5 compositional rules that will transform your photography.

Words/Photographs: Tony Eveling

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

I’ve distilled my compositional techniques down to these big five techniques (or rules, it’s up to you what terminology you use) that will massively help you with your photography.

  • Moment of Inspiration
  • Identify the subject
  • All objects must be instantly recognisable to the viewer.
  • Leave space around objects
  • Your image must be balanced.
  • Conclusion

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’.

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 my vital signs go instantly back to normal!

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

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.

It 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 have this feeling too.

If you don’t have this feeling, then 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.

For example, stressing out over trying to get a killer image will mask out the feeling, so you really need to relax when you are out taking photographs, even if you do want to take that killer image.

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

I absolutely guarantee that you will get that feeling, and when you tune into your own gut instincts and intuition, you will start to take better photographs. It takes practice though, so stick at it.

When I have that ‘moment’, it’s good photographic discipline to stop, and then work out what it is that made me have that ‘moment’.

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

You do need to be open minded, and getting hung up on the rule of thirds, or dynamic symmetry because you think it’s a formula for guaranteed good photography….well, if that is the route you choose to take, then you will take a lot longer 

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

If this still confuses you, then make sure you ask a question in the comments section down below.

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!

Don’t forget…

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.

If you have that ‘moment’ and then carry on walking, maybe a hundred meters or so, and then you decide to go back and take a second look, you might not be able to find that precise spot.

You have to take action when you have that moment. 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.

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 thing or object that your eye is naturally drawn to – that is the subject. 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 thing that your eye is naturally drawn to. That is your subject.

Okay, now I have my subject, what next?

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

And conventional compositional techniques are what we are going to 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 by the viewer when viweing th eimage 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 too much like unrecognisable blobs, or don’t 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.

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.

Pro Tip….The rule of thirds is the beginners version of this thing about making space around objects.


Check out this post –   The truth about 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 rule of thirds is arbitrary and using more creative techniques that plugin to your natural instincts will reap better rewards in the long term.

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 wedded to these mechanisms, and if that floats your boat, then go for it.  I would agree that the rule of thirds is great for beginners, because it at least gives a beginner photographer a starting point for photographic composition. 

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

Again, try to be open minded to new ideas.

5 your image must be balanced.

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

Balance is really simple, it just 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 processing techniques to re-balance those objects so that they don’t drag the eye away from the subject of the photograph.
an examplw of a good photo compositionally, but yet to be post processed
Unprocessed photograph. Sometimes you see a composition in your head….
…but to get that balance just right, you need to post process it the right way.

Yes, that means learning post processing software and techniques, but you should be doing that anyway.

Post processing is an essential part of the picture making process, and even if you just want the most naturalistic landscape photographs possible, that will require a level of post processing in order to achieve that.

If you want to have a look at how I post process my images, take a look at my before and after page.

Conclusion

The title of this post ends with: ‘And they are not what you think they are‘. Now you have read the post (don’t forget to share!), you may be thinking that those 5 points were not so mysterious or mind blowing.

However, composition in photography is a creative thing, and one of the points that I missed out was the rule of thirds, or the Golden Ratio or dynamic symmetry and so on.  

But the rule of thirds is a non creative way to place objects in an image.  what I wanted to point you towards, is a more creative, more natural and organic way of composing photographs.  These 5 points will be really useful if you practice them. 

Also, you know the rule of thirds.  You don’t need me to teach you something that you read about in every magazine and every website.

If you want to read further about how I compose my images check out these posts:

3 compositional rules to make you a better photographer

Methods of Visualization in photography

If there is anything that you are still confused about or want to know, or if you want to disagree with what I have written, then please feel free to express your view in the comments, and I’ll reply to every sensible comment!

Ask away!

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