5 most common composition rules

Hello there newbie photographer and welcome to yet another post of Photography 101, where I shine more light on what seems to be a simple world of picture taking (how hard can it be, everyone’s got one in their pocket), but not so simple when you start comparing your creation to that of more matured camera user (he/she must have an expensive camera and spends hours in post-processing).


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First of all, don’t worry about those pesky thoughts, we’ve all got them or had them. I too was born without the ability to photographically “SEE” and didn’t know the difference between Shutter Speed or Bokeh. Luckily, we’ve all got the Internet to teach us, now all we have to do is stop getting distracted, focus, and learn!

First of all, let’s take a look at the following photographs. Can you spot any similarities?

The images that you see above, all follow THE LEADING LINES rule, which helps to visually move the viewer’s eye through the photo or to your subject, making the image more 3D. LEADING LINES are normally photographed as lines of the road, train tracks, trees, or anything else that helps to draw the viewer off their chair and into your photograph.

The green railing lines help to draw attention towards the mama and baby monkey, which are the obvious subject of that image.

While there are two subjects in the middle image (the two boats), the lines of the bluish floating dock help to draw the eye from the front towards the back of the image.

The last image (also from Malaysia) is of the steepest cable car ride in Asia on the island of Langkawi. The cable is the leading line that extends so far into the photograph, that it gives you a sense of how long that distance is.

Let’s take a look at the next set, what is similar?

While a lot of the composition articles will talk about THE RULE OF THIRDS, I’d like to think that CENTERED composition is more common and has a lot of usefulness.

With the example of the bird’s photograph, our subject is clearly defined here – it is an attractive species, but we also get to see its surrounding atmosphere.

The photo of hubby and me at the top of Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak is a typical couple’s selfie that you’d see with the view in the background. That’s right, the image is about us, being in HK, so it only makes logical sense to place us in the CENTER.

The final image, also from our adventures in Hong Kong, is of their yummy dishes which come in very attractive serving bowls, which are stacked on top of each other at first. As the waiter fills your table with yummy goodness, I couldn’t help but photograph it. CENTERING and overexposing (brightening) the CENTER dumplings, help the viewer understand that the table was full of food.

Let’s take a look at the next set, what is similar here?

The photographs above kind of share two compositional rules — THE RULE OF THIRDS and DIRECTION.

THE RULE OF THIRDS states that your subject should be placed off-center.

DIRECTION dictates that by having your subject not face the camera, you’re giving it a direction to look into, which in turn, will be followed by the viewer of the aforementioned image.

(Isn’t it cool that as a photographer, you can subliminally encourage your viewer to move their eyes in a certain direction across your image?!)

Observing the first image in the group, we can notice a very brightly dressed boy who is looking after his livestock. He is connected to them with his gaze, which makes us not only look in that direction but also feel like he really cares for them.

In the second image of my time in Laos, I noticed a cool set of doors and windows, which were surrounded by an interesting collection of pots and plants. Looking at them myself, helps the viewer to notice them too.

The final image is of a Laotian temple, where people were paying their respects on Sunday afternoon. By placing the people towards the bottom corner of the image, we can observe the imagery that surrounds them, noting that there are exactly 3 different paintings of Buddha. The direction of their bodies also helps us to guide our eyes towards the monk, seated in the very center.

Let’s take a look at the next set of compositionally similar images.

FRAMING is commonly used by photographers and artists alike in order to, again, draw our eye towards the subject and to create depth.

FRAMES can be structural, like the first image featured, where the walls of this Suwon fortress encompass the subject on all but one side.

FRAMES can also be cutouts or openings in objects, such as this firearm or observational opening on the same fortress.

Finally, I wanted to show the depth of this intricately painted section of the fortress by standing inside one of its FRAMES and I just happen to match the pillar with my sweater 😛

Let’s check out the 5th and final compositional rule.

PERSPECTIVE compositional rule can be explained from different angles.

It’s a way to show the relative size of your subject. You do that by placing something widely known next to it – such as the example with the hand holding a miniature version of the Asahi beer.

Another way that perspective matters in photography is that you may not even notice it. Photographers are obsessed with standing out from the crowd with their images and one of many ways we can do that is by using a new or unused angle.

While visiting Taipei 101 in Taiwan, we encountered less than ideal weather, but still, I found an angle to showcase how far into the sky this building extends, leaving the city in the distance. Nope, I didn’t have to stand outside for this, just a walk around the visitor area helped me find an angle where I could shoot through another window.

Finally, an image of hubby and I present a unique PERSPECTIVE we don’t normally see of ourselves – from the ground up. A mirrored floor helped us to accomplish just that.


So next time you take or observe a picture, try to recall one of these compositional rules. Whether it’s LEADING LINES, CENTERED COMPOSITION, THE RULE OF THRIDS, DIRECTION, FRAMING OR PERSPECTIVE, pick one and only photograph with that rule for the whole day/hour/photo outing. Teaching your eye to observe in a specific way will be hugely beneficial in the long term.

Don’t forget, photography, like any skill, is all about practice and repeat!

Here’s another useful resource to read for tips and techniques on photography composition

If you know someone who is into photography, why don’t you pass this on and share it!

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