Composition – following and breaking the rules

Composition – following and breaking the rules

The rules of composition are guidelines for producing a well designed image. ‘Guidelines’ are probably a better description than ‘rules’ as they just help us as a kind of starting point. Do not break the rules until you are an expert at following them. You need to understand how they work and how they help you create great compositions. Learn the rules and then break them only if it will create a better image than if you followed them.

Rule of thirds

Divide your frame into 9 equal parts and the lines and intersection become powerful places to place areas of interest.


Thirds grid over the image

Thirds grid over the image

The flow of water closely follows the right and bottom lines, the bottom third contains all the rock detail, the top third contains the sky. Three of the four intersections contain areas of interest.
The idea behind the rule of thirds is to prevent lines in the image from bisecting the image (cutting it in half), and therefore avoiding symmetry.

Breaking the rule of thirds.

You might break this rule if you wanted to communicate a message of symmetry in your image. If there is a perfect reflection or a part of the sky mirrors patterns found in the landscape, then you might want to compose for symmetry.

Rule of Simplicity

The rule of simplicity is about isolating your subject by surrounding it with lots of space. Photography could be described as being about uncluttering the complex world. When photographing people or animals, it is best to have some space in the direction of their gaze, a moving object should have space between it and the viewer.

Use of Space

Use of Space

This is the same waterfall as you see in the first image. The composition follows thirds but could best be described as following the rule of simplicity.

Another technique for isolating an object and creating simplicity is to use a narrow ‘Depth of field‘ so that everything in the object’s background is blurry. This is achieved with very large apertures such as f/2.8 or f/1.4 and is know as ‘Bokeh‘.

Sometimes a scene doesn’t allow you to include space. If you have to break the rule of simplicity try to follow the ‘Rule of Odds’.

Rule of Odds

This rule states that odd number of objects in a scene is more aesthetically pleasing than an even number of objects. This is again to avoid the mistake of symmetry. Triangles are good to consider when arranging objects in a scene.

Get the whole subject in the frame

If it is possible and the shape of the object allows, you should try to get the whole object in the frame. If you leave too much of a subject cropped then the eye will naturally be led to the edge of the frame and will be looking for the rest, your viewer will be trying to complete the image.

Break this rule in obvious situations such as portrait photography where you might include just head and shoulders. Also, if you want to leave the viewer imagining the rest of the object like the waterfall above. If you must amputate your subjects legs it is better to avoid doing this at the joints, i.e. elbows and knees.

Leading the eye.

Photographers use objects and patterns to lead the viewer into a scene. These objects will lead the eye into the image and give the viewer a welcoming feeling.

Leading the eye.

Leading the eye.

Golden Ration

The golden ratio is a beautiful mathematical concept. It is similar to dividing the image into thirds, but follows a more complex formula. The golden ratio states that the ratio of a to b should be the same as the ratio between a and a + b. The frame is constantly divided like this and a curve is draw to tie the divisions together. Confused? me too until I read this. The difference between the Golden Ratio and he rule of thirds is that the rule of thirds is man-made and hence fashionable, whereas the Golden Ration is universal. The ratio can be observed in all Natural object throughout the universe.

Golden Curve Photography

Golden Mean placed over one of my images.

This picture doesn’t follow thirds, but the main points of interest fall right onto the golden mean.


Breaking the rules of composition is always breaking the rules. As you may have noticed, sometime it is a matter of applying a different rule. For example. breaking the rules of symmetry could mean adopting the rule of thirds or the Golden Ratio. If you understand the rule of thirds or the Golden Ratio well then you can break the rule of symmetry effectively.

Useful links

Cropping for composition

Photography as communication

Landscape 101

Wiki Link

Seeing the un-seen

Seeing the un-seen

One of the things I love about photography is that you are able to see things you normally wouldn’t. This is especially evident with Night photography when a long exposure reveals objects and colours that you never knew were there.

My perspective

My perspective

PHOTOGRAPHY IS ABOUT FORCING YOUR PERSPECTIVE ONTO OTHERS: I am going to explore this statement made by one of my guests, just to see if she is a big liar, or is there some truth to the statement. If so, does all communication attempt to do this? or maybe just art?

Telephoto: the needs for lines

Telephoto: the needs for lines

When I play back through my shots I see how I am working on a frame getting slightly closer to the correct composition. It can be useful to study your work like this sometimes. What seems clear is that there can be different rules of composition depending on your focal length.


Magic Cloth

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