# Compositional Rules

## Diagonals

Visual artists have long understood intuitively that the use of diagonal elements is yet another way to create drama in a one-dimensional composition. Diagonal lines can lead the eye through an image and help to generate a sense of movement. In landscape photography, diagonals are often formed using roads, streams, walls, or other linear features.

 This image has clear diagonals formed by the model's arms and theflowing cloth used in the setting. These elements draw the viewer's eye across the image.

When photographing people, the silhouette of a model's arm, leg or back can be used. It's important to understand that compositional diagonals need not be limited to explicit lines or the edges of a shape. The concept of diagonals can be used as a way of positioning elements in the scene, in much the same manner as the rules we discussed previously.

How does this work? Draw imaginary lines coming from the corners of the frame at 45 degree angles, as shown below, and place significant elements along these lines. In the first image below, note how the model's eye, left foot, and the lens of the camera near her feet are placed exactly on diagonals from the image's corners. The handle of the umbrella lies on an anchor point where two diagonals intersect.

 Here is an image that observes the Diagonal Method. The same scene, but with a different, non-'diagonal' crop.

The second image is a take from the same shoot that does not observe the Diagonal Method. The frame feels 'cramped', with the camera case too close to the bottom of the frame. And there is not enough of the foreground in the image, relative to the amount of vertical space above the model.

Dutch photographer Edwin Westhoff has formulated what he calls 'The Diagonal Method' as a compositional rule that encapsulates this idea. He has a very good article with numerous examples that explains this approach in more depth.

## Putting these rules to use

Knowing how to draw attention to an element begs the question of just what exactly you should be trying to highlight. How do you know which elements of a scene these rules are best applied to?

Think about the focal points of the image. Are you trying to draw the viewer's attention to a particular landscape feature? A model's eye? A product? Compositional elements need not be explicit features such as the stamen of a flower or a product such as a piece of jewelry. Think about using changes in color and texture or negative and positive space in relation to these rules.

As with any technique, the way to familiarize yourself with it is through conscious practice. Start with the Rule of Thirds (it's the easiest to visualize) and try framing images through the camera's viewfinder or LCD with it in mind. This is a great way to learn how to 'see' compositions and begin internalizing the technique.

Golden Ratio and Diagonals will most certainly be easier to practice post-exposure via cropping. Few, if any of us can visualize nested rectangles while we're shooting, for example. Many popular editing programs even offer crop overlays for these compositional techniques, making it very easy to start applying them.

Of course, these rules are only a sampling of the myriad techniques at your disposal for achieving a pleasing composition. Others are formulated around ideas of color balance, selective focus, foreground to background weight, framing, geometry...the list goes on. The rules I've discussed are a good starting point though for thinking critically about composition.

I highly recommend these rules as useful tools to help create dynamic, interesting images. But as with any creative endeavor, these rules should be taken more as suggestions rather than strict dogma. Yes, it pays to consciously apply them for a while, but do not let them be the only voices you listen to during your creative process. Indeed, it is by having an understanding of the theory behind these rules that you can sometimes create dramatic and surprising images by deliberately breaking them. And that's a topic I  will explore in an upcoming article. Stay tuned.

Thomas Park is a fashion / fine art photographer and educator based in Seattle, Washington. To follow his work, please visit http://www.thomasparkphoto.com.

Models: Nicole Cooper, Lyssa Chartrand, Beth K, Amelia T, Karren S. Hair and Makeup: Taryn Hart, Danyale @ Pure Alchemy, Dawn Tunnell, Michael Hall, Amy Gillespie, Ashley Gray, Julia Ostrovsky. Beth appears courtesy Seattle Models GuildNicole wears Kyra K and vintage Ann Taylor.  Beth wears Neodandi.  Amelia wears Wai-Ching.  Karren wears Cloak and Dagger NYC and Eugenia Kim.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

By (4 months ago)

Really dynamic tutorial on effective compositions!

By (11 months ago)

thank u

By (Oct 20, 2012)

Thank you!

By (Oct 18, 2012)

The First rule of photography is; there are no rules. The Second rule of photography is; the rule of Thirds. The Third rule of photography is; if the the Second rule does not apply, deffer to the First rule.

Stv };>)P

By (Sep 2, 2012)

Here's a question I often ask myself, when composing a shot of the sea or a large lake - is it better to put the horizon half-way down the frame (which is what you see when looking straight ahead) or go for the rule of thirds, which then either amplifies the sky or the sea?

