In photography, as in any other artistic and creative endeavor, there are no set rules or regulations. Ultimately, what you create depends on your creative eye and your aesthetic sensibilities. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain tricks or rules of thumb that you can use to enhance the quality of your image, and therefore make it more pleasing to view.
In this comprehensive guide, we explore eight essential compositional rules of thumb that will help you take your photos to the next level. Some of these tips and tricks, like the rule of thirds, are quite well-known and implemented often. Others are more specialized to certain types of photography, but are valuable tools to have nonetheless.
The Rule of Thirds
Let’s start with the most well-known rule in photography, the rule of thirds. Put simply, the rule of thirds suggests that you divide the image you wish to take into nine equal quadrants using two vertical and two horizontal lines, equidistant apart. By placing important elements of the scene either along one of the four lines, or, even better, at one of the four intersection points of the grid, you’re able to create a more balanced image that holds the viewer’s attention.
Note how the rule of thirds helps the image above feel more balanced. Even though the dog is off-center, the image feels nicely balanced because the dogs face, snout, and tongue roughly align with the rule of thirds grid. What’s more, it’s a better composition - by shifting the dog to the left, the image is more interesting for the viewer than if the dog had been framed smack in the middle of the shot.
Great for: all types of photography
Use Negative Space
An identifying feature of minimalist photography is the use of negative space. Usually, this means that the area around a subject or between multiple subjects has little detail. In the absence of detail in these areas, the importance of the subject is amplified, drawing the viewer’s eye and commanding their attention for a longer period of time.
But this trick isn’t just for one type of minimalist images. Whether you shoot portraits, cityscapes, landscapes, or just about any other subject, you can use the principle of negative space to create a breathtaking image that delights the viewer’s eye. Often, it’s the simplest images that have the most impact, so learning how to edit out unnecessary elements from your images is a handy skill to have.
Note how negative space was used effectively in the image above. The eye is immediately drawn to the life ring, both because it is surrounded by the gray, relatively detail-free concrete wall, and, of course, because of its bright orange color. This image is a good example of the rule of thirds as well - with the life ring shifted to the right, the image is more visually interesting. Just imagine this photo had the life ring been positioned in the middle of the shot. It wouldn’t be as effective, would it?
Great for: minimalist photos, landscapes, portraits
Fill the Frame
On the opposite end of the spectrum from using negative space is filling the frame with your subject. Sometimes, in order to appropriately highlight the subject, you need to get close to it. Really close. Doing so is certainly a challenge because composing a close-up is much more difficult than standing back and snapping a photo of the larger scene. And, as you’ve likely encountered in the past, by standing too far from the subject, you run the risk of the subject getting lost in the scene, thereby diminishing its impact.
Instead, try filling the frame with whatever it is you’re photographing. The image above certainly benefits from filling the frame because the intricate details of its leaves are on full display. Not only that, we’re given a close-up view of its beautiful colors and the way in which the colors fade as they get further from the center of the plant. Now imagine if this image had been taken from ten or fifteen feet away - this plant would not have the same visual impact.
Great for: macro photography, portraits, landscapes
Use Color to Your Advantage
Regardless of what you’re photographing, using color in a smart or unusual way can take the image’s composition to another level. Perhaps more than any other visual element, color can add great interest to an image. Of course, given that color is so powerful, it can easily be overdone.
Instead, inspect the colors in the scene to ensure they work well together. This takes some understanding of color theory, like using complementary colors like blue and orange, which contrast nicely with one another. Have a look at the sample image above - notice how it’s a very simple image, with just two colors. However, because blue and orange are complementary, the image is quite visually impactful.
Great for: landscapes, cityscapes, street photography, abstracts
Change the Perspective
When you look at the photos that beginner photographers take, you’ll likely see a number of patterns. Chief among them is that many of the photos use the same perspective - one that is gained by standing straight up and photographing the subject from the eye level of the photographer.
Now, this isn’t bad all the time, but certainly, changing the perspective from which you shoot now and again will help you create images that are more interesting, if not unexpected.
With that in mind, you can improve your composition simply by moving around a little bit. Instead of standing, try kneeling down or even lying down on the ground. Find a high vantage point and take a photo looking down on the subject. Move left or right. Look up. The point is that the more you move around and find ways to give the viewer to see the subject, the more interesting the photo will be.
Great for: portraits, cityscapes, landscapes
Focus on the Details
If you’ve ever gotten married or looked at someone’s wedding album, you know that some of the pictures taken that day are of the small details - the wedding rings, the place settings, and the like. But focusing on the small details isn’t just a trick for wedding photographers. In fact, by focusing on the details, you can create a landscape image, a portrait, a street photo, or even a photo of food that has far more power than an ordinary image.
Look at the image above. In traditional portraits, it’s the individual’s face, and in particular, their eyes, that are the focus of the image. However, in this image, we get to see a different side of the subject, one that, in the case of their hands, shows a lot of detail and character. In fact, you can tell that the people holding hands in this image care deeply for one another - you don’t need to see their faces to understand that. Therein lies the beauty of focusing on small or unusual details in your images - you can tell a powerful story, but do so in an unexpected way.
Great for: macro photography, portraits, landscapes
Use Visual Direction
Visual direction refers to the concept of the impression of movement in an image. For example, in the image above, we understand that the horses are running to the left because of the impression of movement in that direction in the photograph. However, visual direction doesn’t just apply to people, animals, or objects on the move. In a portrait, if the subject is looking to the right, the viewer will feel a sense of movement to the right, even though there is no movement actually occurring.
This trick is advantageous from a compositional standpoint because it can be used to draw attention to the subject, to draw attention to what the subject is looking at or moving towards, and it can help you achieve an image that has greater visual balance as well.
Great for: action photography, portraits
Use Visual Weight
Visual weight is used to describe the power of an object in a photo to draw the attention of the viewer. Obviously, objects that have certain features, like being large in size, being highly colorful, or positioning in the foreground of an image, have more perceived visual weight. But that doesn’t mean that you can only use this trick when one of those situations applies.
For example, in the image above, where does your eye go right off the bat? Likely to the person positioned in the background on the left. Even though the person isn’t physically large, brightly colored, or in the foreground, their form still holds a lot of visual weight. That’s because our eyes are naturally drawn to the human form, even if larger objects or more brightly colored objects are also in our field of view.
Great for: landscapes, street photography, nature & wildlife photography, portraits
Why You Should Break These Rules
Clearly, there are a lot of tips and tricks you can use to compose a better photo. But, as many beginner photographers discover, it’s very easy to get caught up in always adhering to these rules.
The problem with that is that if you blindly apply each and every rule you learn to every shot you take, your photos will all end up looking the same. What’s more, they will likely feel (and look) forced, as though you were trying to shoehorn the subject into some preconceived notion of what the photo “should” look like.
The task, then, is to learn these compositional tricks, and then learn to apply them when necessary while understanding that sometimes, you simply have to break these rules to get the best shot. In the end, being open to breaking all the rules is being open to creativity and creating images that reflect who you are as an artist. So, give these tips and tricks some thought, but let your creativity flow as well!