1. Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is one of the most well known compositional rules in visual arts.
According to this technique, a frame is to be divided into thirds, using both horizontal and vertical lines. This will produce a grid with nine equally-sized rectangles, as in a game of tic-tac-toe.
To do this, you can either use your imagination or use the grid view on your camera.
The idea is to place essential elements along these lines or at the four intersection points. Studies have shown that it is more likely for a viewer’s attention to fix on these points of intersection. Thus placing essential elements along these lines will make them more impactful.
The rule of thirds discourages placing your subject at the center of the frame. Doing so creates symmetrical images which tend to result in a static and lifeless image.
To get the best out of the rule of the thirds, you should consider using both high and low horizons.
High horizons are often used to emphasize the foreground. They are also useful in creating a sense of distance.
While placing your horizon high in the frame enhances the vastness of the ground, low horizons increase the expanse of the sky. This angle makes your subject(s) appear immense and impressive.
Whereas a symmetrical picture kills energy, using the rule of thirds exudes it. The unbalanced aesthetic created with this technique makes images more engaging and alive.
2. Golden Ratio
The Golden Mean or the Sacred Ratio is another helpful tool to create better images. This technique utilizes a spiral created by a series of equally proportioned rectangles.
The idea is to place your focal point on the smallest part of the spiral.
It is also advantageous to place the other vital elements along or near the rest of the spiral. The curves will guide the viewer across the frame, dictating, which features the viewer will see first.
You can rotate or move these spirals, depending on the needs of the image.
Some photographers prefer to apply the golden ratio using their imagination, while others prefer to use an overlay as a guide when cropping their images.
The influence of the Golden Ratio is hard to overestimate. Today, we can see it applied everywhere, from architecture to music, to mathematics.
Indeed, according to Johnson, “The Golden Ratio is a standard feature of many modern designs.”¹
When used in photography, the golden ratio almost always successfully creates captivating images.
3. Rule of Odds
According to the rule of odds, images with an odd number of elements are more visually appealing than images with even numbers.
Even numbers add to the symmetry, which again makes the picture appear dull and static. An image with odd-numbered components, on the other hand, seems more natural and spontaneous.
Because even numbers can be equally divided into halves, they split the viewer’s attention amongst themselves. This disunity often results in ineffective images.
Since a viewer is unable to divide odd numbers subconsciously, compositions following the rule of odds appear more balanced and unified.
To best use the rule of odds, you should place your main subject in the center. Doing so will give it the desired attention.
4. Rule of Space
Subjects in motion, such as wildlife or people, can be made more captivating by following the rule of space.
Leaving more space in the direction towards which the subject is facing adds to the illusion of motion. Space should be in front of the subject’s eyes so that the viewer can follow his or her line of sight.
To give one example, let’s look at the image above. Leaving space in front of the herder and his camels provide the illusion of them moving forward in a still picture.
You can also use space for stationary objects. For example, if you’re photographing a woman gazing at a mountain range, there should be an ample amount of empty space to follow her line of sight. This will make the viewers wonder what she’s staring at, making the picture more intriguing for them.
5. Centered Composition
Spanish painter, Pablo Picasso once said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Whereas all the rules discussed above can help your photography, they are not set in stone.
When it comes to photography, rules are only guidelines. A photographer does not have to follow the rule of the thumb and avoid symmetry altogether.
All the rules explained before revolve around one crucial compositional question- placement. That is, what place should the subject occupy in the frame.
Other types of compositional rules only hold secondary importance. While the rules prohibit centering your subject(s), there are times when it is what an image needs.
For instance, placing a subject in the middle of the frame immerses it with its surroundings. This effect helps amplify the subject’s connection with its environment.
For example, in the picture above, I surrounded myself with the same amount of background on both sides. Doing so creates a sense that I am completely engrossed with my surroundings. The composition works because the subject, myself, is in the middle of the frame.
The central composition is also useful in highlighting subjects. It works as a spotlight, highlighting the critical person, element, or the story of the picture. It gives the subject or the object in focus immense power and authority.
Color temperature is a great compositional tool that you can use to create depth, emphasize objects, and evoke specific moods.
We can separate colors into two temperature groups: warm and cool. Warm colors consist of red, orange, and yellow. While cool colors consist of purple, blue, and green. These two classes of colors have unique characteristics.
For example, warm colors appear to advance while cool colors appear to recede into the background.
You can use the characteristics of color temperature to create depth and emphasize certain elements.
Use cooler colors for objects that you want to appear farther away and warmer colors for objects that you want to appear closer.