By (Sep 2, 2012)

Especially use the rule of thirds with the horizon if it plays a major part in the composition. If you crop square, sometimes center frame is pleasant. Most people simply recommend this as a starting point: if the sky is interesting, horizon at the bottom third; if the foreground is more interesting, top third.

By (Sep 26, 2012)

Also, remember that a "third" here is not mandatory. Sometimes an exaggerated part of the scene, like 3/4 highlights the theme better, for instance if you take a photo of a ship and place the horizon at lower 1/4. This will highlight "the puny little human achievement" as compared with the "endless space".
Other way around, should you place the horizon and the ship way up at the 3/4 of the space, the sea occupying the most of the picture will suggest "the mighty forces of the elements" that the ship has to fight...
In short, your impressions of the larger part of the scenery will be more prominent.

1 upvote
By (Sep 2, 2012)

I use an Olympus PEN with the "thirds grid" enabled when shooting - however Olympus have taken a slightly odd decision of narrowing the central bands, the lines are not equally spaced and the cross-points are somewhat closer to the centre of the frame - a good idea? what do you think?

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By (Sep 3, 2012)

I guess they did not align the grid with the rule of thirds in mind, but with the golden ratio, which is a better idea anyway.

1 upvote
By (Sep 14, 2012)

True, as per Bomple, instead of thinking of it as drawing a line at the 2/3rds of the width/height of the frame from each side, draw a line at the 8/13 of the length of each side
You will end up with a very similar pattern to that of the grid you are seeing

By (Oct 6, 2012)

I use Olympus xz 1, and yes, the grid it's golden ratio first and second square.

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By (Aug 26, 2012)

Had a RGB-picture only one pixel - people would have 3x256 different opinions of it and would argue using all possible means.

Thanks for the very good article. Hermann

By (Aug 27, 2012)

Yes. This was a good article. Can't wait for the next! :)

By (Aug 25, 2012)

My understanding is that the RoT is merely a means of getting people to avoid the deadly dull 'mug shot' composition. I gather when a survey of people who obviously do not know the 'maths' the majority found more pleasure in images following the RoT than those which did not. In the examples above the nude breaks a directional rule by heading to the right on the right of the picture with more space from where it was than where it is going.... I might continue to read to see what other errors are made. In the woman and horse we have another breaking of the rules for all the waffle about how good it is because we have two objects competeing for attention and the result is the eye is continually moving back and fro horse woman horse .... urrrgh!

1 upvote
By (Aug 25, 2012)

Actually, having two or even three centers of attention is not a necessarily a bad thing. The viewer's eyes moving back and forth between subjects creates a dynamic feel for the image.

1 upvote
By (Aug 26, 2012)

And having the subject looking out of the frame can add suspense. I figure, just try to learn a whole bunch of these different ways to create images, and then for each pict, decide what few rules (if you can call them that) you're going to try to use to emphasize what you want to communicate. Different for each photo.

By (Aug 26, 2012)

Oh, yeah. But I kinda think about the RoT the same way. A useful way to remind myself not to center everything all the time. :)

1 upvote
By (Aug 24, 2012)

Why mention "rule of thirds" at all, "thirds" is fake believe and bad hearsay! Especially when you have found phi in the golden rule, the real number is 0.618033.., 1, 1.618033.. and it is not about having your subject in a place, but about having your subject aligned within a division.
"Thirds" are nothing but home made "rules" by people that do not understand the mathematics behind fibonacci numbers. It is all about putting different parts in different sections/divisions and not about putting things in a place, see this: http://www.jakegarn.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/golden-mean.gif which will clearly show the difference.
Sometimes by luck it will happen that if put the center of your main at the "thirds crossing", you'll also get its borders aligned within lines of the golden mean, but in other cases it may fail, understand and use the right rules, and then you are ofcause allowed to break them, but do not help spread fake believe and hearsay.
There are no "rules of thirds"!

By (Aug 24, 2012)

You'll find division at phi everywhere, eg: http://www.maths.surrey.ac.uk/hosted-sites/R.Knott/Fibonacci/fibnat.html#seeds

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By (Aug 24, 2012)

Geeky mathmatics aside, I can easily imagine the "thirds" lines (some cameras even provide that grid on the viewfinder) and compose.
I can't easily imagine the Fibonacci curve, nor the Golden grid.
BTW, for whatever reason, Nikon (and most major camera manufacturers) chose non-Golden rectangles for their sensors (for example, 3x2). I can easily divide any rectangle into thirds. I could only divide a Golden rectangle into a golden grid.

