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The Art of Composition in Photography

Composition in Photography

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between an average photo and a remarkable photograph? How do you know how if a photo works? What makes a photograph outstanding? Is it the setting (or environment), depth-of-field, the subject, lighting (either ambient or artificial), balance, the use of lines, how space is utilized, the uses of color, or contrast?

Photography is about communication between the photographer and the viewer. It’s all about the photographer telling their story through an image. So what makes for a great image? The answer can be rather subjective. Most of us would agree that a great image strikes a chord inside of us. It evokes a strong emotional response in the viewer. But there are also a some tangible elements of a good photography.

There are a few basic rules of composition that you need to be aware of and practice:

The Rule of Thirds

Simply put, divide the view-finder into thirds, vertically and horizontally. The four intersecting points are where you want to place subject matter of interest.

Rule of Thirds

The “S” Curve

Will help you lead the viewer’s eye toward objects you wish to emphasize; also, a pleasing pattern.

s curve photography composition



The exact correspondence of form on the opposites sides of a dividing line. Our eye demands symmetry.

Eiffel tower looking up

Symmetry is Important!

Our eyes have been exposed to symmetry or near-symmetry since the day we were born and our MIND now demands it … is conditioned to it.  So, it is a factor that cannot be ignored. If you are presented with a scene that has symmetry you should not ignore it. You should do your best to compose that photograph precisely so that you emphasize and balance the scene. If you do ignore the apparent symmetry, you will create an un-balanced picture that is uncomfortable to the human eye.

composition beautiful peacock with feathers out

So rules listed above–“Rule of Thirds“, “S” Curve, and Symmetry–are important, but they are not set in stone. Look for ways to use the rules …………. Rule of thirds, for instance….Here, all four points have an element of interest. Or look for ways to bend the rules a bit …

composition Victorian houses in San Francisco

A variation of that “S” curve … and, breaking away from symmetry to add a touch of dimensionality and drama. Once you have practiced and worked with these rules …. learn how to break them successfully!!!!

More on Composition - table

Every image must have a clear subject (with some minor exceptions). Perspective plays an import role. The placement of the subject, as well as the background and foreground. Take a moment and how you can see various compositions in these photographs…

composition landscape of canyon in Arizona

We tend to equate horizontal scenes with quiet and tranquility….

composition Eiffel Tower with lens flare

and vertical photograph compositions suggest power and majesty.

We always … automatically look at people’s eyes first.

composition red canoes floating peacufully on lake

Or we will look to that part of the scene that stands out – contrasts – with the rest of the image. So keep these factors in mind … there will be times when you need to draw on them to turn a rather straight-forward image into one that stands out…….

Let’s head back to the main page for more lessons on composition.

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  1. I can help with the Rule of Thirds.
    The objective is to draw the attention to the subject, especially when the background might be “busy”.
    Try this. Take a picture of a person the same as you always have. (The busier the background, the more this Rule of Thirds will show itself). Then take the same picture except this time, line the person up in one of the 4 intersecting points mentioned above. You should notice that this simple adjustment has made your subject stand out.

  2. Thanks for your explanation, Jim and another person described the way your eyes naturally follow the house. I went back and looked at the house picture again after reading both descriptions and I consciously noticed how my eyes followed an S pattern to take in all of the picture. Observation of ones self when looking at other work is imperative in knowing how others see your work from an outside view.

  3. By taking the picture at an angle we see the curves of the upper deck and the porch.The whole house with symmetry,instead of a frontal flat picture. A beautiful home,showcased properly.

  4. The three rule is easier to understand now. There are so many agruments on how a photo should be set up. With this lesson it helps. Hope there is more lessons but when it comes to ppl with landscape.

  5. I want to know how these could work with portraits. I love taking pictures of landscapes, especially ones that tell a story. But I want to learn how it works with people

  6. For the S-curve on the house picture, I think the porch gives a hint of it and that’s what he means by it. When I looked at it a second time, my eyes automatically followed an S-curve when I followed the porch.

  7. I don’t understand why we need the rules only to learn that the rules are broken all the time. Can’t we just frame what looks good to our eye?

  8. The “S” curve in the second pic didn’t really catch my eye. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve had a drink or what but I didn’t really focus on the river at all. What caught my eye was the two bridges but that could just be me. I could see the focus on all the other pics.

  9. I am just reading this for the first time. I can understand how some people might get comfused about the house. Here is what I see. When you look at some for the S curve, in general you want to see the whole s, but some tome you can take the S and cut it in half and see things as a half of a S or a half Circle if you must. This is What I am seeing with the house picture. Your not always looking for a S, just Curves withend a space. I hope I am saying this right. This is what I see with the S Curve.

