Photography Composition Rules: In-depth Guide for Great Photos



How do you make photos look good? Just by applying photography composition rules, the basics and experimenting. Yep. That’s what a professional photographer told me when I just got started, and it really is that simple.

Some of you guys might think photography as an art that needs a lot of raw talent to go far, but nope. Not really. Think about it. The best “art” that I can draw are stick figures, and now… feel free to check out my gallery.

I picked up photography for fun, I learned the basics, and before I know it, friends around me are liking my photos. So if you are one of those people who are low on “creative juice”, don’t worry. If this stick figures guy can get some recognition, so can you.  😉

All you need is really play with some of these composition rules, and let’s get on with the basics.




Section A
Composition Rules

Section B
Building Blocks

Section C

Section D
No rules

What’s next




Let us start with composition rules, for they are the easiest to learn and apply. Just what are composition rules? These are visual science elements that our ancestors have studied, and known to make things look pleasing to the human eyes.

Simply put – apply rule X, compose your photo this way, and it will (probably) look better.  Note that I used “probably”. That is because these rules don’t always apply – The best way is still to apply various rules and experiment for yourself.



How to use: Draw 4 lines and break your frame into equal thirds. Try to put your chosen subject along the interacting lines. Easy?

How it helps: When you place your subject on the gird, the rule of thirds will supposedly help you to balance the weight of elements. That will result in a more balanced, and pleasant looking photo.



How to use: You will want to remember the spiral pattern. Put the main focus of the photo in (or near) the “eye of the storm”, and “supporting casts” along the way.

How it helps: Something like the rules of thirds, and the spiral helps to balance the visual weights photo. The importance increases as it spiral inwards. As long as you design your photo by placing the focus in the middle and “everything else less appetizing” along the way – magic happens.



How to use: Place similar subjects in odd numbers. E.g. 3 oranges, 5 pears, 7 jars.

How it helps: The odd numbers placement will break the weight balance and symmetry. Supposedly again, this makes things more interesting to look at… which I somewhat disagree. An even number of subjects and mirror effects can be interesting too.



How to use: Self-explanatory. Shooting into mirrors and getting reflections.

How it helps: Well, proven by visual science. The majority of the human race just find symmetry interesting.



How to use: Find things with repeating textures and patterns – Does not have to be exact subjects, but close enough.

How it helps: When things repeat themselves, a certain harmony is formed. You can try to break patterns too – A drop of red in a sea of blue maybe?



How to use: 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 chosen subject.

How it helps: Have a break from the “usual” photography. Offers something different to your viewers.



How to use: A frame in the photo frame. Include a window frame, door frame, or natural rock formation frame in your photo. Welcome to frame-ception.

How it helps: Frame in a frame. How can this not be interesting?



How to use: One of the most common and powerful composition rules. Use naturally occurring lines (roads, paths, streams, etc…) to lead your viewer to where you want them to see.

How it helps: This is one of the basic building blocks for composition. Guide your viewer to an interesting subject, and keep them interested in your photo.




Now that you know the rules of the game, let us go into something even more deeper. The basic building blocks of composition itself :

  • Colors
  • Lines
  • Shapes

If you look elsewhere online or in books, you might find more – textures, spaces, value, form, etc… Those are not wrong. But for simplicity’s sake, we shall keep it to these 3, and these are also the very foundations of art itself.



The RGB Color System

The first thing you need to know about colors is the RGB (red, green, blue) color system, and 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.
  • When blue and green are mixed, you get cyan.

It’s a system where you mix-and-match the 3 basic colors in different quantities to produce other colors. Another fact that you have to know is that, most modern electronic equipment adopt this color system – Almost all cameras, smartphones and computers are based on RGB. It is absolutely vital for you to at least know that “RGB” exists.



This is another color system dealing with cyan, magenta, yellow, and “key” (The “key” simply means black). I won’t go deep into this one, as it is more for the guys who are into professional printing instead. But if you want accurate color prints, try saving your photos in the CMYK color system instead.



Color temperature

You will hear these terms very commonly in photography. But is temperature not used to measure heat? So what the heck is color temperature and warm/cold colors!? Fear not, it all simply refers to “classifying colors into 2 main groups” :

  • Warm colors are shades of orange, red and yellow.
  • Cool colors are shades of blue, purple and green.

Why do we do that? Because warm and cold are the most commonly re-occurring colors in nature. As for color temperature, just know that it is measured in Kelvins – The lower the color temperature the warmer (orange) it is, and the higher it goes the colder (blue) it gets.



After all the technical stuff, the million dollar question remains – How do we play with colors in photography? There are probably endless ways to work with colors, but I shall put in a few good examples and inspirations.

Mono-color: Use 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.
Very colorful: A splash of many colors. Be careful not to over-saturate though. It may look simple, but most newbies end up with “a vomit of colors”.
Color Contrast: A striking colored object against a dull background, or the other way round.



The study of colors is wide and deep, what we have covered thus far, only scratches the surface. For you Einsteins who wants to know more, here are some links for you.



Onto the next element. Lines are everywhere, and you just have to look at things from a different angle – Roads form straight or curved lines, buildings form horizontal lines, even banana have nice curves. While this may be “abstract” for some beginners, lines are very powerful when you learn to use them right. Let’s dive into some examples.

Horizontal: Generally casts a feeling of stability, calm, broadness or vastness. Commonly seen in wide-angle landscape photography.
Vertical: Generally adds a sense of height to your photo – Tall and strong. But be careful that a long vertical line has the tendency to “separate” the frame into 2 halves.
Diagonal: Adds perspective to the photo when used correctly. Also, adds a sense of depth to the photo.
Curved: 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, it may not be easy to think “in terms of lines” at first. But being one of the basic blocks, lines are what makes or breaks a photo.

If you have trouble with lines, my advice will be to start with simple horizons, trees, and buildings first. They are the best horizontal and vertical lines makers. Then challenge yourself with diagonal, curved or combine them when you are comfortable.



Now onto the last element, and shapes are even more “abstract” than lines. But get it right, and it will give your photo a good sense of structure, organization, and harmony.

Circle: Generally attention-grabbing, especially when the photo is entirely flat and there is one big round spot. It’s like screaming “I am here”!

Squares and Rectangles: Generally gives a feel of structure and organization. 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: Works pretty much like an arrow. It has that “you should look this way” effect when used correctly.



Now that you know all the rules and basics, there is probably one last burning question – How do you use all the rules and basics? You can be sure that 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 look at most photos by the veterans, 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.

Not easy for beginners to fully understand this. So the best place to start will be studying photos online, and look at how the professionals balance the elements. Experiment with different subject placements and perspectives – See for yourself what works best.



So here we come to the last lesson, and it is time to do the old kung-fu flick – The composition rules and basics are useful but not always. By that, I mean that you don’t have to follow the composition rules in photography.

When the time comes to break the rules, break it. If framing a photo with rule of thirds seems wrong, then don’t do it. There are no “it must be composed this way” to begin with. Keep in your mind that every photo is a statement, regardless of the rules of compositions are applied or not.

If you have an idea or concept for a good photo that defies 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.

Go out, have fun, and shoot more.


Infographic – Photography Composition Rules


Previous Lesson: How to Choose Gear Next Lesson: Lens Filters


Leave a Comment