5 rules of composition that will transform your photography.

Words/Photographs: Tony Eveling

Of all the photography techniques that you need to learn as a photographer, Composition is arguably the most important.

I’ve distilled my compositional techniques down to five ‘rules of composition’ that will massively help you with your photography.

…Especially if you are a beginner!

Those 5 ‘rules of composition’ are…

  • Moment of Inspiration
  • Identify the subject
  • All objects must be instantly recognisable to the viewer.
  • Leave space around objects
  • Balance your images

…And finally…

  • Conclusion

Okay then, let’s go…!

1. Moment of inspiration

The best photos you will take whilst on this great and exciting photographic journey that you are on, will be as a result of having an initial ‘moment of inspiration’.

The moment of inspiration is an instinctive moment, or gut feeling, call it what you will.

For me that is a moment when I am walking in a landscape with my camera, and a view comes into sight that makes me think:

“I bet that would make a good photo”

A forest photograph, and an example of a composition derived from having a 'moment of inspiration'
Epping Forest in winter. Essex, England, UK.  This photograph was taken as a result of having a ‘moment of inspiration’.  I suppose it’s an obvious example, although, because of that it’s a simple example.  seeing those rays, and then the mist in the background, the inspiration for the photograph should be obvious.

It’s more of a feeling rather than words in my head, and can sometimes involve butterflies in the stomach.

The moment is always brief, and if I move a few steps forward, the view changes enough for the feeling to subside and quickly disappear.

So it’s a feeling that is easy to ignore.

You have to learn to tap into that feeling, because that is where your best photos are.

Okay, that’s all very happy clappy, but this all sounds a bit vague…

I agree, It’s a difficult thing to pin down and describe, but it is one of the underlying principles of composition.

The ‘moment of inspiration’ is the foundation stone from which every great photograph is created.

It may sound vague to a beginner, but of all the rules of composition, this is up there.

It is unavoidable.

Do not ignore it.

However vague you think this is, you do have this feeling.

If you don’t have this feeling, then it might be because you are not really interested in photography, or you are not engaged in the location where you are.

You may also be suffering other stresses that mask out the feeling.

Stressing out over trying to get a killer image can kill any moments of inspiration. You really need to relax when you are out taking photographs, and stop worrying about not getting the shot.

My own photographic life is littered with missed opportunities, but I don’t dwell on them because I know there are several lifetimes worth of opportunities still out there. So relax!

But what if I never get this feeling, then what?

I absolutely guarantee that you will get that feeling.

You need tune into your own gut instincts and intuition. You need to trust these feelings. You need to act on those feelings.

Do this and you will start to take better photographs. It takes practice, so stick at it.

After you have that ‘moment of inspiration’, you need to apply good old fashioned photographic discipline.

That discipline involves stopping, and then working out what it is that made you have that ‘moment’.

I repeat, what if I don’t get these feelings?

Be open minded, don’t get hung up or obsessed with things like the golden ratio or dynamic symmetry. Ignore them and listen to your gut.

Just open your mind, try new stuff, and be creative.

If this still confuses you in any way, make sure you ask a question in the comments section down below. Don’t be shy!

If you are learning, asking questions is fundamental to the learning process. If in doubt, ask a question!

An example of a forest in winter, another example of having a 'moment of inspiration', which is critical for good photographic composition
 Epping Forest, Essex, England, UK.  This photograph only worked in the snow, and I happened to be walking past and spotted it.   In the summer there was no moment of inspiration at all, and it is amazing how nice this snowy version is to the summer version!

Let’s recap. The ‘moment of inspiration’ is your gut instinct, or your intuition, call it what you will. It is a natural response that is buried deep inside the cells of your brain, and no one really understands it.

But it is there, and it is always correct.

If you ignore that feeling, then you are missing out on the opportunity to create a compelling, visually aesthetic photograph.

You have to stop. You have to compose your shot.

But don’t worry too much if you don’t, because there will be other opportunities, just relax and engage in the landscape and those ‘moments of inspiration’ will keep popping up. Trust me, they will.

2. Identify the subject

You’ve had that moment of inspiration, you’ve followed your instinct and you have stopped.

Well done! That is the first step to good photographic composition.

You now have to look out in front of you at the scene that gave you that ‘moment of inspiration’ feeling.

The subject is the object that your eye is naturally drawn too. Don’t deviate from that

Example of good composition.  Identifying the subject of a photograph is critically important.
Devon countryside UK.  What is the subject in this image?  This image is competent in terms of composition, and my ‘moment of inspiration’ was that ‘tunnel’ effect as your eye is led down the country lane.  From that point the eye can wander around the rest of the image. 

That thing or object that your eye is drawn to might not be a conventional thing or object. It might be an area of dispersed sunlight at the end of a road.

The fact that you may not consider it ‘conventional’, ie a tree or a horse or a mountain, doesn’t matter.

Just concentrate on the ‘object’ that your eye was naturally drawn to when you had that initial moment of inspiration. That is your subject.

Okay, now I have my subject, what next?

Everything else in the frame are objects.

Let’s be clear, in my interpretation of composition, the sky is an object, the horizon is an object. Everything becomes an object.

The subject is the most important object.

Those objects, including the subject, require conventional compositional technique to place them in your frame.

