Photo Composition Rules and When to Break Them

Whether you have a trained eye of a photographer, or you are a regular Joe off the street, we all have the ability to look at an image and be wowed or walk away saying "ehhh". I am fairly certain that both of those reactions come from the photo's composition.

Basically, an image's composition is the balance of elements in the frame. An image with good composition tells a story by guiding the viewer to the most important element in the frame, the subject.

So, how can you ensure each image meets those standards and has great composition? Here are a few, basic rules to do so, and a few reasons when it is okay to break some of those rules.

Rule of Thirds

Chances are you are already familiar with this term. It was the first photo composition rule I heard of when first started studying. To visualize what it means to use the rule of thirds to compose your image, here is a screen shot from Lighroom to illustrate. Basically, the ROT is a tic tac toe grid on your image. The idea is to place your subject at one of the four intersections on the grid. It has been shown that viewers' eyes are more drawn to subjects in those areas, creating a more pleasing image to view.

Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio is very similar to the Rule of Thirds, however, the lines are a bit narrower. You can see that instead of the nine equal rectangles in the ROT, the middle rectangles in the Golden Ratio grid are smaller. The idea is to still place your subject at the intersections.

Golden Spiral

This happens to be my most natural way to compose my images. Technically, it is based in some serious mathematics (which goes WAAY over my head). Essentially, the spiral covers the area of interest while the remainder of the image is background.

(Sidenote: To view each of these cropping overlays in Lightroom, you need to first have the crop tool selected. You can press the O key to rotate through all the overlays. You can press Shift O to rotate the overlay on the image.)

Simple and Clean Background

When preparing to take a shot, it is always so much easier make your subject stand out from the background if the background is simple and clean. I love this spot in my backyard because it is evenly lit and clean from distractions. Trust me, it is much easier to start with a clean background than to clone out the distractions in post processing.

Frame Your Subject

One of my favorite ways to get creative is to find different ways to frame my subject. Whether I shoot through tree branches, window frames, or in this case my son's new bicycle, finding ways to isolate my subject by framing them helps tell the story behind the image. (*And because I said I would share how you can break rules, this particular image breaks plenty of rules! First, the subject is in the center of the frame which according to the first three rules mentioned in the article is a big no no. Also, if you would have seen it in color you could tell the background was anything but clean and simple. This is one of the big reasons why I love being able to convert images to black and white. Images like this show instances when the story of the image is more important than the technical composition. )

Leading Lines

Using directional lines to draw the viewer's eye to the subject is a great way to wow with your composition. The lines on this deck lead the viewer right to the family. And keep in mind, the lines do not have to be actual lines. They can be a row of trees, buildings, or even ants following one another. As long as the "line" leads you to the subject, that is what makes this rule of composition work.

(And since we are on the topic of lines, one of the most important aspects in every image should be to keep your horizon line straight! In nature, the horizon is a flat, straight line where the sky and earth meet. No actual horizon in your image? This rule still applies. Trees do not grow diagonally out of the ground. You need to keep the horizon straight in your image. Having a diagonal horizon line is a composition rule that should never be broken!)

Fill Your Frame

To be honest, I tend to shoot a lot of my images further back. As a documentary style photographer, it's my instinct to take pictures that include the entire scene. It was actually my mother who encouraged me a few years back to get closer in for some shots. I now love filling my frame. These closer shots help fill in the details to stories. And you can see there's plenty of details I would have missed in this image had my son been further back in the frame, like that worm crawling on his face! Yuck!

Center Position

What? Yes, you can place your subject in the middle of the frame, if it fits the image. A center position of the subject can lead to a boring image, however, it can work with the right elements. In the instance of this image, the leading lines allow the viewer right to the center subject. The symmetry of the image also works. Just be aware that often center placed images can be boring and flat. Make sure to have other engaging elements in the image to help the viewers' eyes hone in on the subject.


Other Things to Consider

Patience and Positioning

Yes, sometimes you have to be patient when trying to compose an image. Since I like to take a photojournalistic style to shooting, there are many times when I have to wait for the perfect composition to come into my viewfinder. Whether it is during a first dance at a wedding or photographing my boys in the backyard, if I am positioned I will only snap the shutter when the subject of the image is where I want them in the frame. So what happens if they never move into the right place? Simply, you change your position. Do not be afraid to change your perspective and shooting angle to achieve the composition you are aiming for.

Camera and Gear

Your camera settings also play a huge role in composition. An image shot with a 35mm will look completely different than the same one taken with a 70-200mm. Same goes with your aperture. A wide aperture will blur more the of scene while a narrow aperture will show more of the details.

Practice Makes Perfect

The best advice, practice. Shoot a lot. Discover what you need to work on and go after mastering that task. Do not be afraid to fail. Let me tell you, I have taken some real "winners" in my journey to learning photography. Learning to compose your images in your mind before you even pick up your camera will become second nature.

Once you find ways to showcase the subject in each of your images, you will have mastered the rules of photo composition (and picked up a few situations when it is okay to break those rules).

Allison Wheeler
is a lover of lifestyle photography from Norman, Oklahoma. Her eyes were opened to photography by toying with Instagram in 2010. She got a camera soon after and learned to use it by documenting her life with her husband and three young sons. She now happily does the same for others, from births to weddings and almost everything in between. To see Allison's most recent work, visit her Facebook page. She often gets on Pinterest to avoid cleaning her house.