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1 upvote
By (Aug 24, 2012)

That nikon and others use a third based grid, does not make right and indeed they should not do so.
You can make a 38.2%-61.8% division of any rectangle no matter the proportion, it do not need to depend on the outer frame, that said sensors could use the folding "silver rectangle" (root 2) or golden rectangle proportion, the 3x2 is just heritage from film days. One good thing is that 3x2 is between the silver and the golden rectangle so both can be achieved with minimal crop.
If you center your main object it is often well supported by cropping the photo to the proportion of the silver rectangle, especially in portrait orientation.
Some links to help imagine a golden grid:
http://digital-photography-school.com/divine-composition-with-fibonaccis-ratio-the-rule-of-thirds-on-steroids
http://photoinf.com/Golden_Mean/Eugene_Ilchenko/GoldenSection.html
http://www.goldennumber.net/geometry/

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By (Aug 25, 2012)

I think you have to understand that the rule of thirds is a shorthand to help some people to compose not a mathematical theory. It is also a just rule of thumb. To accuse it of being 'fake believe' or 'fake' hearsay (an oxymoron) is like denying the historic and accepted use of 'beginning, middle, end' as a popular, well used and understood story-structuring technique.

The human predilection for harmonious proportions does not rely on using numbers correct to N decimal places. Yes, the real Golden Ratio accurate to 6 decimal places may be 0.618033 or whatever, but no one is going to think in terms of the rule of 5/8ths or 8/13ths or 13/21sts or however a fine a fraction expression you need to satisfy a mathematician. They are too hard to use in practice and the eye just does not care. Compositional technique is not about accurate mathematics. Thirds works in practice for many, that's all.

It is a compositional rule of thumb, not a doctrine.

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By (Aug 25, 2012)

The worst problem is that that r-o-t is used to put objects at a intersection which is basically wrong, not so much the number, the right thing to do is to have the border of objects aligned to lines that divide the frame. The frame can be divided by golden mean, by corner to corner diagonals and right angles, or by a spiral.
Keep defending r-o-t is as believing, that beating your wife make a good family, that it have been done for centuries does not make it right, repeating wrongs will never make it right.
And phi is found everywhere in nature and physics it is not "only" a mathematical magic number.
As said the way thirds is used is bad hearsay. And most important knowing and understanding the real/right rules and then break them is always better than believing in something wrong.
I'm on a crusade to get r-o-t to go away :)

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1 upvote
By (Aug 25, 2012)

> I'm on a crusade to get r-o-t to go away

I think one way to work on your crusade is to argue that it might be found in nature but only when you get out a slide-rule. The question is â€“ can people visually perceive these ratios in nature? Certainly rectangles do not occur in nature and they are fundamental to rules of composition in painting and photography. And then how many things in nature display the golden rule in a way that is clearly and immediately obvious to the untrained, naked eye? Is it clear that there is such a thing as the golden rule visible in nature that we have learnt to respond over millennia of psycho-neurological development â€“ or have we actually be trained to enjoy it through art historical education and exposure to those artificial man-made phenomena that display such aesthetic rules?

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By (Aug 25, 2012)

> > I'm on a crusade to get r-o-t to go away

I think you could develop and propose an alternative method that completely breaks with classical traditions. Think John Cage, for example. Think non-Pythagorus-based music composition ;)

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By (Aug 24, 2012)

Can somebody please state the origin of the rules of third because I read that it was actually a folly made up by "someone" . Artists do and teachers teach. Screw the rules, I like to split the horizon, I like dramatic colors for impact, I like ultra wides for drama, I like saturations, so what?

By (Aug 24, 2012)

Of course YOU can do anything you want.
The rules exist not to prevent you from doing anything.
The rules are an attempt to tell you what OTHERS, on average and not any one in particular, would consider a pleasing composition.
If you do art to please yourself, feel free to ignore rules.

By (Aug 23, 2012)

These rules were not made up by art teachers. They were deduced from the study of successful art. You don't necessarily have to follow these rules, but I believe you should know what they are and what they represent. They're an imperfect attempt to understand why human beings would rather gaze at item #1 than at item #2. I want people to look at my pictures, so I pay attention to the rules.

That's not to say I follow them slavishly. It's more a matter of playing with composition and cropping until I see something I really like, then asking whether or not it follows one or more of the classic rules. No surprise -- it usually does.

