The Three Composition Rules That Work Best (and why) :: Digital Photo Secrets
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The Three Composition Rules That Work Best (and why)

by David Peterson 2 comments

Photography rules, as you know, are really just guidelines. If you break the rules of thirds, for example, you will not be punished. The hand of the photography gods will not come out of the sky and take your DSLR away from you. You will not be shamed by the composition police (well, maybe in some circles you will, but you should probably just avoid those people). The rule of thirds - like all those other rules - is just there to give you an idea about how to compose a photograph. There's no law that says you have to use it.

But the thing is, those rules exist because most of the time, they do work. So how can you look at any given scene and know for sure which one (if any) of the many compositional rules you should apply?

The short answer is: eventually you will develop a feel for it. But I know that's not what you wanted to hear—you wanted some specifics. So here is a brief rundown of the compositional rules that I think work best for most situations.

The rule of thirds

Yes, this is the granddaddy of all photography rules, the one that goes back the farthest, the one that you probably hear referred to the most. The rule of thirds has been around for centuries. Its origin was actually with Renaissance artists, who at some point started to wonder what it was about any given painting that could draw the eye and encourage it to roam around a scene.

The rule of thirds is a pretty simple idea. You divide the frame up into nine equal portions, and then you place your subject on one of the intersections between those lines, or across one of the vertical or horizontal lines alone. Why does this work? The answer is actually quite simple. When you place an object in the middle of the frame, the eye goes there and stays there. Because the object is in the center of the frame the eye doesn't have a reason to move around explore the rest of the image. The image is static. But when you place an object in the left or right part of the frame that all changes. An image that is composed in thirds seems more dynamic, because the eye goes to the subject, and from there is encouraged to move around the frame. Rule of thirds images are dynamic. They have motion, even though it's not the type of motion that you can literally see with your eyes.

You can improve almost any photograph by composing it according to the rule of thirds. The reason why the rule of thirds is referred to most often by other photographers is because it really is the most predictable way to get an excellent photograph. Now, there are definitely cases where you will get a better photograph if you don’t adhere to the rule of thirds—one example is when you have an object with strong symmetry. A building or other object that looks the same on the left as it does on the right is going to have better balance overall if it’s centered in the frame rather than composed according to the rule of thirds. For the most part. There are exceptions to every rule, and there are even exceptions to exceptions, so use your own artistic judgment.

Line

One of the biggest problems with photography is that it is a two dimensional medium. That means that one of the biggest challenges any photographer will have to overcome in every single photograph is the challenge of convincing the viewer that the two dimensional image he or she is looking at actually exists in three dimensions. It’s all lies, of course, but if it’s a lie you can’t tell convincingly then you will have a much more successful image.

It’s kind of a tall order when you think about it, but photographers have a few tricks. This first (and probably most successful) of these tricks is the use of leading lines. When the eye encounters a line in a photograph, its natural tendency is to follow that line to its point of origin or its vanishing point. This is why images of railroad tracks, for example, can seem so three-dimensional—because our brains understand that those converging lines happen in three dimensions.

Now, you can use lines in other ways, too. A curved line, for example, can also add a sense of dimension to a photograph. Imagine a road that weaves around the sides of a hill, eventually vanishing into the distance. Not only will your eye use that road to make an interpretation about the size and depth of the scene, it will also be soothed by all those lazy S curves.

  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 200
  • f/10.0
  • 0.033 sec (1/30)
  • 10 mm

Lines by Flickr user Fr Antunes

Line works in almost any kind of scene, from landscape to portrait. It is of course less necessary in photos in which you have filled the frame with your subject, but in scenes that contain some context line can really can give your image a sense of place. A portrait of a girl standing against a completely white backdrop may be technically accomplished, but if she’s standing at the end of a long straight road you will get a greater sense that she really exists in some tangible place and time.

Simplification

We live in a very complex world. Even our natural spaces are complex. Landscapes are full of trees, shrubs, birds and bugs, dirt, water, sky and clouds—it's all pretty visually complex. The best images do not contain a little bit of everything, they just contain a little bit of something.

Consider the difference between these two images:

  • Sony DSC-HX9V
  • 800
  • f/5.9
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 68.5 mm

red rose DSC01707 by Flickr user omirou56

Which one holds your attention for longer? Logic might tell you that it’s the right one. There are more things to look at in that image, right? Yes, that’s true, but the problem is that when there are too many things to look at, there’s no focal point. The image is disjointed.

No image should have too much information in it. When you have a lot of different elements in any one composition, you end up with a chaotic image. Your viewer doesn’t know where to look, so she might not spend much time looking at all.

Whenever you raise your camera, you should spend some time thinking about the simplest way to compose your image. Can you angle out any of those objects that really aren’t adding to your composition? Can you use a wider aperture to blur out those distracting background elements? Or can you zoom in a little tighter? Anything you can do to simplify your composition is almost always going to be the right move. Really, it comes down to identifying the elements that are important and elements that are unimportant. Most of the time, you’re going to find that there are only a few (maybe even just one) important elements in the frame.

  • Nikon D300
  • 400
  • f/5.6
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 135 mm

goldfinch bokeh by Flickr user nosha

Conclusion

No one compositional “rule” is right for every situation. But these three compositional rules can do a pretty consistent job of improving your photographs, so keep them in mind whenever you lift that camera.

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Comments

  1. joandsquared says:

    It's always good to review the basics once in a while!

  2. SUNIL says:

    The article was excellent, of great value, practical.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.