5 Basic Compositional Rules in Photography

Compositional Rules in Photography

Compositional Rules

As a beginner photographer, you must surely be looking at the images made by other photographers, people whose work you admire. Among the many things that you may undoubtedly notice, you may also have noticed that somehow the compositions of these photographers tend to be a lot more eye-catching.

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 some tangible elements of good photography.

It does take a considerable amount of time and energy to develop the necessary skills to make great images. One thing that is also required is a good understanding of the Compositional Rules of photography.

Watch our exclusive video on Composition Rules in Photography:

Yes, there are rules in photography. But don’t get disheartened; these are not designed to superimpose on your creativity. Rather, you can consider them as guides, meaningful tried and tested guidelines that have worked this far. Once you have mastered these rules, you would be able to go beyond them and break them whenever necessary to create even more compelling images.

Rule #1: Leading Lines

Into the Mist - leading lines rule example
Into the Mist 2 by Jayt74

Leading lines are used by photographers in different ways to compose their images. However, the most dominant use of leading lines is that it draws the attention of the user to the main subject of the image. Sometimes, though, leading lines are used to draw the viewer’s eyes deeper into the image. It remains one of the sure-fire ways to capture attention-grabbing images, allowing the eyes to follow a line and wander into the image.

Rule #2: Rule of Thirds

Flashlight by Rick Harris - using the rule of thirds.
Flashlight [3] by Rick Harris

Probably the most talked about and therefore clichéd rule in photography is the rule of thirds. While using your camera viewfinder / LCD screen, you may have accidentally come upon a grid line, nine square boxes arranged in three rows. If you turned it off without realizing what it is, you deprived yourself of one of the best ways to compose correctly, using the rule of thirds. Placing the most important aspect of the image on one of the intersecting points makes the image more appealing to the human eye.

Simply put, divide the viewfinder into thirds, vertically and horizontally. The four intersecting points are where you need to place the subject.

Rule #3: Negative Space

negative space composition rule.
I’m alone | Explored

Negative space is all about leaving space, and lots of it, in the image to ensure that the main subject occupies a small portion of it. How much space to leave depends on you and the final look of the image. One of the uses of negative space is in commercial and stock photography. Negative space allows an editor to put content and tag line. However, that is just the commercial attribution. Certainly the use of this rule is more to do with compositional value.

Rule #4: Horizon Line

Horizon line and the frame.
Misty Fall Road – HDR by Nicolas Raymond

The horizon line need not be right at the middle of the frame. I know it kind of looks right, but then that’s not necessarily useful. The horizon line should be either 2/3rds the way down or up, depending on whether the sky is more interesting or the foreground.

Rule #5: Symmetry and Patterns

Symmetry is closely related to beauty, and it is the exact correspondence of form on the opposites sides of a dividing line. Perfect symmetry is always eye catching. Try and incorporate anything symmetrical in your images, and the quality of your compositions will go up automatically. 

Our eyes have been exposed to symmetry or dynamic symmetry since the day we were born, and our minds now demand it and are conditioned to it. So, it is a rule 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 ignore the apparent symmetry, you will create an un-balanced picture that is uncomfortable to the human eye.

Patterns are yet another aspect that lend a degree of interest to your images, especially when a pattern is broken.

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