By (Aug 23, 2012)

i noticed, that the full names of the models are mentioned (some are at least)- i find this very nice and to my great displeasure many sites and fotographer refer to they models as 'Annemarie' or 'Julia' or like above as 'Amelia T.' etc.. not sure if this is to protect them form strange contacts or if it is still a chauvinistic habit..??.

By (Aug 26, 2012)

No, it's mostly because that's the way the models market themselves. That's assuming that we're actually talking about models here -- not every human subject in photography is a model. I wish people would get away from calling their portrait subjects "models"; if the word "subject" bothers you, we've had the term "sitter" to mean "subject of a portrait" for a couple-three hundred years.

1 upvote
By (Aug 23, 2012)

Too much focus on gear here. Composition always welcome and well done! I hope for much more.

By (Aug 24, 2012)

Good point

By (Aug 22, 2012)

I liked the article. As a beginner, composition is something I feel I need to work on and this piece helped lots. CHEERS DP!

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Funny thing about the golden ratio image is that my eye wasn't drawn to the woman's face, but to the hole in the wall. So much for theory.

A lot better than the first article on composition anyway...

By (Aug 22, 2012)

All we need now is the Pixel-Sized Grid Rule to cover the remaining 1% of compositions that don't accidentally manage to already have their subject matter fall on or around the lines of these three rules.

1 upvote
By (Aug 22, 2012)

Some of the principles outlines are fine. But what matters in composition is how the eyes (or strictly eye-brain) of the observer are led around the composition. I have always (over 50 years anyway) understood that the 'thirds rule' is an approximation of the golden mean. And all that means is that pleasing compositions often - not always - match some of the 'rules'.

What none of this means is that following the rules will generate a 'good' picture. In any case, we photographers try to convey a range of emotions in and through our pictures. often we require tensions between parts of the picture, often the contraposition of elements close together creates a visual conflict.

The so called 'rules' may help for getting chocolate box images, but my advice is ask yourself "B****r the rules; does this picture lead the observer's eyes where I want them to go?"!

I look forward to the article about 'breaking the rules'! ;-)

Mike

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By (Aug 22, 2012)

I am often amazed at how close good photographers come to be great, but never make it to that place. They are just to busy looking for excuses as to why their photos fail to reach that place then to take the time to look at what has been happening. Yes, we can crop an image and make it better and blur backgrounds in photoshop or clone out distractions, or whatever we think it takes to make a "great photo" but really, just taking a minute or two before handhand and that great shot is there without all that screwing around in photoshop.

Yes, rules are made to be broken, but it is a lot better and easier to know the rule first, seeing how it works before taking the shot, and then breaking it if necessary.

I use to be an antigue camera collector and was always intrigued by how many of the etched 8x10, 5x7 or 4x5 glass viewing screens had the rule of thirds marked on the screen itself.

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By (Aug 22, 2012)

Proscriptive composition? Is that the real deal?

All too many articles about composition fall back on the same old principles, crazily referred to as rules. It genuinely saddens me. Composition is a creative thinking process, not a database driven procedure straight jacketing subjects to fit a mould. People end up believing this stuff - not only using it to control their own shots, but applying it to their enjoyment of other images.

Forget the articles - concentrate on your subject and its environment and enjoy a little creativity and freedom.

"What are you going to do today Brian?"
"I'm going to take a creative photograph by placing my subject on the thirds intersection"

I can't wait.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

By (Aug 22, 2012)

What, look forward to the next thrilling instalment - breaking the rules? Excuse the sarcasm, but 'A guide in how to break the rules' isn't gripping me.

I personally think that no rules should ever be mentioned. There are a host of principles that are worthy of discussion, and there's no doubting s-curves have an attraction.

But I'll give Thomas a whirl and look at how he approaches how to break rules - and how knowledge of the rules is so important to achieve this goal.

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By (Aug 22, 2012)

By the same token we should send grammar to the weeds and speak or write freely, and overcome the principles of harmony and rhythm when it comes to music.
Are you aware that even the most innovative painters, like Picasso and Kandinsky, started out with rather formal paintings that obeyed classic rules? Only after they mastered the basic principles they felt free to innovate and take painting beyond conventions. Why should it be different with photography?
To break the rules one must know them first, otherwise he/she is just being ignorant.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

I'm well aware of Picasso's talents but try to avoid Kandinsky. I far rather see Turner as an example of breaking free of the shackles of the art establishment. Back in the old days, before Turner, nobody managed to shake the establishement's views and rules, and they were non too pleased that Turner opened peoples eyes.