You can also use color temperature to create focal points in your image.
Warm colors tend to pop and appear as though advancing upon the viewer. Conversely, cool colors tend to look as if receding from the viewer and into the background.
Thus, it will help to place warm colors on or around desired focal points in your composition. Doing so will ensure that your viewers see your focal point first.
It is important to note that a single color alone is neither warm nor cool. Color temperature is relative and is dependent on the other colors within a scene.
For instance, when we have colors like red and green, it is easy to determine which is warm and which is cool. On the other hand, when we have two cool colors such as blue and green, green is often perceived as warm while blue is perceived as cool.
You can also use color temperature to influence the mood that your audience feels when they interact with your image.
Warm colors generally evoke feelings of happiness, passion, and excitement. On the other hand, cool colors tend to evoke a more relaxing and calming mood.
Your choice of color can help influence the story you tell with your image. If you want your image to evoke feelings of happiness and excitement use primarily warm colors. If you want your image to evoke, a more relaxing and somber mood use mostly cool colors.
6. Negative Space
Negative space is space around or between your subject. It is based on the famous aphorism, “less is more.” The greater the empty space in the picture, the less likely it will be for the image to feel crowded.
Crowded photographs tend to take away the viewer’s attention from the subject in focus. An expansive negative space will highlight the subject and make it stand out.
Negative space also provides viewers with breathing space. It allows them to focus on the central object while giving their eyes a place to rest. A packed image can not only be visually exhausting but also distracting.
Using negative space may appear simplistic, but it can also be impactful.
7. Leading Lines and S-curves:
Both the S-curves and leading lines are great tools in creating engaging compositions.
Leading lines are used to attract the viewers towards the focal point of the image.
Our eyes naturally follow these lines until they converge and vanish on the horizon. Thus, placing your subjects where these lines meet helps elevate their visual importance.
Leading lines can be both physical and implied. That is, they can be physical objects such as roads, streams, and the like. Or, they can be suggested, such as light, stones, and wakes in the water.
For example, the image above uses implied lines as a leading line. The wake lines generated by the boat helps add depth and visual interest to the overall picture.
S-curves, on the other hand, utilizes the shape of a curve to create a more balanced picture. They are especially useful to induce a sense of movement in images.
Using an S-curve with downward slope can give a sense of a fast action taking place. In contrast, an upward slope increases tension, making images more dramatic.
The S-curves’ inherent sense of movement encourages the viewers’ eyes to sweep back and forth. As a consequence objects placed along the curve get added attention.
By including a leading line or S-curve, you can direct the viewers’ attention to the critical parts of your image.
8. Visual Paths
Most photographers tend to confuse visual paths with leading lines. These two, however, are different tools that have different effects from each other.
As established above, leading lines guide the viewer to the main subject of the image. In contrast, visual paths lead the viewer to explore different elements within the frame.
It is true that you can use visual paths in a way that directs you viewers’ attention to your focal point. However, in the process, they will also notice all the other details in your photograph.
Like the leading lines, they can be both implied and physical. Such paths come in many forms, such as color, light, and shape.
These pathways are particularly useful when your subject is located in your foreground. To cite an example, consider the image above.
The focal point in this image, the headstone on the left, is in the front of the picture. Because of its size and level of detail, it naturally holds the viewers’ attention.
But, because I utilized a visual pathway, viewers are likely to stroll around the image. This is despite my focal point having been placed in front of the picture.
This example underscores that it is easy, and sometimes beneficial, to use both a visual path and a leading line in your images.
Vertical lines tend to exude strength, as they denote size and height. Unlike horizontal lines, vertical lines tend to appear more active or somewhat aggressive.
Used in a photograph, vertical lines such as buildings and trees can convey moods ranging from growth to power.
To further highlight vertical lines within your frame, consider using a vertical format.
Vertical formats, also known as portrait format, encourage the spectator’s eyes to move up and down. By positioning your camera this way you get a better feeling of height and majesty.
To evoke feelings of restfulness and stability, make the most of horizontal lines.
These lines are often found in locations such as beaches, lakes, and rivers.
Horizontal lines are often associated with feelings of peacefulness and serenity. They are reminiscent of large landmasses and peaceful horizons which brings visual comfort.
To help accentuate the feelings associated with these lines consider using a horizontal format.
A horizontal format, also called landscape format, encourages the viewer’s eyes to move from left to right.
They are often used to encompass large scenes, such as seascapes or a mountain overlook.
As stated above, the format you choose for your composition has a direct impact on the overall aesthetics of your image.
