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The composition rules in photography are great tools to instantly make your pictures better. Defining the composition of a picture, is defining the scene and the mood you want your viewer to experience. That is why it is the most important aspect of an image. A sharp photo with a boring composition, is worse than a interesting photo that is lacking some sharpness. This page describes how to create a good composition, to help you improve your photos.

It truly helps to follow the rules if you have never tried this, but be aware not to follow them blindly. This page explains why compositions work and how using them can improve your photos. It is encouraged to break these “rules” for artistic matters.

On this page three possible compositions are discussed:

Rule of thirds

Most starting photographers are inclined to put their subjects in the middle of the photo. If this applies to you, consider to change something (or not), and start using the Rule of Thirds. This is one of the most known composition rules in photography and can instantly improve your work, whatever type of photography.

Using the rule of thirds, you divide the frame in nine equal rectangles, by drawing lines at one-third and two-thirds of the photo horizontally and vertically. Your main subject (for a portrait photo this would be the eyes) should be placed on one of the points where the lines cross. You “should” avoid placing your subject in the middle rectangle.

Rule of Thirds

In the rule of thirds, you divide the image with lines on thirds. Where the lines cross, is where you place the subject of the photo.

Not only do you place your subject on one of these points, but also the horizon. Which should be level at one-third or two-thirds of the photo. If the sky is important, the horizon should be at one-third of the photo. But if the landscape is important, you should place the horizon at two-thirds of the photo (like the image below). Another important rule to remember is that horizon should be level!

Tulips in Hillegom, The Netherlands

A tulip field in Hillegom, The Netherlands. The horizon in this photo, is located on two-thirds of the photo, because the flowers are more important than the sky.

Why does it work?

The reason this composition works, is that from one of these points, your eyes have space to move around the photo, this makes the photo dynamic. Because our eyes are tend to stay static in the middle of the photo (it is natural to us), we don’t look around any more once we have reached the center of the photo.

Dutch Sky

In this photo, the sky is more important than the landscape. That’s why the horizon is level at one third of the photo.

Fibonacci’s Golden Ratio

The rule of thirds work very well, but there is another (more complex) composition rule that works too: Fibonacci’s ratio.

Leonardo Pisano, also know as Fibonacci, was an Italian mathematician, and the first western scientist to describe the sequence 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on. Did you notice a pattern here? The sum of the previous two numbers, is the value of the next number. For example: 0+1=1; 1+1=2; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8, etcetera.

It is assumed he learned this sequence while staying Algeria, where he met Indian and Arabic mathematicians. If you divide one number by the previous number, it will become visible that the outcome on average, is around 1,6 (starting at 5 – the sixth number in the sequence). Prove: 2/1 = 2; 3/2=1,5; 5/3=1,666; 8/5=1,6; 13/8=1,625, … 144/89=1,617, etcetera. Mathematicians calculated that the golden ration number is 1.618 (source), also known as Phi.

How can this be used in a composition? Suppose the canvas of your photo is 3.000 pixels by 2.000 pixels. Just like the Rule of Thirds, we will divide the canvas in nine segments, but this time not at thirds of the photo.

The first line we draw on the canvas is vertically at 3.000/1,618 = 1.854 pixels.

Golden Ratio

The first line will be at 3.000 / 1,618 = 1.854 pixels.

The next line is also vertically, this time at 1.845 (the position of the previous line) / 1,618 = 1.146 pixels.

Golden Ratio

On ratio 1,618 to the previous line, the next line will be at at 1.845 / 1,618 = 1.146 pixels.

Now, we’ll divide the canvas horizontally, starting at 2.000 / 1,618 = 1.236 pixels.

Golden Ratio

The third line is horizontally at 2.000 / 1,618 = 1.236 pixels.

And finally a horizontal line at 1.236 / 1,618 = 764 pixels (counting from the top of the canvas).

Golden Ratio

The golden Ratio, or Fibonacci’s sequence used in a composition. The ratio between the canvas and the lines is 1:1,618.

Just like in the rule of thirds, the subject should be placed at the red dots.

Me and Fibonacci

According to Fibonacci Golden Ratio, my eyes are crossing the top right lines.

