Guide to Composition in Photography – 20 Tips

There are no unbreakable rules when it comes to how you should compose your photographs After all, who likes rules except for your old school principal or heads of H.R. departments? There are however, several guidelines you can use to help improve the composition of your photos. In this tutorial, I’ve listed 20 of these guidelines along with examples of each. I’ve started with the most basic ones and finished with some of the more advanced composition techniques.

First of all we have to define what is meant by ‘composition’. Composition refers to the way the various elements in a scene are arranged within the frame. As I’ve already mentioned, these are not hard and fast rules but guidelines. That said, many of them have been used in art for thousands of years and they really do help achieve more attractive compositions. I find that I usually have one or more of these guidelines in the back of my mind as I’m setting up a shot.

We’ll start with probably the most well known composition technique: The Rule of Thirds.

1. Rule of Thirds

So I’ve just told you that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to composition and then the first thing I write about is the ‘rule’ of thirds. In my defence, I didn’t come up with the name. The rule of thirds is very simple. You divide the frame into 9 equal rectangles, 3 across and 3 down as illustrated below. Many camera manufacturers have actually included the capability to display this grid in live view mode. Check your camera’s manual to see how to turn on this feature.

The idea is to place the important element(s) of the scene along one or more of the lines or where the lines intersect. We have a natural tendency to want to place the main subject in the middle. Placing it off centre using the rule of thirds will more often than not lead to a more attractive composition.


Rule of Thirds Composition

In this photo, I’ve placed the horizon roughly along the bottom third of the frame and the biggest and closest trees along the line to the right. The photo wouldn’t have the same impact if the larger trees had been placed in the centre of the frame.


Rule of Thirds Cityscape

In this photo of the Old Town Square in Prague, I’ve placed the horizon along the top third of the frame. Most of the buildings sit in the middle third and the square itself occupies the bottom third of the frame. The spires of the church are placed near horizontal line to the right of the frame.

2. Centred Composition and Symmetry

Now that I’ve told you not to place the main subject in the centre of the frame, I’m going to tell you to do the exact opposite! There are times when placing a subject in the centre of the frame works really well. Symmetrical scenes are perfect for a centred composition. They look really well in square frames too.


Symmetry Composition in Photography

This photo of the Ha’penny Bridge in my home city of Dublin was the perfect candidate for a centred composition. Architecture and roads often make great subjects for a centred compositions.


Symmetry Composition in Photography

Scenes containing reflections are also a great opportunity to use symmetry in your composition. In this photo, I’ve actually used a mix of the rule of thirds and symmetry to compose the scene. The tree is positioned off centre to the right of the frame but the perfectly still water of the lake provides the symmetry. You can often combine several composition guidelines in a single photograph.

3. Foreground Interest and Depth

Including some foreground interest in a scene is a great way of adding a sense of depth to the scene. Photographs are 2D by nature. Including foreground interest in the frame is one of a number of techniques to give the scene a more 3D feel.

In this photograph of a waterfall in The Netherlands, the rocks in the river provided a perfect source of foreground interest. Adding foreground interest works particularly well with wide angle lenses.

I took this photograph in the Dublin Docklands. The dock cleats along the quay provided the foreground interest in this shot. I think it adds a real sense of depth to the composition. The dock cleat in this scene was only a few metres in front of me when I took this shot. Including it in the frame portrays a sense of depth in the scene by including an element that I was quite close to as well as the bridge and buildings in the distance and everything in between them.

A friend who was with me that evening tripped over one of the cleats and almost ended up getting a very close up view of the River Liffey. That’s one way of adding depth to the scene I guess.

4. Frame within the Frame

Including a ‘frame withing the frame’ is another effective way of portraying depth in a scene. Look for elements such as windows, arches or overhanging branches to frame the scene with. The ‘frame’ does not necessarily have to surround the entire scene to be effective.

In the photo on the right taken on St Mark’s Square in Venice, I used the archway to frame St Marks Basilica and the Campanile at the far end of the piazza. The use of scenery viewed through arches was a common feature of Renaissance painting as way of portraying depth. As you can see, the square was completely empty when I took the shot. This is one of the benefits of getting up at 5am. Early morning is one of my favourite times to get out and about with the camera.

