Advanced Techniques

Principles of photo composition

Written by Gail Bjork

Using these time honored principles of composition can help you frame better, more interesting and eye-catching shots.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Ansel Adams

composition2Photographs that stand out from the crowd usually have three elements in common: good subject, good lighting and good composition. What follows are principles of composition that explain some of the ways photographers and artists have composed images through the centuries.

It’s possible that a photo may include a combination of more than one principle. What’s important to understand is that these principles are guides, not hard and fast rules, so experiment when framing shots!

Principles of composition

See below for photo examples of each principle

  • Center of interest: A photograph should have a strong focal point. Determine what it is before composing your photo.
  • Simplicity: Keep compositions simple, avoiding busy background that distracts from a subject.
  • Subject off center: Place a subject slightly off-center rather than in the middle of a photo (see The Rule of Thirds)
  • Horizon lines: Don’t place the horizon line, or any strong vertical or horizontal lines, right in the middle of a picture. And make sure the lines aren’t tilted.
  • Leading lines: If a scene has strong lines, make sure the lines lead the eye into the frame rather than out of it. The lines should lead to the main point of interest.
  • Foreground objects: Include an interesting object in the foreground of a scene. It adds depth, dimension and point of reference.
  • Vary angles: Shoot at varying angles to capture a subject from a different viewpoint. Move the camera higher or lower than you usually do. For a dramatic effect, take some photos from a birds-eye (looking down) or worms-eyes view (looking up).
  • Framing: Framing a subject by zooming or moving closer draws attention to it.
  • Silhouettes: Subject made dark by photographing it against a light background (back lighting).
  • Reflections: Adds an interesting, sometimes abstract, look to a photo.
  • Symmetry: An identical or near-identical image of its other half. Use of symmetry often provides a formal balance.

Principles of Composition photo galleries

About the author

Gail Bjork

Gail Bjork, who is passionate about digital photography, is the owner and editor of Digicamhelp.Gail is the author of three illustrated ebooks about digital photography. A number of her photos and digital photography related articles appear at other websites.In 2006, a series of her photos, People in the Louvre, were exhibited at the Underground Photo Gallery
in Iisalmi Finland. Eight of her photos taken in the Florida scrub are on permanent exhibition at Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Florida.Gail served twelve years as an elected member of The School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. She has also been the editor of a small town newspaper and a free-lance writer. Gail and her husband owned and ran several small businesses.

6 Comments

  • Excellent information about photo composition. I need to think about these “rules” a little more when composing shots.

  • In every day outdoor portrait photography I find myself using all the guidelines.  Like Gail stated above you do end up using them in combination to make photos more intriguing.  Great list compiling the most important guidelines, sometimes i forget I’m even using them.  Looks like you have more Maui fans.

  • Great lesson. My son just took a photography class and learned all this in there. You might want to add depth of field in there although that could probably be included with focal point and foreground objects.

  • Thank you for the information about composition. The illustrations are very helpful and there are a lot of very fine photos there.

  • The principles of composition are only guidelines to help you frame a shot. In fact, a photo may contain more than one ‘principle.” For example, a photo based on the Rule of Thirds can also contain “simplicity” and “leading lines” or the “s-curve.”  Like all rules, they can be broken. Simply use them as a guide to obtain pleasing composition. Before you know it, you’ll be taking well-composed photos without even thinking about any rule.

  • so the way u put guidelines for composing photographs is different than the first one that i read. but it will still work just i was confused because shouldnt you do it the same way every time?