What bothers me about the established rules of communication is that some people have no facility for them. There are some people with little grasp of formal grammar, but who have a lot to say that deserves to be heard. Why should rules hold them back? Lets ignore everyone from the third world who has no grasp of the written word, what could they bring to the table anyway?

No, I'm not saying grammar has no place, but ignorance is preferable to arrogance when it comes to rules.

There is often a passion from people with no knowledge of rules that isn't expressed by those who know it all.

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By (Aug 22, 2012)

I have to confess that I was not completely "there" when I first read the article earlier, and I actually did not realize that it is 3 pages. Doh! Can I blame your recent site revisions/overhaul, dpreview? I jest. I am the sole bearer of guilt here ... at any rate, now that I have had a rest, and now that I have had the doors to the rest of this story pried open for me, I am quite relieved and pleased by it all. As much as I too am one who is rather allergic to all things rules (so long as no one is being hurt!), I must say that this piece is really wonderful for a life-long beginner like me. The photographs, subjects, and most importantly the descriptions are all very beautifully done in my opinion, so thank you.

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1 upvote
By (Aug 22, 2012)

Chances are «...people with little grasp of formal grammar, but who have a lot to say that deserves to be heard» will never be remembered by history as writers, jkjond. And rightly so. But then again we are living in a world where Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black are considered musicians, even if they can't tell a sharp from a flat. It's OK, though: mediocrity reigns, and those who dare criticise it are arrogant people who think they know it all. Have it your way.

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By (Aug 23, 2012)

Well history has a habit of reshaping a few things. Same with art, such as the touch up work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling which they think they have now corrected. Photos have a habit of being recropped over time or reprocessed, losing the photographers original expression. Sometimes by necessity such as AA's damaged negs following a darkroom fire.

Music - strange area. How many musicians actually compose and perform their own work? Its an area where reproducing the original is often a goal.

But in photography, I'd rather see people putting their own spin on their work, not reproducing successful shots and copying compositions. A lack of personal expression.

Education stifles creativity.

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By (Aug 22, 2012)

The Golden Ratio and Diagonals rules are new to me. Useful article. :)

1 upvote
By (Aug 22, 2012)

This explains something I did not understand.

In the illustrative example of rules of third, I would have thought the eyes are the focus, and should be at the intersection of the grid lines.

But the eyes aren't.
They are a bit above the intersection.

Sort of..... depends on how you see it.

The rule of thirds, is ALREADY broken, in my opinion.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Thank you for the well illustrated article. I definitely appreciate the concepts of various "compositional aids" and arrangements, but it's just the act of calling them "rules" that has always irked me some! I mean not to minimise the effectiveness of it all, for I recognise that these "guidelines" (a name which I prefer!) have long been used to devastating effects by the giants of photography, for decades and by painter legends for centuries before that. Perhaps it is just semantics.. (Rules, at least those which do Not pertain to the keeping of some from harming others, often tend to rub me the wrong way! But that is personality-based mainly, from what I can tell.)

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By (Aug 22, 2012)

Do you feel the same way about rules of grammar?

By (Aug 22, 2012)

jezsik, there is no need to insult me. I was making a point, and if you failed to understand it, then you could have simply asked me to clarify my position.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Not an insult at all (and I'm disappointed that you take it as such), but a legitimate question. You recognize that "rules" of composition have been around for centuries but I suspect--and I've not researched this-- that you use the "rules" of grammar without effort.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

The photographic equivalent of the rules of grammar is not composition, but focussing, exposure and white balance.

If you want a literary equivalent of composition, it would be the pacing and contrast of scenes in a story. For example, the famous scene of the porter in Macbeth, where the comedy acts as a contrast to the prevailing darkness.

The "Rules of Composition" are starting points, not constraints like the rules of a sport.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Two very different forms of communication - though there is some very enjoyable and creative written word that shuns conventional grammar. Note that grammar is constantly evolving, you don't get many articles on the use of grammar that resort to quoting Aristotle, though all too many which insist that infinitives should always be touching.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Some cameras have rule of thirds lines superimposed in viewfinder, but do many (any) have major cross focus detectors at the 4 intersection points as well as center? Would it also be helpful to have selectable spot metering options for these points?

