Principles of composition


Composition is the way elements of a photo are placed in the frame. Painters have been thinking about this aspect of art for many hundreds of years, but the key difference between painting and photography is that while painters create art on a blank canvas, photographers start with a full canvas, from which they selectively choose elements to create their final vision of a scene.

Rule of thirds

The next time you go to a museum, or to an art gallery, pay special attention to the placement of elements on the canvas. You’ll realize that most, if not all, paintings revolve around what’s called the rule or thirds, which divides the frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. A more rigorous form of this division is based on what’s called the golden mean, or golden ratio.

Rule of thirds

Golden ratio

Rule of thirds

Golden ratio

Many people take pictures where the subject is smack in the middle of the frame, resulting in pretty bland photos. More dynamic photos are created when subjects are off-center, as close to the intersection of the lines as possible.

Rule of thirds

Golden ratio

In landscape photography, the rule of thirds will often require you to allocate 1/3 of the frame to the sky, or 2/3 of the frame to the sky, depending on whether the sky is more interesting than the foreground. In other cases, you’ll have to break the rule of thirds; reflection-in-water shots are a classic example, where the horizon is put in the middle of the frame so that the top half of the photo is mirrored in the bottom half. Another example of breaking this rule is with perfectly symmetrical photos.


Unlike painters, photographers are given a full canvas by nature, so we need to reduce the number of elements in the frame to make the photo work. There’s often a temptation to include everything that you eyes see, but the more you practice, the more you’ll realize that your most successful shots are the ones that’re the simplest.

Scan the entire frame

When looking at a photo, the viewer’s eyes will look at bright areas before dark ones, and sharp areas before blurred ones. However, you also tend to concentrate on the center of the frame when you’re taking a photo; it takes a lot of practice to consciously scan the entire frame for distractions. The photo below is a perfect example of what can go wrong when you’re only paying attention to your subject: the bright area in the lower-left area has completely ruined an otherwise good photo.

Fill the frame

Regardless of the subject, you must ensure that it’s the dominant element in the frame. In the photo on the right, your eyes roam around the frame, but there’re too many elements in it, causing you to lose interest.

Good photo

Bad photo

Focus on the eye

If you’re taking a photo of a human, an animal, a bird, or an insect, it’s an absolute necessity to have the eyes in sharp focus. I’m not sure what the psychology is here, but you’ll notice this yourself when you’re looking at photos: you will first look at the subject’s eyes, and if they’re not in focus, the rest of the photo doesn’t matter: you’ll have lost interest already.

Notice that the fur below the wolf’s head is a bit blurred due to a shallow depth of field, but since the eyes are tack sharp, the photo keeps your interest.

Change the viewpoint

When taking photos of children, pets, or flowers, people are often tempted to release the shutter while standing, resulting in run-of-the-mill shots where they’re towering over the subject. Instead, get down on your knees, or lie flat on your tummy when taking photos; you’ll be amazed at the results!

Lead the eye

The photo below is from a local dry cleaner’s shop; chances are that you’ll first look at the subject’s eyes, then follow her gaze to the iron before finally noticing other elements in the frame.

This principle can be used to guide the viewer’s eyes in all your photos by using invisible lines, curves, and groups of elements, as in the following photo. If you’re interested in more details on this topic, use your favorite search engine to read up on gestalt principles.

ID: composition