Photography Basics: Composition

Photography Basics: Composition

Among the many aspects of photography, one of the most basic and important is composition. Composition consists of a subject(s) positioning within a frame. Also, how those positions translate from the reality of 3D into the photography realm of 2D. The rules of composition are, like any art, more of guidelines. They serve to help, not to rule, the artist in his creation.

The Rule of Thirds and Golden Ratio

The most common among these is the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds states that that a photograph can be broken into nine parts-in thirds horizontally and vertically. Here’s an example(link). The dividing lines give the photograph four intersections. Placing a subject at one of these intersections give it emphasis. Note that the subject does not have to be exactly on the intersection for this rule to work-it can be slightly off so long as it’s close. The idea to take away from this rule is that typically you weaken a photo by placing the subject dead center.

The rule of thirds is a simplified version of the “Golden Ratio.” An example is here. (link) The golden ratio also divides the photograph into nine sections, however the center horizontal sections are smaller in comparison to the top and bottom thirds. Just like the rule of thirds, placing a subject at a point where these lines intersect gives the subject emphasis to the human eye. Also, this works well in landscapes when determining how much of land or sky to show. Either should take up about two thirds of the picture rather than half and half. Likewise, if showing an object in motion, leaving one third of the picture empty in the direction the subject is going or coming from is ideal.

There are two other concepts related to the “Golden Ratio”: Golden Triangles (link) and Golden Spirals (link) . With Triangles you’ll see that the picture is divided into three triangles. There are two ideas here. One is to have three subjects that are equal weights (size or importance) in each of the three triangles. The second, like the picture in the link above, is to place the subject where the triangles intersect together. This is called the cradle.

The Golden Spiral should lead the eye to the focal point of the photograph located at the spiral’s tightest point. The spiral can be figurative in the sense that several objects might lead the eye in a spiral motion or this can be an actual line itself. An example of this is the spiral pattern on a shell or flower.


Another useful guideline in composing a photograph is lines. Use the lines, sometimes created by the subject matter itself, to draw the viewer’s eyes around the photograph. One of the most dynamic type of lines to have are diagonals. Lines can be created by pathways, fences, trees, etc., or they can be created by a number of subjects. The eye can often follow from one subject to the next: hence the lines may be inferred rather than actually present. They can be straight or curved, bringing the eye in a circle or triangle. The main purpose is to take the eye throughout the important parts of the image. Be wary not to lead the viewer’s focus outside of the image, unless that is your purpose.


The idea behind simplicity is to make sure your subject is focused upon. For example if you photograph a person in their kitchen with pans cluttered everywhere and a person wandering through the doorway and a cat on top of the fridge in the background-where exactly does the viewer focus? If you wanted it on the person’s living quarters, then all is well. If you wanted focus on the person, then you’ve deviated from your intent. The easiest example of simplicity are micro shots. These types of pictures focus very tightly on a small subject matter and blur out the background. Another way to utilize this, is for the background of your subject to be very simple (either black or something non obtrusive).


Since the real world is 3D and photography 2D you have to create an illusion of depth. This holds true for any visual medium-painting, movies, etc. An easy way to do this is to have a subject in both foreground and background. Several subjects on different planes help to create the illusion of the distance that existed on location. Another way to convey depth is to place one subject slightly in front of another so that the viewer will see the difference in the subject’s positions and imagine the distance between them.

The Viewer

The main idea behind all “rules” of composition is to make the viewer look at what you intend them to. It’s a relationship between photographer and viewer, like a writer to his readers. Think about what you put and exclude from view. Make sure to pay attention to everything that’s going on, background and foreground. There is a time to break every rule mentioned here, and every rule mentioned anywhere else you can read. The most important component of any art is the communication between artist and audience.

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