You can manipulate the way the viewer’s eyes travel through the photograph with your choice of formatting.
By being deliberate with your choice of format, you can control what your viewers will see first and last. Also, you can influence the mood and emotions your images will evoke.
Thus, when taking a photo, make sure to experiment with both types of formats.
Pay special attention to how your formatting influences the visual design of your composition.
11. Diagonal Lines and Triangles
Euripides, the great Greek scholar, once declared, “Mighty is geometry, joined with art, resistless.”
An understanding of geometrical figures can be a great benefit when it comes to photography.
For instance, different shapes and lines can influence the message conveyed by your images.
Diagonal lines, for example, exude a sense of activity, speed, and motion. This is true even instill and lifeless images. Objects on a diagonal plane appear more active than objects on a vertical or horizontal plane.
Let’s look again at the example image used to illustrate the rule of space. The herder and his camels are walking down on an inclined dune. As the viewers look at the picture, they can actually visualize the subjects climbing down.
Since a triangle consists of diagonal lines, it has a similar effect. Including a triangular element can heighten the sense of activity in your image.
Natural occurring triangles, for example, a dune or a mountain ridge are excellent subjects for an overall dynamic impact.
Keep in mind that, when scouting for triangular elements, they do not need to have straight lines. Even using elements that have the subtlest hint of a triangular shape can add energy in your images.
12. Tilted or Dutch Angles:
Pictures shot horizontally as they appear in nature, can sometimes be quite dull. This is where Dutch Angles come in.
To create a more interesting image consider tilting your camera.
Since this technique captures a scene in a strange way, it makes the image impossible to ignore. The unfamiliarity induces a sense of disorientation, forcing viewers to pay closer attention.
Some photographers consider this technique a cheeky snubbing of the stereotypical horizontal orientation. While others dread it because of its overuse.
But, Dutch Angle, when used correctly, can illustrate interesting visual stories. If used thoughtfully, this technique can create ingenious pictures.
For example, the director of the famous movie Inception mirrors the warped world he is exhibiting through the use of Dutch Angles.
A photograph is said to be symmetrical if both sides appear to mirror each other.
We have discussed before that symmetry makes images appear contrived and static. But symmetry at other times can help create aesthetically pleasing pictures. When used effectively, it can help increase the balance in an image.
The two most common types of symmetry are vertical and horizontal symmetry.
A type of horizontal symmetry is reflective symmetry. An example of reflective symmetry is where the sky or the horizon is reflected in the body of water. This composition can be calming and peaceful to look at.
In contrast, Vertical symmetry is where the object’s line of symmetry is perpendicular to the horizon line.
Vertical symmetries depict height and infinity. You can also use them to add a sense of stability in your pictures.
Another type of symmetry is radial symmetry. This is where circular shapes are symmetrically aligned and repeated to create a hypnotic effect.
For example, an image capturing the ripples in the water will mesmerize the viewers and cause them to linger.
14. Foreground Elements
Photographers sometimes make use of foreground elements to stage depth in their images.
An object appears to be larger when it is closer and smaller as it gets further away. The change in size creates an illusion of depth. In reality, though, all elements are the same distance away because they’re on a two-dimensional surface.
Including elements in your foreground separates your images in different planes, which gives it depth. Adding something like rocks or flowers in the foreground can do wonders for a flat image.
For example, the main elements in the image above are separated between the foreground, mid-ground, and the background plane.
Separating objects onto these planes emphasizes their size differences. The foreground and background create a longitudinal plane.
To further enhance depth using foreground elements, use a wide-angle lens. Wide-angle lenses serve to exaggerate the distance between close and far objects. It does so by making objects in the foreground look more prominent, and objects in the background look smaller.
When using this technique, ensure that the foreground does not take attention away from your subject. For example, make sure that the object you use is not brighter or more focused than your subject.
Since images are only two-dimensional, photographers use different perspectives to add depth.
Central perspective is the one most commonly used perspectives by photographers.
The central perspective creates depth by using lines to mimic the visual conditions as they would in reality. Lines create vanishing points which give a sense of depth in a picture. A vanishing point is an area where two parallel lines converge.
When the viewer sees these lines coming together, they perceive it as distance. The more these lines converge, the farther away the viewer perceives them to be.
A road extending forward into the picture while getting narrower gives the illusion of it continuing ahead.
This visual effect makes images appear three-dimensional. It causes the viewer to stop and wonder where this never-ending road leads to.
