The Principles of Composition in Photography

The principles of composition in photography are a set of guidelines which help you to organize the elements in  the scene before you photograph it.

These principles are very similar to those in art, and sometimes the two disciplines overlap but of course the end results are achieved by different means due to the use of different tools.


In this article you will find my top tips for improving your photographic composition. Please use any one of them as a starting point, and remember that it takes tons of practice to master these techniques to the point at which you find yourself using them almost automatically. But don't let that put you off starting!

Spend a whole day with each of these principles of composition, one per day, and see what a difference it makes.

If you are short of time, just absorbing the principles of these few composition tips will make a big difference to your work. But if you have more time and commitment, check out the other articles in this section.

1. Know the Rules if You Want to Break Them

A work of art gives the viewer a sense of balance, wholeness, harmony and unity if the rules of composition have been applied successfully. If you wish to create unease or disharmony in a picture, then knowing the rules is important so that you can break them through choice. Otherwise you will end up with a chaotic image.

2. Identify the Main Subject

This may sound obvious but it is important that you decide what the main subject is going to be in the final photo. Everything else in the scene then takes on a subordinate role and should work together with the main subject to create a balanced, harmonious, unified whole.

3. Play with Proportion

Balancing the bigger elements with smaller, perhaps less important elements, is important in order to bring a sense of balance and order to your composition. Sometimes a very small element can be more powerful than other, bigger elements. Consider the shapes in your image in terms of spatial 'weight' - do they seem balanced or unbalanced when considered all together?

4. Make the Most (or Least) of Cropping

The area you choose to include or exclude within the picture frame is very important and can be controlled through use of a different focal length, cropping in post-processing, walking further forward or back, bending your knees or climbing some stairs and so on. With practice, you can move around your subject in your imagination and see where all the other objects in the scene will be placed within your picture. Then you have real control.

5. High-Key or Low-Key?

Light and dark areas within a picture are important, not only in black and white photography but also in colour. A lot of light areas gives a very 'high  key' effect and is emotionally uplifting as a general rule. The opposite is true of course that many dark areas give a 'low key' effect and move the image towards a more emotionally depressing feel.

6. Be Aware of Negative Space

Negative spaces in an image are those areas or shapes which have no name. It's difficult sometimes to be aware of them but when you are aware, and can use them consciously in your composition, the sense of unity within the picture will be stronger.

7. Look for Geometric Shapes

Triangles, circles and rectangles are shapes which often underlie a good composition. For example, three peoples heads form a triangle of invisible lines or leaves floating on a pond may line up at a certain point to form a circular pattern. Study the art masterpieces of the past and look for the geometry which underpins the elements in the pictures. 

8. Look for Rhythm

Repeating lines (straight or curved) can create a rhythm within an image which is aesthetically pleasing. For example, the curve of rowing boats which are moored one behind each other or the shelves in a book store. There are many possibilities in our man made world, and sometimes in nature too, so keep your eyes open for opportunities.

What Next?

I hope that reading through these few principles of composition have made you realise that this is a subject which can really make a difference to your photos, with time and practise. As your work begins to improve, be sure to check back and read my other articles or download my 30-day EBook Course (The Art of Photographic Composition) which will take you on a photographic journey you will love.

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