And conventional compositional techniques are those pesky rules of composition again, which we’ll talk about next…

An example of good composition.  In this example I have identified the subject of the photograph.
Shumen, Romania.  Where is the subject here?  The photo is of a giant sculpture, but for the purposes of composing the image, the subject is the area that inspired me after viewing and walking around the structure.  So my ‘moment of inspiration’ happened when I viewed the far edge of the sculpture, where it meets the floor.  

3 All objects must be instantly recognisable to the viewer.

Conventional compositional techniques include making sure that the objects in your photograph are instantly recognisable. That means instantly recognisable by the viewer when viewing the image for the first time.

A tree must look like a tree, a horse must look like a horse.

If you don’t concentrate on this aspect of your compositions, then you risk ending up with objects that look like unrecognisable blobs.

All objects must look obviously like the objects that they are…if you see what I mean.

Another example of good composition, this time making sure the viewer can see the crisp outline of the subjects, which helps tell the story of the image.
Dunkirke, France.  This woman was walking her dog, and they were playing games together. I took many images of these two playing on the beach.  I chose this composition because the woman and dog are very clearly outlined against the background, and the viewer can see exactly what is going on.

If you have a person walking in the photograph, then that person will have the best visual effect on the viewer if that person looks like they are walking.

Photographing them mid stride will visually depict movement and walking, whereas if the legs are passing each other when you press the shutter, the person will look like they just have one leg, and that could really jar with the viewer.

I hope you can see how important these rules of composition are.

Rather than just regurgitate the rule of thirds, or the golden ratio, or dynamic symmetry, my list here really will improve the photography of a beginner photographer.

4 leave space around objects

Now your objects are recognisable, they also need space around them.

If they don’t have space around them then they may disappear into a background and lose visibility, or an object in the frame may ‘merge’ into another object, creating visual confusion for the viewer.

Creating space around every object (if it’s physically possible)helps tell the viewer what’s going on in the image and makes an image more comfortable to look at.

After identifying the subject, it must have space around it to make it comfortably visible.  This is simple composition.
Dresden, Germany.  I have placed the subject of the composition (the two people) against the bright backdrop of the outside courtyard. There is a comfortable amount of space around the subject so that we feel comfortable looking at it. 

In composition, the edge of the frame becomes an object too. That means that all objects that are wholly inside the frame also need space between the edge of the object and the edge of the photograph.

What about the more conventional rules of composition? Aren’t you going to talk about those?  I take it you have heard of the rule of thirds?

Yes, I have heard of the rule of thirds!

The rule of thirds is the beginners version of leaving space around objects and making objects recognisable to a first time viewer.

The rule of thirds is the first rung of the compositional ladder. It’s a rule that you should leave behind when you take that second step on the ladder.

Think of my rules of composition in this article as the second and third rung of the ladder.


Check out this post –   The truth about the rule of thirds


Anyway, of all of my rules of composition in this article, this one is most closely aligned to the rule of thirds.

The Rule of Thirds attempts to ensure that you place the subject of the photograph onto one of the four intersections on the rule of thirds grid.

What that is trying to do is to make sure that you isolate your subject and create a pleasing amount of space around the subject.

The theory is that the eye will more easily find its way to the subject and the subject will be instantly identifiable.

Sometimes the rule of thirds works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The problem with the rule of thirds is that it’s arbitrary. Using more creative techniques that plug in to your natural instincts will reap better rewards in the long term.

Rarely is the rule of thirds perfect in any one photograph, and more creativity and flexibility is required from the photographer in order to create a visually appealing image.

Again, my rules of composition have been carefully chosen to help you to be more creative. Only then will you start to create drop dead gorgeous compositions.

An example of good composition that appears to use the rule of thirds.  I didn't use the rule of thirds!
Prague subway.  It is a lazy teacher who say’s this photograph uses the rule of thirds. I actually used purely creative techniques to position the objects in the frame.  If you want further explanation on this, then ask in the comments section below.

Hang on, hang on….Everyone knows that the rule of thirds works. Every. Single. Time. Everyone knows that the greats of photography exclusively use this rule!

Fair enough! I would have to disagree with that statement, however I know that people can become emotionally wedded to these mechanisms, and if that floats your boat, then go for it. 

I would agree that the rule of thirds is okay for beginners, because at least it gives a beginner photographer a starting point for photographic composition. 

However, It is arbitrary, and hopefully a beginner photographer will eventually move onto more creative compositional techniques.

Again, try to be open minded to new ideas.

5 balance your images.

Balance is simple to explain, but a bit more difficult to achieve.

Balance is really simple, it means that when a viewer views a photograph for the first time, the eye is led comfortably to the subject of the photograph, without any distractions or jarring in any way.

Once the eye is on the subject, the viewer can then drift around the image and appreciate it to its full extent.

Balance can be achieved many ways.

  • Positioning all the objects ‘correctly’ in the photograph when you physically take the image. Make sure that you leave objects outside of the photograph if they are not required as they may jar or interfere with the overall composition.
Photographic balance is very important for an image. This is an example of good balance in a photograph.
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.  This car is the subject set against the houses.  It is important to make sure that there is nothing to ‘interrupt’ the eye on its way to the subject.  Objects that you leave outside the frame are very important.  What do you think?  Use the comments section to agree or disagree.
  • Some objects are very dark in a photograph, and it’s impossible to correct that just by composition alone. If the object is too important to leave outside of the frame, then you can use post p