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Back button to focus.
Nuff said.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Thank you so much for this informative article on composition. As an amateur, there is always somethin new to learn from more experienced peers. Congratulations to DPreview for being a window to what it is half of its true purpose and vocation. More, more, more!

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Interesting. I articles on composition and the rule of thirds some months ago and got almost no response.
http://www.dpreview.com/articles/7960854181/how-to-use-composition-to-improve-your-images
and
http://www.dpreview.com/articles/7143352326/the-rule-of-thirds-a-simple-way-to-improve-your-images

By (Aug 23, 2012)

Went through your articles just now. Thanks, they are well written and great for newbies to get up to speed quickly to improve their photography.

It's funny how some articles catch fancy of the posters and some get less attention. Maybe your articles were not featured on the front page of DPR?

1 upvote
By (Aug 23, 2012)

Yeah, they were not featured. It would be nice if DPR would promote some of our self-created articles to encourage more writers to participate. I had a few more I wanted to write, but don't feel particularly motivated now.

Thanks for the compliment!

By (Nov 13, 2012)

Jezsik, I read yours now, i did not get to them before probably because were published before I joined DP. Bur let me tell you that since then, I follow your input, I always find something new to learn. As a fellow member, i appreciate very much your work in this site.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

I have never followed any so called rules of photography and I have won a number of contests. photography is an art not squares and lines.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Whenever you take a photograph, you are composing a subject within the confines of a frame, be it a square or rectangle. Your subject is made up of lines and shapes that interact within a frame. Mathematics is simply the language used to describe the interactions between elements within your frame.

If you ever light up a set in a studio, you really start seeing how mathematics and photography are one in the same.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Good for you. With talent, you may find the most interesting compositions of a scene without using any rules. For most of us mortals, the rules generally improve the shots a lot.

Also, knowing the rules makes it easier to break them, while your winning shots could still obey the rules, you just do it by instinct. The other aspect is that of hundreds of entries, those shots that stand out (for example because they break the rules) are more likely to win. No one is saying these rules are everything.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

I think it is more about achieving a balanced composition and subtle asymmetry than adhering to strict rules. The best photos are the former.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

You ALREADY follow the rule of thirds. Whether you're conscious of this or not is another matter.

The "rule" isn't really a rule, and if it is, it's natural rather than made up. It simply quantifies a way of arranging things that, universally, appeals visually to human beings. So again, whether you knowthe rule or not does not matter. If you take photos, and the composition is good, there will be many instances where the rule of thirds is followed.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

My guess is that even if you were not following these rules consciously, your innate sense of composition applied the rules for you. Anyone with natural aesthetic tastes doesn't even need to think about it really, which I guess you have if you won the awards. Go back and analyze your winning images and I bet you will see that your images had followed one or more of these rules. I doubt very much that one of your winning images was, say for example, a bulls-eyed image. (subject stuck right in the middle). You should celebrate.. you are able to do without thinking what so many of us have to grapple with on each image.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

There are no rules in composition, only the good and bad.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Balderdash. There are a pretty well understood set of heuristics which, if applied consistently, will tend to produce more pleasing images.

Are they unbreakable like the rules of physics - no. But dismissing them off hand is ignoring a lot of experience built up over hundreds of years about what may help your images be "good" rather than "bad".

By (Aug 22, 2012)

This is simply untrue. No-one is saying these rules apply in every case, but they are a good starting point, particularly for beginners.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Simple and demonstrative, I found it enlightning for beginners!

By (Aug 21, 2012)

The rule of thirds is just a simple way to do a rough golden ratio, with the benefit of being able to map the whole frame in one go, whereas golden ratio will give different intersections, depending on which side you start from.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

As a new photographer, I found this useful. All three will take some effort to incorporate effectively into my photography.

1 upvote
By (Aug 21, 2012)

The rule of thirds is easily applied, if required, in a camera viewfinder. This is not so for the golden mean and diagonal arrangements as described in this article.

Unless there is a long-winded studio photographic session, how are such rules to be applied in practice? Surely these latter compositional rules are only practical in graphic design and similar non-photographic image compositions, where the author may take his time rather than having to capture a moment.

The article also fails to mention any number of other simple yet effective rules for photographic composition, such as the use of various lead-in lines, stoppers at the photo periphery, symmetry for reflected scenes and other human-pleasing ways to keep the eye interested and involved with the elements of a photo.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

One of the points we made in the article was that less intuitive techniques like the golden ratio can be applied post-capture via cropping.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Amadou, yes! Thanks! As someone who likes to take pictures, mainly nature (not a photographer, but just a newbie), I have a terrible time taking pictures of people, because I cut their bodies trying to get an overall background! (I know, I'm just learning!).

