Photography Composition Rules and Tips for Great Photos

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Photography is rather different from the rest of the arts, a professional photographer once told me. To become very good at arts, you need a lot of raw talent. Not for photography. Just by learning the basics, applying techniques and good photography composition rules, you can become an expert.

So for those who are low on self-confidence on the “creative juice” part, don’t sweat it. I never thought myself to be a creative too, and the best “art” that I can draw are stick figures. I picked up photography for fun, I learnt the basics, and before I know it, friends around me are liking my photos.

If a guy who can only draw stick figures is getting some recognition, I believe everyone else can do the same… maybe even better than me. 😉 So let’s get on with the basics. A small reminder – This guide only touches on the “stuff that you need to know”. For those who want to learn more, I shall provide links to more in-depth articles. Read those when you feel adventurous.


We shall start with composition rules, for they are the easiest to learn and apply. But note, these are just rules of thumb. Not rules to follow strictly. Use these to help you compose better photos, not restrict yourself.

Rule of Thirds : Draw 4 lines and break your frame into equal thirds. Try to put your chosen subject along the interacting lines. Easy? Rule of thirds supposedly helps you balance the weight of elements.

Golden Ratio / Golden Spiral : Something like the rule of thirds. But that spiral frame guide has a lot of science behind it. Simply put, as it spiral inwards, the importance increases. You will want to put your main focus point near the “eye of the storm”.

Rule of Odds : Things are better in odds and not evens. 3 oranges, 5 pears, 7 jars. Not that even numbers are bad… it’s just the odd placement will break balance and symmetry. Supposedly again, more interesting to look at.

Symmetry : Self explanatory, shooting into mirrors and reflections work too.

Patterns : When things repeat themselves, a certain harmony is formed. It is interesting to break patterns too. A drop of red in a sea of blue maybe?

Negative Space : Positive space in photography is deemed as “space for your subject” in the frame. Negative space offers a different perspective. Have a lot of space for the surroundings, and a small spot for your subject.

Leading lines : One of the most common and powerful composition rule. Lead your viewer to where you want them to see.

Framing : A frame in the photo frame. Welcome to frame-ception. Anything can be a frame actually, not just windows and doors. The example above shows a nature rock formation as a frame.


The composition rules should be sufficient to make better photos. But for those who wants more, you need to understand the 3 basic elements of photography composition:

  • Colors
  • Lines
  • Shapes

Master the use these elements, and they will be your weapons for creating an award winning photo.


The color star (source : Wikipedia)

First off, let me state the captain obvious fact – Long before photography, our ancestors have already been using colors in design, buildings, paintings and so much more since thousands of years ago. This is one of the most basic, but also most ancient studies. You guess it – there’s a lot to learn about colors.

Primary colors : Today, we normally adopt red, green, and blue as our primary colors (RGB color system). How it works is pretty simple. When all 3 colors are absent, it’s black. When all 3 colors are present, it’s white. Mix red and blue, you get magenta. Mix green and red, you get yellow.

It’s basically a mix-and-match of the 3 basic colors to produce other colors. Another fact that you have to know is that, most modern electronic equipment adopt this color system. That is how your camera, smartphone and computer work.

For printing : Won’t go deep in this. Just know that most professional printers use the CMYK color system instead. That is cyan, magenta, yellow, and “key”. The “key” simply means black. If you want accurate color prints, you might want to find out more about the CMYK color system.

Warm and cool colors : In photography, you will hear these words quite commonly. What it means is stupidly simple.

  • Warm colors are shades of orange, red and yellow. They generally project the feel of arousal, warmth and stimulation.
  • Cool colors are shades of blue, purple and green. They generally project the feel of calmness, cool and relaxation.

That’s it. We are just “classifying” colors into 2 main schools.

Color temperature : Is temperature not used to measure heat? So what the heck is color temperature? I am going to leave the tech stuff out, and a link below for the super brains. Simply know that color temperature ranges from warm (orange) to cool (blue), measured in Kelvins.

