Rules of Composition

Arising from the 4th Module of our course, I am taking the easy way out this time. Not from laziness, you understand (ahem), but because I found what I consider to be a better explanation that I could write already on the web.

Before going there, let me repeat what I said in an earlier tutorial – I hate rules that begin with “Always……”. Especially when we talk about aesthetic aspects of photography, such as composition, there are times when we are considering subjects where personal opinion and taste is just as valid as the diktat of some (probably self-appointed) pundit.

Rules are best regarded as statements of guidance rather than absolute constraints. All I would say is that it is usually wise to pay attention to rules. Clichés such as “Rules are there to be broken” are just that – clichés. And clichés like that are probably even worse than the rules themselves. In photographic composition there may be times when you want to break a rule – what is important is that you know why the rule exists in the first place and, equally, why you want to break it.

Take the well known “Rule of Thirds” as an example. In many cases, placing the main subject of a photograph on the intersection of a horizontal third and a vertical third will produce a very pleasing result. But if you have a positive reason for wanting to stick the subject bang in the centre of the frame – perhaps because of the surrounding symmetry – then feel free to try it and see how it looks.

Anyway, have a look at the following web page. In my view it gives an excellent explanation of ten of the main rules of composition, together with tips for achieving great composition in your own photographs:

The 10 rules of photo composition (and why they work)


Let me just add two practical tips of my own:

1. Modern camera sensors have sufficient resolution to allow fairly substantial cropping while still leaving enough data for producing a good-sized print or an image for projection. So, once you have framed your shot in the camera viewfinder, think about going just a wee bit wider (zoom out a little if you are using a zoom lens) and including a little margin around all four edges of the shot. That way you will have greater options for re-composing the shot to achieve good composition in your editing software. You can still “fill the frame” with your subject in the final crop if that is the effect you are seeking.

2. Remember the technique demonstrated by Bill in the photo-processing section of Module 4 – using the “content aware fill” feature of Photoshop to add space at one of the sides of your image. Sometimes you might have left too little sky above the main subject or placed the main subject too close to a side edge of the frame. All is not lost. Bill’s tip may sometimes help to to rescue a photograph that was poorly composed at the time of taking it.

Eric Begbie
13 February 2015