What are the compositional rules of photography?

Photo of author

Words/photographs: Tony Eveling

Composition is about technique, not rules. It’s now time in this series to explain what the techniques are and when to employ them

Part 2 of 8 from my creatively composed series of posts.

To take a good photograph you need to engage with your subject and surroundings.

Composing the image is the final element of the picture taking process, a process that should be initiated by a moment of inspiration.

I can’t emphasise enough the point that you have to want to be there in order to take pleasing images. Wherever ‘there’ is doesn’t matter.

This post will explore good and bad composition before listing three techniques that are employed by every compelling and aesthetically pleasing photograph ever taken.

What are the compositional rules of photography?
Lone figure walking on the beach, Ostend, Belgium

This article is just one of a whole series of articles on creative composition.
You can click here
to go to an index page of all these posts in the order that they were written.

Behind the rules, some background

Well, okay, before we get to the real nitty gritty, I just want to explain a little about bad composition, or at least give a couple of examples to try and highlight why compositional rules matter.

Composition is the arrangement of elements in your photograph that makes the photo comfortable to look at. Bad composition can make a potentially fascinating and compelling scene just plain boring

The easiest example of bad composition I can give and one that many people will be able to relate to would be a family snap.

Let’s say you are having a great family get together and everyone is really enjoying themselves, and let’s say there are several generations present.

The children will be playing together and doing their thing, using their parents as climbing frames or playing with their toys on the floor.

The adults may have had one too many and the teenagers might be looking slightly angst ridden! The grandparents look on with quiet amusement.

What a great scene! Then someone takes photos of proceedings. But when you look at the photos in the cold light of day, heads have been chopped off and where have the grandparents gone!? Hang on, isn’t that a leg?

So, although that is an amusing situation when someone takes photographs so badly and we can all have a good laugh, and the photographer has no real interest in photography so no harm done…. it is a good and simple example of bad composition.

A well composed photograph would bring out the character of the individuals, show the movement and energy of the children, the love in the eyes of the grandparents….just by employing the discipline of good composition oupled with engaging with your subject.

Photography Tip…

In my photography I always make one very simple decision to
aid the composition of a photograph and prior to pressing the
shutter, and that decision comes from the answer to the

‘what is the subject of the photograph’

Or, to put it another way, what is the photograph of? The
subject is the focal point of the image that can then be
positioned in the frame complimentary to all other elements in
the photograph. What the subject is is not so important, the
subject can be anything, it can be a person or a group of
people, it can be a tree, or even just the horizon.

The important thing here is that you are forced to home in on
what initially inspired you to take that particular shot, and then
to think more carefully about positioning all the elements in the

Why the dog walker is a good photographer, but doesn’t know it.

Another – and I promise final – example of bad composition is when someone is walking their dog early in the morning and sees some mist on the horizon.

Not only is there mist, but the Sun is rising behind the trees….and the dog walker thinks that the scene would make a great photograph.

He or she pulls out a compact camera or smartphone and takes a snap.

Back home at the computer there is only one comment to make; “you really had to be there”

Small jetty,Swanage Bay,Dorset,england,uk
Small jetty,Swanage Bay,Dorset,england,uk

And that’s because the dog walker has seen a good photograph.

Unfortunately he or she hasn’t paid enough attention to composition, hasn’t stopped and worked out what exactly it is that he/she has seen to prompt an outing for the camera.

If the dog walker is not used to looking at lots of different photos made by different photographers, then he/she may think the photo is really good. Sometimes it is only when putting the good and the bad together can you see the difference

But in this example, the dog walker has done all the hard work…he/she almost certainly has seen a really good photo, but hasn’t employed the compositional discipline required to make a good photo

My aim with the next few posts is too teach three major techniques in composition that are employed to a greater or lesser extent for every well composed image. It’s simple and learnable and will greatly accelerate learning for the beginner.

These are techniques that I have picked up over the years and wished that people had told me way back then in the way that I will be telling you in these posts.

Of course, the ‘rule of thirds’ will also be explained, and I will also discuss why it is not really a rule.

Later I will dig deeper and write about what I consider to be the most important and effective compositional components, such as lines and geometry, symmetry, layering and depth

I will move onto compositional styles, such as photographing landscapes with visible sky or without. Detail shots of landscapes as well as the effectiveness of capturing movement.

I love original and intuitive compositions in photography as well as spontaneity and such skills and discipline should be a part of every photographers photographic armoury, which is what I hope to convey in these posts.

Photography Tip…

Don’t be intimidated by the work of other photographers. When
you are learning, the work of others may seem unattainable,
but it’s not. Eyeball as much of their photography as you can.
Compare yours with theirs. What are they doing that you are

With an open mind , discipline and practice you can and will
create photography that turns heads too. You already have a
natural and unique creativity (we all have that). What you need
is to acquire the discipline of good composition so that you can
express your vision in a photograph.

Some rules…ahem… techniques to get started!

The following are four simple techniques that will help you to position objects/elements in a frame.

Over the next post or two I will define these 4 techniques and then I will spend some time discussing their use using examples.

Their names won’t mean anything yet, because I made them up! but I just wanted to introduce them

  1. Placement of objects on the edge of/or leaving the frame
  2. Separation
  3. Balance
  4. The rule of thirds

These are my own building blocks of composition. All the photographs that I take and publish use one or more of these techniques, and many use two or more.

kinder reservoir from pennine way on kinder scout, peak district national park, derbyshire,england,uk
kinder reservoir from pennine way on kinder scout, peak district national park, derbyshire,england,uk

The first three are employed in all well composed photography, and these three techniques alone will greatly improve your photography if you are a beginner.

They will also help to simplify your photography.

All you will have to do is follow your instinct rather than follow a technical checklist that massively over complicates the art of composition.

I often use these techniques mechanically to guide my initial moment of inspiration so that what I see in my minds eye at the time of capture translates as closely as possible in the final version

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

So that’s it for what composition is, and how inexperienced photographers can make mistakes that spoil a photo.

These posts have been adapted from my free ebook “creatively Composed”.
If you want to read the whole series of articles in one convenient ebook, you can, just follow Creatively composed – FREE ebook!

Visit Creatively composed blog posts index page, which has all the links to each post in this series.

Please feel free to ask a question in the comments section or even disagree if you feel I’ve got something wrong!

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