10 Key Rules of Picture Composition

Title Image: 10 Key Rules of Picture Composition

While there aren’t technically any set “rules” when it comes to photography, there are still a number of basic guidelines of which beginners should be aware.

There are a few tried and tested picture composition practices that are standard across the industry, so in your quest to improve your photography skills you should learn these first.

By gaining an appreciation of the 10 picture composition rules below, you will almost certainly see better results in the photographs you take.

Rule 1: The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is something that everyone talks about when it comes to picture composition.

As with all photography “rules”, it is intended as a guideline only and it is broken in intriguing ways all the time.

Having said that, every photographer worth their salt must be very comfortable with the rule of thirds before they start to break it.

What is the rule of thirds?

Imagine your image is split into thirds both vertically and horizontally as in the diagram below.

Important elements within the subject of your composition should be placed along these lines, to create a more interesting and balanced photograph.

Image of a diagram demonstrating the "rule of thirds" in picture composition

For example, beginner photographers are often tempted to centre the subject in the photograph.

A better image is produced, however, by placing the subject on one of the intersections of these lines (the red crosses), as can be seen in the diagram.

In the image below, the photographer has placed the bird off-centre, on one of the intersections of the rule’s grid lines – creating a more dynamic picture.

Notice that the bird’s eye-line also lies along the top horizontal line; this is common practice for the composition of more natural photographs.

Image by Alan Cleaver demonstrating the "rule of thirds" in practice
Image by Alan Cleaver licensed under CC BY – 2.0

The rule of thirds applies to many situations, and you will soon find that following it makes your pictures appear much more professional.

A good way to start is with landscape photographs.

Instead of following the beginner’s tendency to place the horizon in the centre of the composition, place it instead in line with the bottom horizontal, one-third of the way up the image.

Rule 2: Leading Lines

Image demonstrating the use of leading lines in picture composition
Image by Herbalizer licensed under CC BY – 2.0

Picture composition is all about manipulating the audience’s eye to take in the most important elements of your image. Using leading lines is a great way to do this.

In the image above, you will notice that your eye is automatically drawn up and along the train lines to the point on the horizon where they disappear.

The line starts at the bottom of the image and draws your eye, not only up, but into the image – this is what is known as ‘depth’.

This effect is bolstered by the added leading lines of the train carriages on either side.

blog_banners_Photography eBookLeading lines are a fantastic way of giving your composition greater depth and manipulating the viewer to place more focus on certain aspects in the photograph.

Diagonal lines across the frame also give the image a more active feel. The directions of the lines in your image can have a big effect on the result:

  • Horizontal lines tend to calm an image down
  • Vertical lines give a solid, structural, and regimented feel
  • Diagonal lines add a sense of movement

Rule 3: Leave Space For the Subject to Move Into

Image by Pedrik demonstrating how to use space when photographing moving subjects
Image by Pedrik licensed under CC BY – 2.0

When photographing moving images, you should leave them more space in the frame at the front to move into than there is behind.

In the image above, the audience will automatically make the connection between a Formula One car and fast movement and will imagine the car moving into the space in front of it.

If the space is not there, the composition will feel squashed and unnatural.

RULE 4: Give Your Subject Room to Breathe

Image by Tambako demonstrating how to leave "breathing space" when photographing living subjects
Image by Tambako licensed under CC BY – 2.0

Similarly to the moving subject rule above, with living subjects you should leave more room in front of their face to ‘breathe’ into than you leave behind.

If there is a lack of room the picture composition will feel very claustrophobic.

Rule 5: Mind Your Head Space

Image demonstrating the use of head room in photography
Licensed under CC BY – 2.0

When photographing humans and animals, beginner photographers have a tendency to leave far too much head room.

This is a mistake – the general rule is that the gap for head room should not take up much of the frame at all.

If you leave too much room, the subjects head will appear smaller than it is in reality.

Minimising head room also forces the focus towards the emotions displayed on the subjects’ face.

Rule 6: Beware of the Hairline

photography composition example of bad cropping

how to crop at the hairline in photography
Licensed under CC BY – 2.0

If you must crop a face in close up and cannot possibly leave head room, you should not crop in the middle of the forehead.

As in the top image, cropping in the middle of the forehead will make the subject’s forehead appear to go on forever.

You should instead, as in the bottom image, use the subject’s hairline to define the end of the forehead and make the composition more natural.

If you cannot crop at the hairline, use the line of the eyebrows instead, just don’t crop in the middle of the forehead.

Rule 7: Don’t Crop People at the Joints

As well as the forehead, you should never crop your subject at the joints. If you crop a person at their elbow, it will appear as if they have had their forearm amputated.

Instead, crop in the middle of the limb and the viewer will automatically imagine the limb stretching beyond the limits of the frame.

Rule 8: Shoot at Eye Level

Image demonstrating how to set eye level when taking a photograph
Image by John O’Nolan licensed under CC BY – 2.0

By placing the subject’s eyes one third of the way down from the top frame you will create a much more natural composition (see, the rule of thirds is very handy).

The subject will appear on an even level with the viewer and their expression will be much easier to read.

If you shoot from a high angle down on subject’s eye-line, the subject will seem in a vulnerable position; if you shoot from a low angle up at the subject’s eye-line, they will appear as powerful and dominating.

Avoid forcing unwanted meaning into your picture composition by shooting in line with the subject’s eyes.

This is the same rule for all living subjects so you’ll need to get down low if your taking pictures of your children or pets.

Rule 9: Consider the Story of YouR Photograph

wide angle photograph of children playing football
Image by woodleywonderworks licensed under CC BY – 2.0

Every photograph is a work of art and the artistic merits of every photograph are dependent mostly upon the composition.

Look at what you are photographing and decide which elements you want to include or disregard within the frame, in order to tell the story of the scene at its best.

In the photograph above, the photographer could have shot a close up of a couple of the children training and used a quicker shutter speed to capture the scene without blur.

This could have perhaps told a more emotional story by capturing the emotion on the boys’ faces.

Instead, the photographer has set a slower shutter speed to include some blur and a wide angle to take in a large number of the children. The story is now about the intensity of the team’s training session.

This can be a difficult concept to get your head around as a beginner, and you’ll soon find the stories each photographer tell are unique to the way in which they see the world.

Rule 10: Frame Within the Frame

example of framing in a frame photography composition
Image by Dirk Dallas licensed under CC BY – 2.0

A great way to draw attention to a particular element of your image is to frame it within the frame.

Look for ways to frame the subject using your surroundings. For example, the branches of a tree, the ornate archway of a cathedral door, or as in the example seascape above, the gap in a rock structure.

Walk around your subject and try to find different ways of capturing it.

Learn the Rules Before You Break Them

As mentioned above, when it comes to mastering picture composition, you must learn the rules before you start breaking them.

Only with a solid understanding of these basic picture composition rules will you then be able to develop your technique, and establish your own unique style as a photographer.

For a more comprehensive selection of photography tips and practical advice, you can download our free eBook, How to Take Better Pictures – Beginner’s Guide to Professional Photography:


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One thought on “10 Key Rules of Picture Composition

  1. Beware of the Hairline is a common mistake. In my experience, I saw some great photographs are destroyed by such kind of mistakes. It is not only for the hair portion but the body should be included here too.
    Good article, incidentally.

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