Source

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds states that subjects within the photograph should be off centre. The main subject should be at one of the intersection points of the shot divided into three sections both horizontally and vertically. Additionally horizons should follow the rule of thirds as well. Do you need to be at precisely at a 1/3 intersection point. No but you must consider the final image and how it will present itself. Will it look balanced or will it look like something is off just a bit. It’s your artist vision and you decide. The sales figures or competition score will tell you if you were right.

Depth of Field

Depth of field is the portion of your shot that is focused. Less areas of focus is called shallow depth of field. Depth of field is utilised to emphasize portions of the photograph and also helps isolate your subject. Depth of field can set the mood of a photograph creating a soft luxurious look.

Depth of field is set using a combination of lens length and f-stop. The longer the lens and the smaller the f-stop number the shallower the depth of field. Take some time to learn this incredibly powerful tool for great photography.

Demonstration of Depth of Field
Demonstration of Depth of Field | Source
Isolation of your Subject
Isolation of your Subject | Source

Isolation of Your Subject

This refers to removing all distractions from your shot so the viewer can enjoy the photograph as you intended. This might not be considered a rule of composition but rather a technique. Isolation of the shot is achieved in a number of ways.

  • Physically removing distractions like branches, dust on flowers etc
  • Using the right angle to remove distracting backgrounds that can’t be removed any other way
  • Creative use of depth of field to blur out foreground and background
  • Replacement of background physically or through software.

Leave space for movement

Look at any good photograph or a car in movement, a person walking, a runner or a cyclist and you will notice that the subject s never placed like it is about to leave the shot.

Using Leading Lines

Leading lines are the road map that draws the viewer’s eyes through the photograph and to the main subject of the shot or the centre of the photograph or on occasion out of the photograph

The dock forms a leading line to the sunset
The dock forms a leading line to the sunset | Source

Framing Your Subject

Compositional framing is a way to draw the viewer’s eye into the photograph and focusing on the main subject. Compositional framing can also a sense of depth to your photograph by creating part of the foreground or background of your subject. Compositional framing can add interest to an otherwise boing subject.

Leading lines and framing
Leading lines and framing | Source

Using Colour

Colour in the rules of photography is used to evoke a feeling and mood about a photograph. Strong contrasting colours are attractive to the eye and subtle colours are often associated with a softer muted feeling in the photograph. Different groups of colours will give your photographs different feels. Blues, mauves give a more calming effect and yellows and reds are usually associated with lively vibrant scenes.

Each colour photograph has 3 elements. Hue, saturation and brightness help you as a photographer to define the mood of your shot. Dark colours surrounded by lighter colours tend to appear to fall away from the viewer while the opposite arrangement of colours tends to give the feel that the brighter colours are coming at you.

Keeping yourself in tune with the spectrum of colours in a photograph will help you use them effectively.

On Martindale Pond Demonstration of Colour
On Martindale Pond Demonstration of Colour | Source

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While there are many rules not mentioned here this article is a work in progress. My advice about the rules of composition presented here is to know them by heart and with more depth than I have provided here. Eventually each heading will link to a separate article on the subject. The rules of composition should become second nature to you and when you are in the field you should instantly be able to determine the best way to get your shot.


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