Frames don’t have to be man made objects such as arches or windows. The photo below was taken in County Kildare in Ireland. This time, I used the tree trunk to the right and the overhanging branch to create a frame around the scene containing the bridge and boat house. Notice that even though the ‘frame’ doesn’t actually surround the whole scene in this case, it still adds a sense of depth.

Using a ‘frame within a frame’ presents a great opportunity to use your surroundings to be creative in your compositions


Framing the scene with trees

5. Leading Lines

Leading lines help lead the viewer through the image and focus attention on important elements. Anything from paths, walls or patterns can be used as leading lines. Take a look at the examples below.


Leading lines in composition

In this photo of the Eiffel Tower, I used the patterns on the paving stones as leading lines. The lines on the ground all lead the viewer to the Eiffel Tower in the distance. You’ll also notice that I used a centred composition for this scene. The symmetry of my surroundings made this type of composition work well.


Leading lines in composition

Leading lines do not necessarily have to be straight as illustrated by the picture above. In fact curved lines can be very attractive compositional features. In this case, the path leads the viewer to the right of the frame before swinging in to the left towards the tree. I also made use of the rule of thirds when composing the shot.

6. Diagonals and Triangles

It is often said that triangles and diagonals add ‘dynamic tension’ to a photo. My mother in law also does an excellent job of adding tension to any scene. What do we mean by ‘dynamic tension’ though? This can be a tricky one to explain and can seem a bit pretentious. Look at it this way, horizontal lines and vertical lines suggest stability. If you see a person standing on a level horizontal surface, he will appear to be pretty stable unless he’s stumbling out of a pub at 2am. Put this man on a sloping surface and he’ll seem less stable. This creates a certain level of tension visually. We are not so used to diagonals in our every day life. They subconsciously suggest instability. Incorporating triangles and diagonals into our photos can help create this sense of ‘dynamic tension’.

Incorporating triangles into a scene is a particularly good effective way of introducing dynamic tension. Triangles can be actual triangle shaped objects or implied triangles. I’ll explain this in more detail in a moment.


Diagonals Photography Composition

This picture of the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin incorporates plenty of triangles and diagonals into the scene. The bridge itself is an actual triangle (It’s actually supposed to represent a Celtic Harp on its side). There are also several ‘implied’ triangles in the scene. Notice how the leading lines on the right of the frame are all diagonal and form triangles that all meet at the same point. These are ‘implied triangles’. Having diagonals going off in different direction adds a lot of ‘dynamic tension’ to the scene. Once again you can see how I have combined two techniques to compose the image: leading lines and diagonals.


Diagonals and Dynamic Tension in Composition

In this photo of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, the implied triangles and diagonals create sense of dynamic tension. We are not used to seeing buildings leaning at such angles in our everyday life. It is slightly jarring to our sense of balance. This is what creates the visual tension. You can also talk about dynamic tension to sound intelligent (or annoyingly pretentious) in front of your friends.

7. Patterns and Textures

Human beings are naturally attracted to patterns. They are visually attractive and suggest harmony. Patterns can be man made like a series of arches or natural like the petals on a flower. Incorporating patterns into your photographs is always a good way to create a pleasing composition. Less regular textures can also be very pleasing on the eye.

The two photos above were both taken in Tunisia. In the one on the left, I’ve used the pattern in the paving stones to lead the eye to the domed building. The building itself incorporates a pattern in the form of a series of arches. The domed roof also compliments the rounded arches below.

In the second photo, I really liked the texture of the stone work on the ground. This is less regular than the pattern in the first photo but the play of light and shadow on the surface is very pleasant. There are also interesting textures to be on the walls and roof of the passage. You may also have noticed that the arch creates a ‘frame within a frame’ around the man and cafe on the other side of the archway.

Barry O Carroll is an urban landscape & travel photographer based in Dublin, Ireland. You can follow him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Article originally published on BOC Photography.