Vanishing points often occur in the horizon, but they can appear anywhere within an image. There can also be several vanishing points within a frame. Although, usually, viewers will only notice up to three vanishing points.²
Adding more vanishing points in your composition will enhance depth in your image. The more vanishing points you use, the more three-dimensional your image will feel.
You can add more vanishing points by shifting your camera angle. For instance, I shot the image above from a low angle.
In doing so, I have created two vanishing points. The first is where the path vanishes and converge on the horizon. The second comes from the parallel lines created by the bamboo. These bamboo extend to the top until their leaves meet at the edge of the frame.
These two vanishing points help give the image a greater sense of depth.
Photographers use patterns to add stability and consistency to an image. These patterns can include elements like lines, colors, and shapes.
Patterns are often used in two ways. The first is to help guide the viewer’s eyes towards the subject in focus. The other way is to use patterns as your main subject.
Repetitive patterns, especially in landscape photography, help evoke a sense of eternity. In the image above, the repeated pattern of the orange gates makes them appear to stretch on even when the frame ends.
Another common way photographers use patterns in images is to emphasize a focal point.
Photographers sometimes deliberately create a break in a pattern. This sudden break in continuity helps draw attention to the subject. For example, you can place a lone flower amidst patterned leaves to make it stand out.
17. Frame Within a Frame
Framing is a way to highlight or ignore particular elements in your scene. One way to do this is to incorporate a frame within your frame.
The idea is to find elements in your scene that that will emphasize your subject.
You can use this technique through a variety of different methods.
For instance, to make your subject more distinguishable, you can photograph them through a window or doorway. You can also create implied frames, such as manipulating shadows, to craft an outline.
These outlines will place the subject in a smaller frame to hold the viewers’ attention.
Photographers sometimes use surface divisions to divide the frame into two or more halves. Using objects like trees or bridges enable the viewers to compare between two areas of an image.
Of course, you can use a variety of frame styles for different occasions.
For example, let’s look at the photograph above. In this image, I framed myself between two curved trees.
The frame creates an opening that makes the ocean seem more mysterious and intriguing. Using framing this way causes the viewers to linger and wonder at what that opening may be hiding.
By using frames this way, you can work magic to make your images more enchanting.
You can also create additional frame by darkening the periphery of your picture. This technique is called vignetting.
Vignetting was initially an unwanted effect by camera and lens distortions. But today it is often used in photography to enhance the overall appearance of a picture.
Vignetting works by creating a darker wall around a picture so that attention goes to the central, brighter space. This space is usually circular. The surrounding edges gradually increase in darkness as they move further away from the center towards the periphery.
Textures can enhance the tactical feel of a photograph. It is defined as the feel or appearance of a surface. Texture can be anything from smooth to prickly, hard to soft, and so on.
Using texture helps increases the depth of your pictures. Objects with a lot more texture will appear closer than objects that have less.
Further, texture helps make your images appear more realistic. A subject with a lot of textural detail makes the viewers feel like it is right in front of them.
You can include texture in your images in several ways. The most straightforward way is to choose a subject that possesses plenty of textural detail.
Another way is by manipulating your focus setting. Objects that are in focus will have a lot more texture than objects that have less.
Finally, you can adjust the amount of texture in your images in post-processing.
Some of the most common tools used for this are the clarity, sharpness, and contrast sliders. If you want to know how these sliders are different, I wrote an in-depth article here.
One thing to note, capturing texture is highly dependent upon the quality of light. That is, to emphasize texture, you need adequate lighting. It is almost impossible to shoot textures in the dark without the use of artificial lighting.
The angle of light plays a vital role, as well. Overhead lights and sidelights are great at accentuating texture in images. For instance, shooting when the sun is overhead emphasizes the texture by casting mall shadows and exposing subtle details along surfaces.
Adding texture can do wonders in your images by adding more complexity to simple compositions. By using texture, you can create elaborate visual interest to seemingly ordinary scenes.
19. Focal Length
Photographers use a variety of focal lengths to manipulate their sceneries.
To capture the grandeur of subjects far away, take advantage of the telephoto lens. These lenses make distant objects seem bigger and within reach. By using telephoto lenses, you can exude a sense of intimacy between your viewer and your subject(s).
In contrast, to highlight the objects that are closer to you, use a wide-angle lens. As mentioned, wide-angle lenses make closer objects seem more significant while making distant objects appear smaller.
Wide-angle lenses are also great to capture expansive landscapes. For instance, this lens works great with scenes like mountains behind a spreading lush green meadow.
They are also useful in vertical scenes such as architectural buildings.
