Fundamental Rules to Compose a Photo

The Rules

These rules allow the photographer to gradually gain the sense of composition and own the skills to produce a beautiful image. Once you’ll have a certain experience, rules can be simply considered as guide-lines and be broken too if the situation permits.

© Zavgsg
This is an example of an image that satisfies all the three fundamental rules of composition. The main subject is placed on the intersection of the segments that divide each side by three, the line of trees lead the eye towards the subject that stands out for its colour contrast.

By the way rules don’t have to be broken just for the pleasure to do it, but only when the message or the information that we want to convey will result amplified in that way. The first rule, the one that is the most commonly considered, wants that the main centre or the centres of interest of the image must be placed beside or right on the segments intersections that divide the photo in nine squares. The second rule wants that the other elements of the photo must lead the eye towards the main subject. Besides the main subject, or at least a part of it, must clash with the background because of colours or tones and this makes the third rule.

Applying the Rules

The ease the photographer is able to apply this rules with, basically depends on the nature of the subject. Sometime, like in still life photography, we have the complete control of the situation and it’s possible to really move the elements until we achieve the results we need. Same thing for portraits, where we can change the position of the model. Anyway in landscape photography the possibilities to modify the scene are very scarce or almost null. All what the photographer can do is to move him/herself in order to find a good point of view that allows to take a satisfying photo of the scene. Choosing the good point of view is often the most important thing before pressing the shutter.

In this photo the boat in the foreground improved the composition a lot. Notice the angles of the boats and the building base’s on the left, both of them are similar and lead the eye towards the centre of the vanishing point.

Even the smallest shift of the point of view can provoke remarkable effects on the composition up to transfer the interest from a point to another. All the points of view must be considered in order to be able to choose the one that better suites the purpose of the photo. It’s better photographing the subject from different points of view and then choose the better capture. Rising or lowering the POV is the the simplest way to improve the composition, giving importance to a part instead of another, hiding what is ugly and showing what is good.

Framing The Image

Sometimes the combined effect of lines, shapes and tones of the elements of the image can lead the eye far from the main interesting points and out of the area of the photo. A way to avoid this is to include inside the image, especially close to the borders, some object that can play the role of a boundary.

This photo has a pleasant composition. In fact it’s enriched by the presence of foregrounds, the leaves coming down from the upper and lower side frame the image, the bridge leads the eye to the coast. However the photo would have been improved waiting for a ship to cross under the bridge to add a touch of interest.

Watching like a Camera

The human eye and the camera are similar. Both of them have a lens that projects an image on a light-sensitive surface, the eye’s lens can focus to produce a neat image and has an iris that decides the light intensity and so the camera with its lens, diaphragm and sensor. But from this point on the similarities end. The camera records everything it can without any discrimination, what surrounds the subject is taken with the same richness of details of the subject itself. Our eye together with the brain can concentrate on a certain subject isolating the rest of the scene and ignoring the parts we don’t care. Therefore when we take a photo we might not notice what surrounds the subject being a source of distraction. We can be so concentrated in adjusting the pose of a model that we don’t notice a light pole or a lamp behind her that seem to pop out from her head. Or we might not notice that those flowers on the side of the foreground are so evident that they could convey the idea that they are the real subject of the photo.

Sometimes the photographer will physically or digitally remove the distracting objects or change the pov to avoid them to be included in the frame. If there’s no way to exclude them he/she can reduce their distracting effect by using a wide aperture (from f/1 to f/5.6) to make them appear completely out of focus. This technique of the selective focus is really effective to capture the main subject and make it stand out against the blurred background.

Well still here? Go out and practice! ;o)

Photo credits: Agno_agnus, Konstantin Sutyagin, Patrickwang, Zavgsg.

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Hi! What a nice portfolio you have :) Just passing by to read this interesting blog post! cheers


thanks for the composition tricks, we all trip up


Thanks, very helpful article - now I have a better idea about the rule of third.


thank you for your's great tips


I'm so happy that this article helped you and as it will help many other photographers here. This means that I made it simple and effective. Thank you guys!


This is just what I need as I keep getting photos refused for lack of composition. Thanks.


Great tips.....complimenti !!!


nice tips, thanks for this!


Thanks very helpfull, I was just reading about composition and the brain, what was interesting, is that we see an image, but emotion takes over ! we can pick out a stunning flower in a garden in seconds and a stunning person in a crowd but the camera cant !!!! So you then have to stop slow down and think about how to capture the image with your Camera and not in your mind.


Thank you for sharing I really appreciate the dreams time family and the helpfulness of all the members. God bless Peter.


Thank you, Giuseppe! Although there are, yeah, fundamentals (as Littledesire said), yet it's useful to recollect them from time to time :-) And I'm also looking forward your sequential posts.


Thank you. The best teachers are those that can keep it simple! Even I understood this article and look forward to more!


Great blog, thanks for sharing tips.


Skip the fundamentals :) We're waiting for the secrets :)))


Thank you for the good feedback guys! Ok in the future I'll post some post processing tutorial but we must start from foundamentals first no?


Useful tips, thank you :)


Thank you! Like Littledesire said I too look forward to reading your new blog to share some of your post processing tips.


Very useful, thank you for sharing :0)


Great blog, very helpful!


Simply and visually explained!


Nice and useful blog! But you should write a blog how to create such art works like yours ;)

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