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Simplifying Composition By Learning The Rules

title_250pxlsI've had some interesting emails from Nugroho discussing composition. Nugroho (also known as Shade) is an event photographer where he works, but was having trouble coming up with other types of photographs.

Rather than simply run through and talk about the usual Rule of Thirds / Leading Lines type stuff, I thought I'd illustrate my ideas with some really simple diagrams.

Remember, I'm no expert, but if you're having a little trouble nailing down your compositions, take a look and it may help.


Simple Landscape Following Basic Composition Rules

As an introduction, take a look at the above diagram. It's a representation of a simple landscape, using some of the basic, foundation rules and guidelines we can use to make our photographs more interesting.

The red grid superimposed on the image is a basic rule-of-thirds grid. The idea is that you line up your horizon on the upper or lower horizontal line, then place your subject(s) on the intersections of the lines.

The road is an example of a leading line. This means that if we use some sort of line, be it curved or straight, it will draw the viewers eyes across the photograph. It could be a road, river, path, fence, shadow, anything that you can use in the scene.

The final part of this landscape is the foreground and background interest, the tree and the mountain / clouds. This helps to give our photograph depth and scale. You could argue that the tree is the foreground, the mountain the middle and the clouds the background. All you have to remember is that to make your landscape photographs more interesting have some strong foreground interest.

Unfortunately we can't photograph beautiful landscapes everyday, but we can take those rules to other photographs, adding "fill the frame" to make sure our subject is dominant (and big) enough.

Rules, Not Guidelines

Wait a minute, surely I've got that the wrong way round? How can I say that there are any hard and fast rules to photography? Well, I believe that as you're learning, and developing your compositional skills, sticking to the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines (where possible) and Foreground / Background Interest (where possible), and Fill The Frame, your photography will improve.

It's a bit like trying to do a wheelie before you've learned how to ride a bike, or how to bake a cake before you can boil an egg. Learn the Rules, use them, then when they're second nature and you don't have to think about them, then bend or brake them, but not before.

Why Do The Rules Work?

Great question. Who decided on these rules and why should we follow them? A grid across a scene doesn't seem very natural at first thought.

It may be easier to think of these rules in reverse, especially the Rule of Thirds. If instead of placing our horizon on the higher or lower line, or place our subject(s) on the intersections, we probably just put our horizons and subjects in the middle. Most "snapshots" look like this. By having all the interest in the middle of the photograph, we're ignoring the rest of the scene, or at least our viewers will, because their eyes will only be drawn to the centre.

The other problem with centre-weighted photographs is symmetry and balance - if a scene looks like it should be symmetrical, it must be, or the viewer could find the image unbalanced. Having our subjects in the centre of the photograph can work extremely well - but it really depends on the context, and is often the exception to the rule.

By putting the parts of our Photograph away from the centre, we are creating a more natural composition. The viewers eyes will explore the scene, following lines, brightness and colours. The final point is that the Rule of Thirds has been used by painters for hundreds of years, it works, and the next time you're looking at any sort of image, be it painting or photograph, imagine the rule of thirds rid across it and decide if the artist followed the rule.

A Mantra To Learn: "Subject, Composition And Light"

Every photograph should have a subject, so before you even put the camera to your eye, look at the scene at ask yourself what your subject is. It could be a scene, object(s), people, something abstract or really anything that catches your eye.

Once you've seen something you want to photograph, you need to decide on your composition, or where you're going to place your subject in the frame or overall scene. Apply the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines if there's any available, Foreground Interest where applicable and Fill The Frame.

The final part of the mantra is the most important. Light. Great light is important for good photographs, to give your subjects depth, texture, tone, colour and feeling. The best light is often early morning, late evening, but we can't always shoot as those times. What you need to do is really look at how the light is falling across your subject and explore the possibilities around that - maybe come back at a different time, try a different angle, use flash or artificial lights, or even reflectors or diffusers. Once you start to understand light, you'll get excited when you look out of your window in the morning and think "I know I can get some great photographs with the light today".

So learn this mantra and apply it all the time: "Subject, Composition and Light!"

Subject - "Fill The Frame"

Lets look at why you should have a strong subject to your photographs, and why you should make it dominant.

Busy Scene - What's The Subject?

So, we're wandering around, looking for a decent scene to Photograph, and we take the above shot. Few! There's a lot going on there, maybe we should choose one subject and fill the frame with it. How about those plants to the left of the road?

Simplifying The Photo

So, we've decided on our subject, the plant, got closer, made our subject a lot larger in the frame and now it's pretty obvious what the subject is.

We've also dropped down on one knee to take the shot so we're not looking down on the plant, and we should turn our camera on its side and take portrait orientated shot.

Remember that in order to "Fill The Frame" we don't have to get right on top of our subject. If you do, you could find it becomes distorted due to shooting at the wide angle of your lens. If possible, keep a little distance and zoom in. This is especially important with man-made objects that should have straight lines, such as buildings, cars, etc.

Making our subject dominant is really important when it comes to people. We've all seen the usual people shots:

Five's A Crowd

In order to convey emotion and feeling, it's important to "Fill The Frame" with our subject, the person. Again, don't shoot wide angle and get right in their face, it'll cause optical distortions, rather hang back a bit and use some zoom. Focus on the eyes and try and avoid background distractions.

Simple portrait.