Software has helped me figured out my problems, and on some software the cropping function can automatically overlay the grids (3rds or diagonal rules), making easy to keep some shots and fixing some of those composition mistakes made when you're a newbie!

Just wondering.. being the golden ratio more, relative.. what's the impact of things like sensor format (3:4, 4:6, etc) on the more absolute rules (3rds and diagonal)? (Looks like a squared sensor/crop would lead to different diagonals than a 3:4, etc). Thanks again!

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1 upvote
By (Aug 22, 2012)

As one practices visualization, one learns to see more "complex" arrangements like the golden mean and diagonal arrangements of which you speak. Learning to see composition through the viewfinder (or LCD) is one of the things that separates good photographers from most, and good photographs from snapshots. Certainly if you're shooting ephemeral subjects, it's harder to arrange a specific composition, but not impossible. That's why practice and visualization matter. And a great many photographic subjects are not fleeting moments, but rather more static arrangements that allow the photographer the ability to *think* about composition. Such thought is something else that separates good photographers from average.

As for other "simple yet effective" rules, I don't think the author claimed this was an exhaustive list. But it is a starting point, and learning to think about composition in the viewfinder will help you apply many other "rules," too.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Thanks for a good article

By (Aug 21, 2012)

I'm rather new to photography and I'm not very good, although there are a number of people who disagree with that assessment, which of course, pleases me.

When I first began to shoot with a dSLR and began to try to take the effort seriously, even before I started to take the camera out of its P mode, I focused on composition and not always to good effect.

However, it was the rule of thirds, diagonals and curvature that I tried to incorporate into my photography.

I shoot to document the activities of my club that restores old warbirds to flying condition. In some ways, it is a very challenging setting and in others, it's a very simple setting to shoot.

I try to shoot people more than things, but they are inextricably linked and it is in that juxtaposition that I look for the rules of composition and I exploit them.

The elements are there. The trick is to make them work for me.

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By (Aug 21, 2012)

Very fine analysis about the link between people and things in photos :)

1 upvote
By (Aug 21, 2012)

I learned about the rule of thirds back in 2000, long before I took an interest for photography. Its application is not confined to photography; it is massively used in design. Newspaper pages and book covers, i. a., are composed in compliance to the rule of thirds. It has to do with the way we look at things; it is a "natural" rule because it's based on our perception. If you place the subject dead-centre, the picture becomes boring, with no sense of dynamics. As every rule, it can be broken, but it is useful as a way to drive the eye into the subject and make the picture more interesting. I have to thank DPR for publishing this article. Of course the nay-sayers are all up in arms, as usual, but - who cares?

By (Aug 21, 2012)

After 25+ years of taking pictures, I still find it refreshing to be reminded of the craft of making pictures.

Thanks.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Good article.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Interesting but sadly flawed. Chopping off a hand (lady with horse) looks bad and the diagonals are merely 45 degree lines: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diagonal

Chris

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Great little article. Keep 'em coming DPR!

By (Aug 21, 2012)

I find it very sad that people are slagging down the article examples just minutes after it's been posted. Haven't they got a life? Must have nothing better to do with themselves. I used to like reading the posts here and on the forum but am getting put off now by negative people that just moan about stupidness. Nice article and well written. Thanks for sharing ;-)

By (Aug 21, 2012)

You know, some people find no usefulness in composition rules. All they want is to shoot their cat at ISO 25600...

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Manuel you are SO right!

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Manuel: Or test charts....

1 upvote
By (Aug 21, 2012)

By (Aug 21, 2012)

By (Aug 21, 2012)

You follow one rule, but break two others. For instance, the cropping in the second photo cuts off part of the woman's hand. The third photo I think involves some nudity, so it should probably be labelled *NSFW* (or the whole article labelled that) because while we may not mind the nudity, someone looking over our shoulder in the workplace may.

In the modern world where photos are rarely printed and often viewed on screen, in a movable window, the rule of thirds is such a big deal anymore.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

NSFW? â€“â€“ OMG! Thereâ€™s more nudity in the Vatican museum!

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Someone's voting Mitt Romney next November...