If the wide-angle lens is not enough, consider using a fisheye lens. Such lenses have a curvilinear perspective that creates an enormously vast scene.
Be aware that fish-eye lenses exaggerate distortions in your images.
Different photographers have different views when it comes to this type of distortion. While some would consider it as an unwanted side effect, others see it as a creative tool.
Backlight refers to light coming from behind the subject.
Photographers use this effect to set the mood or to add a creative touch to their photographs. The light coming from behind emphasizes its contours and silhouettes of objects within the frame.
In landscape photography, the best time to use backlighting is when the sun is low on the horizon.
During sunrise or sunset, the light is much softer, making it ideal for backlit images. The sun’s low angle also creates dramatic colors great for making vibrant pictures.
That said, taking backlit photographs during midday is still possible. For instance, I took the image above when the sun was up high in the sky.
Keep in mind, in the middle of the day, it’s often best to filter the light with objects such as leaves or rocks. The leaves will serve to soften the harsh, mid-day sun.
An added bonus of filtering light, in this case, is it will highlight the outlines of the leaves, making them glow.
If you would like to read more about how to photograph backlit images, I wrote a complete guide in this article.
Juxtaposition is used in photography to highlight the contrast between two or more objects.
Merriam Webster defines it as “placing different things side by side (as to compare them or contrast them or to create an interesting effect).”
When applying this technique in your images, it is essential that both the objects are equally dominant in the scene. In this way, the viewer can easily compare the two.
For instance, in the image above, the juxtaposition between the two areas of trees helps create a visually engaging story.
An area of snow-covered trees placed next to an area that doesn’t have any makes for an interesting photographic effect.
You can use juxtaposition in a variety of ways.
One example is to emphasize the differences in scale, like an image of a small ship next to a gigantic iceberg.
You can also utilize it to underscore differences in colors, shapes, age, and more.
22. Vantage Point
Your choice of vantage point will have a significant impact on the overall effect of your image.
A vantage point is a position through which you shoot your images. The three main vantage points generally adopted by photographers are low, elevated, and aerial points of view.
Low Vantage Point
Photos taken from a low vantage point will make objects within your frame seem larger than they actually are. Thus, using this angle will make your subject appear more authoritative and dominant.
In landscape photography, the low vantage point is particularly adapted to highlight tiny objects. For example, using this vantage point is great if you want to use small patterned rocks as your foreground.
High Vantage Point
An elevated vantage point will enable your viewers to appreciate the scene in its entirety.
This view is adopted by setting the camera at high places, like the top of a ladder or a skyscraper.
Unlike the case with a low vantage point, the subjects shot in a high vantage point adopt a subordinate position.
This point of view enables the viewer to participate in the photographer’s perspective and feel transcendental.
Further, this privileged viewpoint enables the viewer to observe what’s in the middle ground. The high angle places the camera high above any obstructions.
Thus, it more clearly displays the space between the foreground and the background. This is why this position is the one commonly used to capture mountain ranges or city skylines.
Aerial Vantage Point
Aerial perspective serves the same purpose as do high angles, but it often makes a shot more exhilarating. It’s best used to capture a panoramic view of landscapes.
This view is typically adopted by using drones or shooting from a helicopter. Such angle adopts the perspective of birds, looking down at the world below.
Using this viewpoint can unveil new compositional possibilities that weren’t obvious before.
Layers are one of those techniques in photography, which are very easy to use and can also have a tremendous overall impact.
There are various ways you can use layers to create natural interest in your images.
One way is to guide the viewer’s eye to your focal point. As an example, in the image above, I used the continuous flow of layered grass to guide the viewers through the frame.
You can also use layers in your composition to instill a sense of movement in your image.
To do this, you need to consider how your foreground, middle-ground, and background blend together. When you use the right combination of elements to create a layer, you can make an image that is dynamic and appealing.
Often, creating an image that perfectly conveys your thoughts involves using at least one of the guidelines above. It should be remembered, however, that these guidelines are not set in stone. They can be used simultaneously, interchangeably or not at all.
Remember, when it comes to photography, sometimes the best guidance comes from your gut. Try not to overthink when deciding how to best compose your images.
Your compositions don’t always have to be calculated. The most successful photos usually aren’t.
Hopefully my post today has helped and encouraged some of you to go out and experiment with your photography. Cheers!
- Johnson, Art (1999). Famous problems and their mathematicians. Libraries Unlimited. p. 45.
- Block, Bruce A. The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, Tv, and Digital Media. Focal Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.