  10. I take thousands of pictures and want to learn more so that I dont mess up a great shot. I have done that and will never get a second shot . I feel the house is not a s curve but like others who said symmerty. I will hopefully get a better understand how to reconize a shot and act accordingly.

  11. iam also trying to build a career in photography and i can see the s curve in the river photo…all else is abit confusing but am willing to learn

  12. The House picture is BOTH .

    The house IS A variation of that “S” curve … !!!


    breaking away from symmetry…. to add a touch of dimensionality … drama … the photo is taken from the side . and not square on !!!

  13. I think Dawn has it correct here. The house is NOT an example of the S curve rule being “broken,” it is an example of the symmetry rule being broken. The author I guess accidentally inserted the same river pic as the top photo as an example of braking the s curve rule. Re read the last line carefully.

  14. The river has the stronger color on the picture. So when i look at it the first seconds it draws my attention to it and then i look at the details after that. Strange, but I just realised this just now. I wonder if that is a common reaction to some of you. It is a trick to the eye that unconsciously point your attention to it. The subject is very good and i think that is what good photography is all about. Some pictures feels uncomfortable and seems to ring unbalance to your ear. Maybe my brain is telling me that the picture is not symmetric.

  15. Using this info in real life practice will cause one to be intuitive with it eventually. Im a landcaper and over the years of doing it,I now natually feel and interprete my surroundings and what it makes me feel where ever i am. Im in the habit of constantly figuring out why Im feeling what Im feeling, negetively and positively. As Ive read your stuff It great to be able to understand and transfer this to my beginings in Photograghy. We speak the same intuitive language. I found your stuff to be very helpfull.

  16. The s-curve in the house is facing us. Notice the porch railing. An S-curve is usually seen as the river winding away from from us, going from front to back, or diagonally leading us down the view.

    The usual S-view is like that of a snake wiggling to escape us. The S-curve of the house is like the s-view of a snake that is going from left to right across our line of vision.

    Imagine the view if you are down at ground level with the snake. First imagine the snake going away and second picture the snake going sideways across your view.

  17. I don’t want to sound like that nit picky guy. (too late I guess!) The Eiffel Tower picture shot used for symmetry isn’t really a symmetrical shot, it’s actually off centered to the right. It’s just one of those things I saw, sorry! 🙂 I very much like this site and am thankful for the information.

  18. The house isn’t an example of the ‘s’ curve, it’s an example of the rule of symmetry being broken, because instead of photographing the house exactly from the front, he (or she) went off to the side to create dimension, like it says in the article.

  19. Once I entered a photo collage i had made of my son and football pictures. I loved the colors and the subject matter and entered it into an art contest. Later the judge chose to use my work as an example of what we are taught not to do. My face turned red! But he chose my work as I had done what one is taught not to do and then went on to BREAK THE RULES SUCCESSFULLY! I had unknowingly arranged the pictures in an “X” formation for one larger picture to the side as if he were looking at all the other pictures on the page. The judges comments went kind of like this….

    “when arranging photos it is wise not to put them in an “X: arrangement because our eyes automatically look to see what marks the spot. But what do we have in the middle? Absolutely nothing!”

    My red face went away and I grinned when I was rewarded Honorable Mention for my “artwork.”

    It is very important to use the rules of 9. S curves and symmetry are just as important. But the last statement you have made here about leraning to break the rules successfully is just as important as the broken rules oft times create incredible images!

  20. If you see all Three photos once. If you close your eyes and try to remembering the first photo, second photo and third photo. Keep doing that Thrice and find the difference in between each of the photo given. You should able to understand yourselves. You don’t need any explanation. I have understood in that way, got what I need.


  21. I am beginner at this, taking pictures is my passsion. Any advice on what kind of digital camera to start with?

  22. The rule of 3rds apply to film and can be used with the digital format. This is one lesson I will not have to teach twice to the film class and the advance digital class.

  23. The ‘house’ picture is an example of Symmetry. instead of taking a frontal picture, the picture was in perspective so the rule was “bent a little”.

  24. I think I’m understanding this so now my first step to take some photo’s this week with this in mind..i’ll be visiting again for another lesson thanks, Carol

  25. Hi, could you tell me if your lessons are printed anywhere? You are an amazing teacher and I would love to have them where I could read them no matter where I am. Thanks, Laura

  26. I think it’s been made clear that the house picture is an example of breaking the rule of symmetry to create dimension, not of the S curve rule.

