Photography composition is not something that depends on your camera or lens. It doesn’t matter if you own the most expensive camera.
It’s all about knowing the rules of composition and apply them as you need.
Or even break them!
What are the rules of composition in photography?
Learning how to compose will make your shots much more appealing, and it will train your eye on how to choose the best angle when you are shooting. Mastering the basic rules of compositions means having more control over your photographs. With time you’ll also be able to see a photo and recognize what technique has been used and your whole experience will be much more enjoyable.
I made a list of the main photography composition rules you should learn.
Let’s see what they are and how to apply them.
Photography Composition Techniques
1. Rule of space
This is a fundamental rule in photography. In landscape photography, for example, by shooting outdoors, we deal with vast quantities of space.
You need to learn how to control the distribution of space in your images. you can divide space into positive and negative space. Simply put, the negative space in photography is the space that surrounds the main subject. The main subject is known as the positive space.
With this technique, the photographer aims not only at emphasizing the main subject, but it can also create a sense of motion. It establishes a resting space for the eye of the viewer, and it suggests the direction of motion that the main subject could move to.
For example, if an object is moving left in the scene, the negative space will need to occupy the left side of the frame. The object itself will be placed on the right in this case.
This is how the brain works when dealing with images.
It imagines the subject moving towards the empty space. The viewer’s eye will likely land on the subject first and then move to the negative space. Resting there for a pleasant and more exciting experience.
This way, you can suggest the viewer to which direction the object is going to move and add interest by also creating a story.
2. Rule of thirds
An experienced photographer would probably tell you that the rule of thirds is the place to start when learning photography composition.
It’s perhaps the first thing I learned when I decided that I wanted to improve my photography. In fact, it’s an easy yet powerful technique that will immediately improve your photos by making your compositions more balanced and interesting.
It works really well combined with the rule of space, and to better understand this rule, it’s useful to place an imaginary grid on top of your image. The grid breaks the image down into 9 parts.
The rule of thirds consists in positioning your main subject in one of the four intersections of your imaginary grid.
In the example above, I made the eye of the animal rest on one of those points. According to studies, the viewer’s eye will scan the image starting from those intersection points and then move to the center of the photo.
So this rule tries to facilitate the natural way of viewing an image. In a landscape, your grid will also be useful to know where to position your horizon line, since you can use one of the grid lines.
So in applying these rules, you’ll learn how to recognize the points of interest of a shot and know where to place them. By practicing, it will become more and more natural.
3. Leading lines
Leading lines are one of the most fundamental elements in photography. I really like playing with them and give me a real sense of control over my composition.
By guiding the viewer’s eye through the image from one part to the scene to the other and allowing it to rest on the main subject, they help to create a strong visual impact.
A pathway, for example, will lead the eye towards the horizon or towards the subject in the background. At the same time, it creates depth in the image.
It’s also straightforward to find a leading line on roads, for example. Roads go somewhere by nature, they allow you to suggest the viewer what’s the main focus of the scene in the distance and create a keen attention towards that subject.
Connect foreground and background
By connecting the foreground to the background, leading lines help creating depth, give the image much more interest, and again they help to tell a story.
Almost everywhere in nature, you can find leading lines. Roads, rivers, shorelines, sand dunes, bridges, and so forth.
Look for diagonal lines and once you’ve found them, you’ll need to decide how to use them. If you have a main subject, try to place it near the end of the lines or if you’re shooting a landscape, then connect the foreground to the background with those lines and create that strong sense of perspective that will make the image more appealing by creating a visual journey.
So remember, creating a story by linking the main elements in your composition is key. You’ll see other types of lines later in this article.
4. Foreground Interest
Another very efficient and maybe underrated way of creating depth and adding visual impact to an image is the use of foreground.
This will give the image that 3D effect often missing. When you are outdoors immersed in nature and experience a beautiful view, you’ll need to be able to translate all that to a 2-dimensional medium, and you need ways of communicating depth to the viewer.
You need to use it with care since you don’t want your foreground to become the main subject, but at the same time, you want it to be impactful enough to make the image more interesting. So you’ll need to find something that’s eye-catching and enhance the overall value of the composition.
In the image above, the stones covered with green moss give the picture that balance and depth needed to help the Peak to stand out. The color and contrast of the rocks also help adding value to the color of the water and give vibrancy to the dark image, balancing it out.
To use this technique, you need to start thinking in terms of layers.
By adding an object of interest in front of your subject, you are creating multiple layers in the image, and these elements help to draw the attention to the main subject adding depth to the composition.
5. Sense of scale
So again, one of the main challenges in photography is to convey three-dimensionality and depth to an image. In landscape photography, you need to try and portrait the spatial feel of a vast open space on the two-dimensional surface of you “canvas”.
Another way of doing this is to add compositional elements of known size to your space to provide a sense of scale in the picture and give the viewer a point of reference to better understand how small or big things are in the scene. Without a point of reference, the viewer’s eye won’t be able to grasp the size of an object, a waterfall, a tree, or a mountain.
In this image, the subject stands on the peak of the mountain and confront herself with the open view.
Without the human element in this photograph, it wouldn’t be as clear for the eye, how vast is the open space, and the viewer is left wondering just how big elements of the composition are, resulting in a less appealing experience.
The primary color of the jacket creates contrast with the surrounding and helps to focus the attention to it becoming a point of reference in the photo.
When you take a photo, always think about where you will shoot your subject from. As I said in the beginning, it doesn’t matter how expensive your gear is, your camera can’t do the job without your effort.
The camera can’t tell you where to stand or where to point your lens.
You’ll need to do it.
Your viewpoint can have a huge impact on the final image.
By changing your viewpoint, your photo will not only gain a more appealing composition, but it can also help you stand out from other images taken at the same location.
To control the type of message you want your image to convey, try to change your angle. Instead of shooting from eye level, try to go down low at ground level, or from above try a closeup or various angles and see how the mood of the image changes dramatically.
Thanks to framing in photography you can lead the attention to a particular point in your photo by using various elements of a scene to frame your subject.
You can use natural elements, doors, windows, fences, and branches. It doesn’t matter too much what you use, the goal is to make your photo more interesting and bring the viewer’s attention in the middle of your frame.
8. Horizontal and Vertical Lines
Vertical lines in photography are useful for conveying a sense of strength and balance. They are also used to add depth and break horizontal patterns.
Horizontal lines in photography add a sense of sense of peace and tranquility. You can also use horizontal lines to add layers and enhance the 3D effect of your composition.
You can read my complete guides on vertical and horizontal lines in photography here:
Photography Composition With Steve McCurry
In this short video featuring legend photographer Steve McCurry, you can see further examples of the rules of composition and learn from the great master.
Practice the different rules of composition and have fun while you do it. Exploring the various compositional techniques will make you not only a better photographer, but you will start recognizing elements in nature that you didn’t even notice before.
Once you’ve mastered these techniques, your images will improve dramatically, and you’ll have much more fun taking photos since you’ll have more control.
You might also be interested in knowing the difference between portrait and landscape orientation when it comes to composition, read Portrait vs landscape.
If you liked this article, consider sharing it with your friends, it would mean a lot to me!
Feel free to write in the comments below any tips you might have on how to compose photos better and send me your images, I’d love to see them!
Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.