Why does it work?

Just like the Rule of Thirds, this works, because your eyes want to move around from these points, making you look longer at the picture. The big difference between the Rule of Thirds and Fibonacci’s Golden Ratio, is that the subject is a little more towards the center of the photo in the latter one. This is useful when you feel that the subject is too close to the edge of the frame, or need a little more negative space for artistic matters.

Symmetry

Both composition rules as described above have one thing in common: the subject is never in the middle of the photo. Like mentioned, this creates a dynamic photo. But what if your goal is to achieve a sense of serenity? A central composition might work in that case. With a subject in the center of the photo, your eyes stay at rest, hence the picture will be calmer, like the image below.

The lonely tree.

A lonely tree during a misty evening in Hilversum, The Netherlands.

Adding some power to the photo above, is done by adding symmetry to the composition. Unlike in the previous described compositions, the horizon is in the middle of the photo.

Combining the Rule of Thirds (or Fibonacci’s Ratio) and symmetry, changes the atmosphere of the photo completely, like in the image below. Opposed to the picture above, the tree is not centered, but on one of the points on the imaginary “line of thirds”.

The lonely tree

Still symmetric, but the tree is located according the Rule of Thirds.

Why does it work?

Symmetry can be used as a powerful composition tool, but be aware not to wear it out and create a boring picture. Reflections, or structured buildings are grateful subjects for a symmetric composition.

This composition works, because our brain is always looking for patterns and structures. Since symmetry is the ultimate structure, we associate symmetry with beauty, and consider it pleasing to the eye.

Architecture

Architecture lends itself well for a symmetrical composition.

Hopefully these tips above are useful. Like implied in the introduction, these composition rules should be used as tools, not as rules. One final tip: No matter what composition you use, don’t try to stuff too many elements in one photo. Keeping it simple will create the best photo!

15 Comments

  1. Pingback: Update: Create beautiful photos using composition rules | Luvo

    • Reply

      Thank you 🙂 It is quite interesting! And I think useful to know. Knowledge is power 😉

      Cheers,
      Tieme

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  4. Reply

    I didn’t know the science behind it either 🙂 I’ve heard of these rules but never really bothered reading about them because I consider photography to be a visual art and so I just do what I want. Even if my shots aren’t always “artistic” in style. Your post made me reflect whether I’ve been unconsiously using these rules…. Interesting post and thanks for educating me!

    • Reply

      Hi,

      Thank you for your comment, and my apologies for the late reply! Life can be hectic at times.

      Photography surely is visual art, and being “stuck by rules” isn’t great. But talking about art: Da Vince, Rembrandt, Van Gogh.. They all used these rules of composion, simply because it works. And I think some artists don’t like me saying this: But art, and beauty, are science. Our brain is science.. 😉

      I think most people are unconsciously using these rules, because our brain knows this works. What about you?

      Have a great week, and thank you for your time!

      Warm regards,
      Tieme

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  9. Reply

    Fibonacci’s Golden Ratio is something I utilise a lot in my day to day photography work. I also use it and know of a lot of graphic designers who use Fibonacci’s Golden Ratio too.

    I don’t know of any scientific evidence which proves its authority but nevertheless, photography is art isn’t it?

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post, I’ve bookmarked it for future reference

    • Reply

      Hi Tracey! Thank you very much for your comment and the bookmark! I am glad that you like it.

      It is a widely used concept, I agree. And I believe as a wedding photographer it works well for you. There is something that feels as a soft touch to go even a little more off-centre than when using the rule of thirds.

      But I am going to be bold here: art is science (don’t shoot me 🙂 ). Well, at least, some forms of art are. Because beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is mainly influenced by how we are neurologically programmed. A more or less symmetric face is considered beautiful, a picture with the subject off-centre looks better because our eyes and brain didn’t expect that, some colours work well together because our eyes pick up the contrast better.. This is beauty explained by neurological and psychological science 😉 Hmm, I kind of feel like killing romance by saying that 😉 Might do an article about that soon! Thank you for inspiring me 🙂

      Have a great day!

      Warm regards,
      Tieme

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