  27. The ‘S’ curve rule in the House picture is slightly bent. Imagine your eye moving from the tail end of ‘S’ curving along and arriving at the head end of ‘S’. Now, imaging your eye moving from the steps at the bottom or bottom railing from left to right, and at some point climbing the pillars to the second level, moving along from right to left, and then climbing up along the railing to the top floor of the house (hence the head of ‘S’). The purpose of the photographer is to take you along through the whole picture. Our eyes are naturally trained to follow patterns or seek them out.

  28. While I agree with most of the comments, the illustrations of what the ‘S’ Curve isn’t that clear.
    For instance, the photo of the river, the bridges caught my eye and drew my focus to the right/centre side of the photo as if the bridges were pointing to something rather than the curvature of the river.

    While not explicit, I found a good site that hopefully illustrates the ‘S’ Curve more accurately and gives plenty of examples that hopefully will help you understand what the ‘S’ Curve is all about.


    Explains it a bit better.


  29. The final S-curve example seems to be a picture that is not loading called Scurvea.JPG. The final sentence, I believe, is meant to be describing the final two pictures respectively, but the one unfortunately not loading. It could be read thus, “*First*, a variation of that “S” curve … and *finally*, breaking away from symmetry to add a touch of dimensionality … drama ….

    My browser is showing the existence of a broken link to the photo, which again should be photographycourse.net/images/Scurvea.JPG.

  30. “Luke, use the force.” In the movie,”Star Wars”, it explains there is an unseen force to use. Here there is an unseen rule. The object is to make a more interesting photo. If you use the “S” curve or rule of thirds, these are tools to be used when you are using your imagination to “create” a photography rather than a snapshot.

  31. This was really interesting reading. It’s a very difficult thing to explain and define, the idea that there are rules about how things look or are ordered. Students on my photographic courses like to learn these rules but I do find sometimes they fixate on “rules” and forget about “telling a story” or the decisive moment.

    Good read anyway.

  32. The S curve on the house photo is inversed and starts at the left part of the roof. From there you follow the roof to the railing, follow the railing to the left side and down to another railing (through the flag) and down to the far right of the balcony.

    Voila, an inverted S curve.

  33. I think S curve description is OK, as far as it goes to draw your attention in a S-form. But perhaps, you van also say zig-zag formation. If we apply this to the house, we see that our eyes go left and right. This photo has not been taken from the front, an angle from which it would by symmetrical but from the side, from the bottom right side. This gives a feeling of height as well as the house’s view more on a 3-d effect as compared to a 2-d symmetrical effect, if taken from the front. Maybe S-curve is not the right description.

  34. I also agree with Jim, I think the s-curve is ment to move the viewers eye through the photo. If you mentally draw an S over the photo of the house you get the full detail of the entire house, starting at the eaves of the roof down to the double windows, over to the rounded porch, up to the bottom of the stairs and ending at the American flag. Just as the river in the first picture leads you through the entire shot.

  35. One thing I’ve picked up in various places about the S-curve is that it helps to draw your viewer “into” the photo, and toward what you want them to see. It can also be used to lead the eye through the photo to see many different subjects, like in the river image above. It gives your viewer a path to follow through the image, so to speak.

  36. Yeah the last few images can make the rules seem confusing because they’re not meant to be clear illustrations of the rule, but more of a break from the rules. If you look at the photo of the river it’s pretty clear that the curving back and forth is the s-curve element that makes the photograph interesting.

  37. I’m trying to develop a career in photography, I’m looking at the pictures and I’m not understanding the “S” curve by looking at these pictures. Can you elaborate more the “S” curve

  38. hi, im new to all this but if u pay attention to the picture as well as what he has written, the house is also curved too because its at an angle and so are other parts of the house such as the railings. so maybe that is also part of the ‘s’ curve.


  39. Rob, Skip had written the article so I can’t tell you for sure what he was thinking but he does say that he’s breaking the rules a bit there and you can see the half “s” that we’ve drawn in where he used that cloud formation to his advantage and then went to an asymmetrical house.

  40. Hi,
    Can you elaborate in the ‘house’ picture what you mean about a variation of the ‘S – curve’. I’m unable to see anything that looks ‘S’ like.


  41. Point well taken. To hopefully clarify things in the meantime. 1st photo from the top “Rule of Thirds”, 2nd photo from the top, the “S” Curve. Doesn’t the river look like an “S” curve? 3rd photo from the top, Symmetry.

  42. i may be a simpleton but i’m not sure i am seeing what you want me to see regarding these rules in relation to the photos. Could you draw onto the photos the rules you are suggesting? eg. the ‘s’ curve in the photo.


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