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Composition in Photography: The Ultimate Guide to Principles of Composition

Composition in photography is one of the absolutely key elements of any good image. 

In other words:

If your photos don’t have good compositions, then they’re just not good photos. 

But composition can be hard to wrap your head around, plus it includes lots of confusing rules and terms. 

That’s what I plan to address in this article.

I’m going to take you through everything you need to know about the principles of composition in photography. 

I’m going to share with you my favorite composition techniques. 

And, when you’re done, you’ll know all about composition and how you can use it for amazing photos. 

What Is Composition in Photography?

Composition refers to the arrangement of elements within a photograph.

For instance, these are all common composition questions:

  • Where should I put my subject?
  • Would I include two people or three people in the frame?
  • Should I include a lot of the sky or a lot of the foreground?
  • Should I cut off a person’s limbs?
  • Where should I position the horizon?

There are thousands of other common questions regarding composition, but hopefully you’re starting to get the picture–composition is about the way different parts of your photos are positioned, and the way they fit together. 

Now, ask any professional photographer what matters most in photography, and composition is bound to be in their top five. 

In fact, for me composition is probably the number one most important thing a beginning photographer can master (light is number two, camera settings and technique is number three, and post-processing is number four). 

Because composition makes all the difference between a stunning photo and a terrible one. 

Composition is what makes this photo look amazing:

But what does composition actually do for a photo? And why does it matter so much?

That’s what the next section is all about.

Why Does Composition Matter?

I’ve already said that composition is the number one most important thing that beginners need to master. 

But why? Why is composition so important? 

Well, by arranging elements in a particular way, you affect the way the viewer experiences the resulting photo. 

By filling the frame with your subject, for instance, you’ll end up with a powerful, in-your-face image:

And by including lots of empty (negative) space in your composition, you’ll create a peaceful, atmospheric image:

And by tilting the horizon at a 45 degree angle, you’ll create an image that’s full of tension.

All of these different feelings are due to composition. 

Of course, this begs the question:

If different compositions bring about different feelings…

…is there such a thing as a bad composition? Or are all compositions good?

This is something that photographers and artists debate. 

But, generally speaking, there are a few fundamental elements that underlie all great compositions, including visual flow (where the viewer moves throughout the photo and engages with different elements), as well as balance (where the composition feels satisfyingly equal across the entire frame). 

That’s where most of the so-called composition “rules” come from; they’re shortcuts to achieving balance and/or visual flow.

Are There Really Composition Rules?

You’ve probably heard of some popular composition rules, such as the rule of thirds

But as I explained above, composition rules are essentially shortcuts that allow you to achieve balance and visual flow without having to spend years training as an artist. 

So the rule of thirds isn’t actually a rule. Instead, it’s a guideline, created to help photographers create balanced images without spending years struggling to explain how the concept of visual balance can be internalized.

Don’t think of it as a rule, but do think of it as a helpful technique–something that you can put in your compositional toolbox, and test out when you’re struggling to find a composition you like. 

Does that make sense? 

In other words:

There are no rules

But there are helpful tips and tricks, and you can pick and choose how to apply these tips and tricks depending on the photos you want to take.

And speaking of helpful tips and tricks:

Common Photography Composition Techniques

Let’s take a look at a number of composition techniques, or principles, that you can use to create more balanced and otherwise visually pleasing images.

The Rule of Thirds

This is the “rule” I referenced earlier, because it’s so popular. 

The rule of thirds states that you should position your main compositional elements a third of the way into the frame, somewhere along these gridlines:

So you could put the horizon along the top gridline, and a mountain pointing up along the right gridline, etc. 

Or you could put two vertical elements along each gridline, like in this photo (where the open doors follow the rule of thirds):

(Also, the intersections of the rule of thirds gridlines are known as power points, and are especially good places to put your main subject.)

The rule of thirds is great for creating visual balance while preventing the image from becoming too static. It’s a guideline that you should always keep in mind when out photographing, but don’t become too reliant on it, because there are times when centered compositions that violate the rule of thirds are actually more powerful.

Symmetry

By including symmetry in your compositions, you can create a sense of boldness and power. 

Because the symmetry balances out the frame, while also really jumping out at the viewer. 

Note that it’s possible to use many different types of symmetry, including radial symmetry (where your photograph is symmetrical around a central point), vertical symmetry (where your photo is symmetrical across the X-axis), and horizontal symmetry (where your photo is symmetrical across the Y-axis). 

Now, symmetry is often opposed to the rule of thirds, because symmetrical subjects are often centered. And I do recommend you at least try centering your symmetrical subject, because a reflection across the center of the composition often looks good. 

But you can also use the rule of thirds and symmetry together, in order to create a more unique image, like this:

The Golden Ratio

The golden ratio uses a particular number, 1.618, to create visually pleasing, balanced, dynamic compositions in photography.

Now, it comes in a few forms.