Obviously these are very simple examples, the idea is just to fill the frame with your subject. One technique to use is to start off with a shot you think is OK, then force yourself to move closer or zoom in. Then keep going, getting closer and closer, flipping between portrait and landscape orientation. You might find that when you get home and review your photographs, it's the closer ones you'll prefer.

In the above examples I've picked solid objects as a subject - a plant and a person. You may find success trying to find shapes, colours, shadows, textures, etc - just keep your eyes (and your mind) open.


So, we've got our subject and we want to start thinking about composition.

The Rule of Thirds is a great foundation to follow. Place your subject on the intersection of the lines, sometimes referred to as "power-points". If its a person or animal, put their eyes on the intersection, usually one of the top two, with any space in the direction that your subject is facing.

Portrait With Eyes Near The Top Right Intersection

Follow the rule of placing your horizon along one of the horizontal grid-lines, and this will encourage you to get your horizons straight too.

Another Basic Rule Of Thirds Composition

If you have another look at the landscape at the top of the article, you'll see the use of Leading Lines and Foreground / Middle / Background Interest. If you can get some lines in, do it. If Foreground Interest could give your shot depth, do it.

To really understand composition and the Rules, you've got to go out and practice. Keep an eye on your horizons. Line up your subjects on the intersections. Fill The Frame. Always be on the look out for foreground interest. Pretty soon you'll be seeing great compositions everywhere, and you'll be moving around to make great compositions.


My best advice for you to discover the different types of light is to go out and shoot at different times of the day. Early or late are best, where soft, low, Sunlight will create lovely colours, shadows and textures.

If you're working inside, shoot next to windows, or set up lights to the sides of your subjects, and study how the light washes over things. Again, practice all the time.

Technical Considerations

While you're trying to improve your photographs through composition, you don't want to be distracted by technical stuff. Shoot in Auto mode and let the camera worry about exposure.

The only technical skill you have to know straight away is how to "Focus and Recompose". This is because your camera will try and focus on what is in the middle of your frame, not something off to one side on a Rule of Thirds Intersection.

To get around this, aim your camera at your subject, then press then shutter button half way down. This will lock the Auto-Focus. Now recompose the shot to your preferred composition and take the shot. Easy!

What's Next?

There's a lot more words in this post than I really wanted to include, as photographs are purely visual, so this is what I want you to do:

Two things. Take loads of photographs. Look at loads of photographs.

So grab your camera and take every opportunity to take as many photographs as you can, following the rules of composition and thinking about "Subject, Composition and Light".

When you're watching a Film or TV, or reading a magazine or book, look at the images in front of you. What composition has the Cinematographer used and why? Why is that advert in the paper shot that way, and what rules has the Photographer followed?

It's all up to you now, and I'll finish this article off with some of my images that I think have strong composition. Take a look and ask what rules have I followed, and how you can do the same.

Ship Graveyard

Look Out Fareham!

My Patch

Good Luck, and I'll see you on Flickr!

Cheers, Rob.

Reader Comments (4)

waw, good material to learn mr Rob, thanks.

January 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commentershade

Hi Shade,

Hope it helps, remember to share your work in the Flickr forum,

Cheers, Rob.

January 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRob_Nunn

Hi Rob,

Have you been staring at that grid on the fuji's LCD or some rather in depth reading?
Only joking, looks like you've put some valid work across here that's often helped many a photographer who is struggling with the dynamics of the frame. It can actively increase the dynamism of what could otherwise be a mundane image. Beginners often get stuck into the 'bulls-eye' rut of photography and place everything they photograph literally smack bang in the middle for everything they capture. The same was true for amateur painters and hence why the rule was so often conveyed and why it's stuck even now.

The history of the 'rule-of-thirds' goes back to the 'golden section' or 'about a third across' so often used by the Egyptians and Ancient Greeks. Leonardo D'Vinci, Michelangelo, Turner, Rembrandt among others were fascinated by it. The mathematician Fibonacci was obsessed with how these mathematical sequences could be conveyed in just about everything that occurs naturally.

We've previously spoken about 'saccadic' actions or scanning of the eye, pattern recognition and processing by the human brain, all of these quite conforming to the golden section.

However, if you ever get the chance to read a book on dynamics of the frame, may I suggest "The Collins Photography Workshop - The Image" by Micheal Freeman. (He also did another in the series, "Light", which is worth a good read too.) It was printed in the late 80's, but you may be able to find a copy within the library, or inter-library loans. It wouldn't be something I'd recommend for complete beginners, but is a fascinating insight if you've already grasped the concepts of the rule of thirds.

It goes into a lot more about other concepts - diagonal tension, low placement, balance, bilateral symmetry, integrated divisions, frames within frames and so on. All valid and worthy points to frame composition and actively utilised.

So again fantastic work Rob, but without the usual heated debate that can occur with 'rules' all I can say is......"take the damn shot".

So often we can miss the shot by trying to 'remember' everything we read or heard about exposure, frame composition amongst a plethora of 'rules', that we sometimes simply 'miss out'.

All the Best,


January 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVictor

Hi Victor,

Fantastic post, I'll look for those books in the libraries database.

Thanks for the compliments, these articles help to crystalise in my mind some of the concepts I've been trying to learn, as well as hopefully giving others ideas too.

Cheers, Rob.

January 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRob_Nunn

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