Color temperature (source : Wikimedia)

Color psychology : Every color projects a different feel, and triggers a different psychological effect. If you want to be a master photographer, you have to master the use of colors. Shall leave a link below again.

More : Links for the adventurous, as stated above. Read color theory and color temperature on Wikipedia. Also this article on Creative Bloq for color psychology.


Now for the million dollar question. How do we play with colors in photography? The quick way without reading all those tech stuff. There are probably endless ways to play with colors, but I shall put in a few good examples and inspirations from Flickr.

Mono color attack : Use only one very striking color (like red or yellow) and fill up nearly the entire frame. This is very punchy and you can be sure it attracts attention.

Photo by EyeSnap Photography

It’s a rainbow! : Use a colorful splash of colors. Be careful not to over-saturate though. It may look simple, but most newbies end up with “a vomit of colors”.

Color Run
Photo by Jessie Hsu

Color Contrast : A striking colored object, against a dull background… or the other way.

Still colorful
Photo by Bill Wilcox


Onto the next element. Lines tend to be a little more abstract, and some beginners might face trouble “spotting” lines in composition. But lines are everywhere, you just have learn how to spot them. Let’s dive into some examples.


Horizontal Lines : Generally casts a feeling of stability, broadness or vastness. Good for wide angle horizons.

Vertical Lines : Generally adds a sense of height to your photo; Tall and strong, but has a tendency to “separate” the frame. Compose vertical lines with care.

Diagonal Line : Tends to add perspective to the photo, also adds a sense of depth to the photo when used correctly.

Curved Line : Human eyes tend to follow along these lines. Use these to lead your viewers to something interesting. E.g. river to sunset, or road to a building.

I know, not easy to think “in terms of lines”. But being one of the basic blocks, lines are what makes a photo great or meh. My advice will be, start with simple horizons, trees and buildings first. They are the best horizontal and vertical lines makers. Challenge yourself with diagonal, curved or combine them when you are comfortable.


The last element, and shapes are even more abstract than lines. Get it right and it will give your photo a good sense of structure, organization and harmony. Set it wrong, and things will like a mess.


Circle : Circles are generally attention grabbing, especially when the photo is entirely flat and there is one big spot. It’s like screaming “I am here”! A huge flower in the frame, or the sunset. Sounds familiar?

Squares and Rectangles : Generally gives a feel of structure and well-organized. Please do take note that when squares and rectangles occupy a huge part of the photo without anything else, it will appear very flat.

Triangle : Triangles are also rather attention grabbing. At the same time, it has that “look this way” effect when used correctly.


Now that you have all the rules and basics in mind, there is something else you need to know. Composition is not about putting all the elements into one big pot and stir. Hard to fully explain in words. But if you take a close look at most photos, you will notice that photos are not a roller coaster mix-and-match of many rules.

It is about putting things into the right places to make the photo look good. It is about balancing the elements, and using them in creative ways.


Here comes the end of the lesson, and it is time to do the old kung fu flick – there are no rules. By that, I mean that you don’t always have to follow these composition rules in photography. Break the rules when you must, there are no “it must be composed this way” to begin with.

Keep in your mind that every photo is a statement, regardless if the rules of compositions are applied or not. So if you have an idea or concept for a good photo that defy the rules, just go ahead with it. No one will arrest you for breaking the composition rules. 😆


You have survived the long tutorial! I know this is a lot to absorb in a short time. Composition may be difficult at first, and there is literally no way to master it overnight. What worked for me is looking through photos online, and study why certain photos attracted me. I then try to copy, and improve on the elements.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the amount of information here. Give yourself time and try to adopt the composition rules one at a time. Photography composition is like riding a bicycle, you will only catch the gist of it when you apply it more.

Lastly, strange as it may sound, the more you apply the rules, the more you should know when to break them. That is also where the challenge comes, when everyone is applying rules, you break it to stand out of the crowd. So go out, have fun, and shoot more.

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