The golden spiral uses the ratio to create a pleasing spiral that you can use to position different compositional elements:

Whereas the golden ratio grid uses a grid overlay to guide you in your compositions:

This last one is a lot like the rule of thirds, but offers a slightly different set of proportions. Both can work well!

The Golden Triangle

The golden triangle is an overlay that looks like this:

It encourages the use of diagonals, as well as triangles, to create dynamic, flowing, stable compositions. 

While the golden triangle is less well-known than the rule of thirds, you can use it for amazing photos by positioning key elements along the diagonals and the triangles. 

(Pay special attention to the intersection of the lines, which is where you can position main subjects for good results.)

Triangles

You’ll find triangles in the golden triangle, but triangles in general are just good compositional elements. 

Why?

Because triangles keep things interesting while making sure the composition is stable. 

Note that you can find triangles all over the place, including symmetrical triangles, scalene triangles, and implied triangles. 

And by including these different triangles in your images, you can create slightly different effects. 

All in all, triangles are a great way to ensure your composition is very balanced and highly dynamic, so I recommend you incorporate triangles into your shots whenever possible.

The Value of Simplicity

Generally speaking, simple compositions are better than more complex compositions. 

This has to do with distractions–the fewer elements you have, the easier it is to keep the shot together without including extraneous pieces. 

That’s why it’s always a good idea to keep the composition as simple as possible. 

So before taking a shot, ask yourself:

Are there any parts that I should try to get rid of? Are there any areas that will take away from the photo, rather than enhance it?

Ideally, every part of a composition contributes to the overall image. 

Which is why you should really size everything up, and decide whether it’s better in or out.

Ultimately, you’ll find you have a simpler composition, yes–and a much better one!

The Importance of Negative Space

Negative space refers to areas of emptiness in a photo, such as a big expanse of grass:

Or a big expanse of sky:

Or a big expanse of ocean.

And while negative space may feel pointless, it actually plays a huge role in good photos. 

You see, negative space helps the subject to breathe, making for a more balanced, harmonious image overall.

Plus, negative space can help you create interestingly minimalistic compositions, like this:

Cool, right? 

That’s the power of negative space.

The Rule of Space

The rule of space is simple:

You should put space in front of a moving subject, and also in front of a gazing subject. 

In other words:

If a subject is moving to the left, put some space off to the left.

And if a subject is moving to the right, put some space off to the right.

Also, if a subject is looking/gazing off to the left, put some space off to the left.

And if a subject is looking/gazing off to the right, put some space off to the right.

That’s how you can create an image that feels balanced and satisfying; wherever the subject is going (either physically or with their gaze), there is space in the shot.

Fill the Frame

If your composition just isn’t working, you may not be close enough (to paraphrase a famous quote by Robert Capa). 

And while not all compositions benefit from you filling the frame with your main subject, you can often create stronger, more impactful images by really getting up close and making sure the subject takes up the whole shot. 

This is because it’s very easy to include distractions in your images–distractions that take away from the overall quality of the shot, and make it so the viewer becomes unfocused or confused. 

That’s why I always recommend you think about whether you’ve gone tight enough in an image. If there’s a possibility that you should’ve gone tighter, then I’d suggest at least testing it out to see how it looks; you might end up with a better composition.

Composition in Photography: The Next Steps

As you can see, composition is an absolutely essential part of every good image. 

So it pays to understand composition in photography (and how you can use it for amazing photos).

Just remember that there are no real composition rules–only techniques. 

And make sure you add the compositional techniques to your photographic toolbox!

How important is composition in photography?

Composition in photography is absolutely essential. With good composition comes powerful, breathtaking images; with bad composition comes bland images that don’t really hold the viewer’s attention. For me, composition is actually the number one most important factor that a photographer should understand (though other photographers often argue that light or camera technique is more important). Regardless, composition is key, and so you must master composition if you want great photos.

Are there rules of composition in photography?

Sort of. There are many compositional guidelines, which are often referred to as “rules,” and these are designed to help you position key elements within the frame. However, I wouldn’t go so far to say that compositional rules exist; for instance, there is nothing that says “for a good composition you must do this.” Instead, I recommend you consider different composition rules/guidelines, internalize them, and use them (or discard them) as necessary.

How many rules of composition exist in photography?

There are only a few popular “rules” of composition in photography, including the rule of thirds, the rule of space, and the rule of odds. However, there are plenty more compositional guidelines that can really help your images, such as leading lines, negative space, the value of simplicity, and much more.

What is the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is a popular compositional guideline. It suggests that the best photos have key elements a third of the way into the frame, along the classic rule of thirds gridlines. Now, you don’t need to follow the rule of thirds all the time, but it is a good starting point when approaching a new subject, so I recommend you internalize the gridlines as much as possible.

What is composition in photography?

Composition refers to the arrangement of elements within a photo. For instance, where is the main subject positioned? Is it close to the edge of the frame? Is it close to the center? And where are supporting subjects positioned? How about other compositional elements, such as lines that lead in or out of the image? These are all composition questions! Note that composition is one of the most important tools that a photographer has at their disposal if they’re looking to create stunning images.

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