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Or just prudent mor*n... Some ppl live to complain about stupid things.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

More importantly than his views on nudity is his idea that the rule of thirds doesn't matter because images are not printed. Good composition is good composition, regardless of the medium. If you're only looking at part of an image at a time while scrolling it around on the screen, you're doing it wrong.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Had it crossed your mind that the crop simply illustrates the point? Nudity, crikey, are you in a monastry. There is more flesh on my local high street. And the final point is just odd.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

To me, composition is the most important thing that makes a photo work or not. At the same time, I think it is the most enigmatic and therefore intangible aspect of photography. Although it is a noble ambition to capture the secrets of composition in a simple set of rules, the only rules I see around are clichés like the rule of thirds. Yet, a lot of excellent photographers quite often break these rules like they were never there and still make photos that are appealing to a large audience. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those photographers, no matter how much I'm aware of the "rules." Or maybe just because of that.

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By (Aug 22, 2012)

One generally should learn the basic rules of anything before learning when and how to break them. But yes, these shouldn't really be called rules, but rather guidelines. And yes, they can often be broken effectively. But I think most amateurs, especially most novices, are better served by learning and applying basic rules of composition first. Putting elements randomly in the frame and calling it creative, and "breaking the rules" rarely works very well. How can you break the rules if you don't understand what they are and how they work? Those "excellent photographers" of whom you speak know what rules they're breaking, and have good reasons for their approach, and most likely developed their style over a significant period of time. Walk before you run, and all that.

Comment edited 8 minutes after posting
1 upvote
By (Aug 22, 2012)

I hope you're right Bob. There's still hope for me then... ;-)

By (Aug 21, 2012)

I would suggest:

The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
- by Michael Freeman

By (Aug 21, 2012)

+1
Can I also add to that his second book 'The Photographer's Mind'

Both books are exceptionally well written, with great insight and info for any enthusiast and pro photographer out there.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

And an excellent suggestion it is, sir. That book has been an inspiration to me. Not only Michael Freeman is a very illustrated man with excellent writing skills, but also he is a great photographer. From time to time I reread some chapters of The Photographer's Eye to consolidate my admittedly still scarce knowledge. I can't praise that book highly enough.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

I must add I also have Michael Freeman's «Mastering Digital Photography», a slab of a book everyone serious about photography should read.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

aside of the use of the rule of 3 you can also use 5 and 7.

1 upvote
By (Aug 21, 2012)

I feel inordinately constrained by anything less than 11.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

For me it the rule of 19s, but then I'm just plain silly!

By (Aug 22, 2012)

2^43,112,609 âˆ’ 1 gives a lot more freedom of expression.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

The illustration of negative space is not a compelling one. Nor is the model and horse picture a good example of use of the rule of thirds, a rule that tends to turn out boring photos anyway when slavishly applied by newbies.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

"This food is terrible and the portions are too small?"

By (Aug 21, 2012)

I have to agree. The so-called "rule" of thirds is in any case an extremely poor approximation of the Golden Section, which was researched many centuries ago (long before photography) by landscape artists. The Golden Section has its place but the "rule" of thirds must be the most grossly over-used of the simplistic "rules" that newbies mistakenly believe will make them into good photographers.

Imposing arbitrary rules is not the best way to teach composition.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

sorry, dont agree buddy.

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Oh Dear, I do hope they're not still teaching this rubbish in creative institutions. If you have a blank wall and position the model extreme right with one shoulder cropping off, does this not grab the attention,are ones eyes not drawn to the model? Please dump this 'rule book' once and for all!

By (Aug 22, 2012)

LOL @ Matthew Miller's sense of fun and illogic. Nope-- with reference to the Rule of Thirds, more like "Extremely poor example of a rule that isn't worth much even with a valid example".

By (Aug 22, 2012)

Poster above:

''You know, some people find no usefulness in composition rules. All they want is to shoot their cat at ISO 25600...''

I agree. And it's telling a couple of posters didn't mind admitting they know nothing about the rules. :)

On the complaints about the ''hand'' I didn't find it distracting at all. The hand wasn't cut at the joints or the wrist. And notice how the baton anchors the hand to the scene.

1 upvote
By (Aug 22, 2012)

@ Matt Miller - good one, buddy :)

By (Aug 21, 2012)

Very clear and informative article.

By (Aug 22, 2012)

I agree. A good clear summary, especially for beginners.

1 upvote
By (Aug 24, 2012)

I used to concern myself with these rules in film days.Now I bracket,shoot multiple images with differing composition,and aspire to be an accidental artiste.Strength in numbers at no charge by digital.Wonderful!