Photo Composition

Photo composition is really very simple. There are probably many theories but here’s the rule I was taught that has always worked for me.

Photographic Composition – The Rule:

For whatever reason, when looking at an image the human eye travels from the bottom right-hand corner diagonally towards the top left hand corner unless something interrupts it.

Take a look at the fruit and vegetables picture:


There’s a tricky little shadow in the bottom right hand corner that ‘points’ to the green shape beside it and the rest of the pieces are arranged to carry the eyes in a line up across the cabbage to that yellow pear.


So in one glance you are shown everything the artist wants you to see. It’s like the artist is saying: “Look here first, then here, and then here and then – voila! You are now appreciating my Still Life.”

Take a look at the Old Violin picture.

The angular shape in the bottom right hand corner leads your eye to the subject, which is the violin.

But the artist of this painting got a little adventurous and he builds the viewer’s interest. Your eye goes up to the violin, then down to the white label and then onto the blue envelope.


Why does the artist want you to see the blue envelope? Don’t ask me, but he does and you do find yourself wondering just what’s inside it…?


He is saying, “Here’s a violin, interesting shape and pleasing to the eye, huh?

There’s some music behind the violin – don’t you wonder what music it is? Ah, and there’s the ring so you see this is on a door – yes it’s a door because there are hinges… why is the violin on a door?

And what’s this label that probably explains something about this violin, and what’s this? A letter? To the owner of the violin? Who wrote it? What does it say? Is it a love letter? Was it from someone saying ‘Please, can I get my violin back now if you’ve finished painting it…’? Why did this guy get a letter and why does he keep it near this violin…?”

And by now you are thoroughly engrossed by the picture (if you have any imagination at all) and the artist has succeeded in creating something that communicated to you and made you want to communicate back. Voila! It’s art!!

Compare these with the glasses, dice and jug image…


This doesn’t follow the rule so the eye does not know where to go. It lands and then wanders around the scene like someone lost in a mall to eventually settle on the blue dice because they are blue while the rest of the image is mainly composed of warm tones. Then it wanders off again because the dice don’t have any anchoring quality.

You’re still seeing all the picture eventually but it’s the eyeball equivalent of looking at a messy room to figure how it is supposed to look when it’s not messy.

Image and Photo Composition continued…

Photo Composition p.2

Not convinced yet? Okay, then, now lets flip the images right to left.

To do this with your own pix you need a photo editing program that can flip the image horizontally. In just about any photo editing software it’s under the Image tab. (Watch out for any signs or numbers in the pix as they will be reversed and your friends will call you a hoax and a fraud.)

We’ll do the fruit and veges first.



It’s a different feeling for the picture isn’t it? Or do I need more coffee…

Your eye takes off okay because there’s a handy shape in the corner, but now it skips up past the subject of the image and you end up looking at a big empty space, going ‘Wh- Where am I?”.

Let’s flip the violin.



Now your eye hits the blue envelope almost immediately and hangs up there, bounces to the white label and then gets to the violin but then wants to wander on and ends up at a hinge.

It’s still a nice picture but it doesn’t have the same build of interest because now you’re getting all the visual cues at once.


So think with this rule by trying to arrange your shots so that the bottom right hand corner leads the eye to the subject.

If you put something in the bottom right hand corner it will either lead the eye to the subject or catch the eye.

Compare these shots in their original framing (top) and then reversed (bottom):



In this one reversed the eye hits the white spool first and tends to hang up there and the subject(s) become secondary…



Photo and Image Composition continued… Even more!

Photo Composition Tips p.3

In this one reversed (bottom), the dark rock formation in the lower R/H corner holds the eye and then throws it up to the big rock. In the original the eye sweeps up unobstructed to take in the curling waves and also the big rock.



Portraits follow the same rule.

In this color portrait, the original framing lets the eye slide up the folds of the robe to the face and rest there, helped by the darker shade in the top left that says ‘Hold it!”

In the flipped version the eye gets to the face but then tends to slip further into the now paler space in the top L/H corner and the intensity of the expression is weakened. (I think so anyway!)



In a portrait, you can turn the subject’s shoulder towards the camera so it leads up to the face, or hands can fill this corner and lead the eye up to the face.



You can’t always get your composition exactly right, and some pictures stand by themselves because they appeal for different reasons.

Purely record shots like a snapshot of a friend or some event like a birthday is mainly for the purpose of having a memento and don’t even aspire to be anything else.

You can always bend the rule intentionally for an effect.


But once you get into the habit of seeing the composition of a scene you’ll find yourself shifting position or angle automatically to cater to the rule and your pictures will look better and feel more satisfying.

Try it!

Photo composition and the Rule of Thirds

If you really want to learn about composition, how to take great photos and get good at this stuff we highly recommend Beginner Digital Photography as a resource.

It covers everything you need to know from beginner to pro in an interactive format you can study or refer to at your own pace and at your level of experience.

Click Here to See Beginner Digital Photography for Yourself

Composition Tips – The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds

This sounds like the title of an espionage novel but it is one of the most popular rules for composition.

It’s been around since 1797 so there must be something in it, although personally, for better or worse, I don’t usually remember to follow it. (My personal rule is the one covered on this page: Photo Composition Tips.) But you can.

Here it is as simply as possible:

The rule says that an image such as a photo or a painting can be seen compositionally as being divided into nine equal squares by four horizontal and vertical lines, and important elements like faces, forms, or shapes should be ideally placed in these squares or at the points where the lines intersect. Simple huh?

Here is an example:


Now, you decide, did I follow the rule or break it? I definitely got the tree right in the central box.

Here’s another one – now this is more like it, especially if you like cute dogs.

Here the photo follows the rule by having the dog’s head at the intersection of two lines.


Here’s another one. Now this is completely anti-rule. Almost no element is in the right place, but then this picture works (if it works) because of the angular shapes and the angle.


Last one. This is probably a text book example of the rule (except I wasn’t following the rule when I took the shot. So whip me.)

Here we have not only the mountain cozily situated between two intersections but we also have the rule as it applies to a scenic shot: one third foreground or land, one third sea, or middle distance/main feature, and one third sky. Hallelujah!


So do you feel ready to rush out and follow the Rule of Thirds?

But here’s the thing: Rules for composition are very useful as a discipline while you’re feeling your way. They coax you into thinking or seeing in a way that focuses your concentration and makes you aware of what you’re doing. But it comes down to whether or not the picture ‘speaks’ to the viewer. If you have an image that follows every rule but says nothing, it’s a technical achievement but not a form of communication.

If you stand there in front of a great scene, finger hesitating on the shutter button while you try to figure out whether or not you’ve got the rule in play, you’re defeating the purpose of having a rule in the first place.

Shoot what you see. Then analyze it later in the computer. Evaluate your pictures by whatever rules or guidelines you feel are relevant, and practice ‘seeing’ that way. Then go take more photos!

If you really want to learn how to take great photos and get good at this stuff we highly recommend Beginner Digital Photography as a resource.

It covers everything you need to know from beginner to pro in an interactive format you can study or refer to at your own pace and at your level of experience.

Click Here to See Beginner Digital Photography for Yourself