Compositional Rules

thomaspark | Photo Techniques | Published Aug 21, 2012

'It's not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them'

- T.S. Eliot, interview with The Paris Review (Issue 21, 1959)

A number of  'rules of composition' or guidelines exist that we can use to improve our images. The most commonly known ones have been formulated over the centuries by artists working in a variety of visual mediums, from architecture to painting and photography. And while we all know the saying, 'rules were meant to be broken', there's clear benefit to understanding just what it is you're 'breaking' in the first place.

In this article, we'll go over three of these established compositional rules, with examples that illustrate their concepts, and discuss why they are useful creative tools.

Rule of Thirds

Perhaps the most popular technique with which visual artists are familiar is the 'Rule of Thirds'. Simply put, the idea is that significant compositional elements be placed along imaginary lines that break the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Elements of particular interest can be placed at the intersection of these lines, for a more expressive and dynamic composition, as demonstrated in the pair of images below.

This composition is perfectly centered on the sand dune. Here, the ridge of the dune crest and the horizon were framed along imaginary lines that break the image into a 3 x 3 grid.

The rule of thirds was first formalized in literature by painter John Thomas Smith in 1797.  However, examples of art using this type of composition can be found in artistic traditions dating back to antiquity. East Asian art is particularly well-known for its use of asymmetrical compositions.

So why does using the rule of thirds help to create interesting images? 


With any of the compositional techniques discussed in this article, we are are seeking to highlight certain elements in the image and create a compelling balance between elements.

Creating a 'thirds' composition often introduces asymmetry into an image which helps to create a sense of drama that can be lacking in perfectly symmetrical images.

In the image below, you can see that the eyes of both the model and the horse rest along the imaginary grid. And the horse's right eye is located at the intersection of two gridlines. Eyes are obviously strong compositional elements. Our gaze is naturally drawn to the eyes of others. Placing important elements like these - whether a body part or a product for sale - along the thirds grid helps to draw attention to them.

Note the placement of the model's eye and the horse's eyes along the
'thirds grid'. When photographing people or animals, the eyes are
generally good compositional elements to highlight.

Before we continue, I should point out that while there are obvious benefits to framing your image with the rule of thirds in mind, you can still reap its compositional benefits post-capture by cropping. In fact, the fastest way to train yourself to 'see' in thirds is to spend some time experimenting with crops of your existing images and compare both versions.

Dynamic balance

In addition to being useful for determining placement of fine-grained features such as a model's eye, the Rule of Thirds can be used with coarse-grained features that affect that overall balance of the composition. The landscape image at the beginning of the article is an example of this, where the Rule of Thirds was used to determine placement of the horizon line and major geological features.

Here is another example where this rule is used to create balance in a dynamic composition. In this image, the model occupies only the center and right-most thirds of the image. The left-most third of the image is negative space, providing a strong sense of movement through contrast and the progression of tonal values in the image.

Look at the compositional balance between the model's body and the negative space. Each 'owns' one of the outermost grid columns and they 'share' the middle column. Also make note of the placement of the model's foot and knee, which rest along a grid line. Notice also the point at which her ribcage curls into the light.

Try to visualize how the image would look if instead, the model was positioned squarely in the center of the frame. The composition would lose not only much of its drama but also its sense of motion.

Click here to continue reading our Compositional Rules article

Golden Ratio

Another visual concept formulated in antiquity and still used today comes to us from ancient Greek art. It's known as the Golden Ratio  (also referred to as the Golden Mean or Golden Section). We'll talk a bit about the math behind it in a moment, but at its essence this is - like the rule of thirds -  simply a way of dividing the image frame into rectangular segments. These 'golden rectangles' have proportions that the ancient Greeks thought to be especially harmonious and pleasing to the eye. Placing compositional elements of importance either inside of or at the intersection of these rectangles can give them greater prominence and create a well-balanced image, such as the one you see below.

This image has a pleasing balance between the main subject and the environment. The composition was created in aacordance with the Golden Ratio, which I'll explain on this page. 

The mathematics behind the golden ratio are less obvious than those for the rule of thirds, so this ratio is a little less widely known among artists than say, mathematicians or engineers. But it pays to be at least familiar with the underlying concept.

The golden ratio is roughly equivalent to 1:1.6, or more practically, 3/8:5/8. In the figure below you have two line segments, a and b. Line segment a is 1.6x longer than segment b. And the combined segment, a+b is also 1.6x longer than segment a. So the proportions of line segments a and b express the golden ratio.

Visual depiction of the elements of the Golden Ratio (courtesy Wikimedia).

golden rectangle (shown below) is one whose short side (a) and long side (a+b) are in this 1:1.6 proportion. With any golden rectangle you can further divide it with a line that divides the long side by this same 1:1.6 ratio. This is exactly what has been done in the illustration below, to create line segment b. You can continue this pattern of division to create smaller and smaller rectangles, one inside the other.

A golden rectangle (courtesy Wikimedia).

So how exactly does this work compositionally? Let's take a closer look at the photograph we started with at the top of the page. Because a 1:1.6 ratio is not very easy to visualize, we can think of it instead as 3/8:5/8, which means we are looking to divide the frame along one side by 3/8 (a bit less than the halfway point). In the first  image below that is exactly what we've done, adding a vertical gridline roughly 3/8 in from the left edge.

A vertical line placed approximately 3/8 of the way from the left edge marks the creation of our first golden rectangle. A horizontal line placed approximately 3/8 of the way from the top edge creates another golden rectangle.

With our first golden rectangle created, we can repeat this process to create a second, smaller golden rectangle inside of that one, as you can see in the second image above. The more dramatically lit portion of the model's body lies within our first rectangle. And her face lies largely in the second rectangle. It is by including compositionally important elements inside these rectangles that we can draw attention to them. As with the Rule of Thirds, this approach creates an asymmetrical composition that serves to direct the viewer's gaze.

You can continue dividing the frame into smaller and smaller rectangles by adding vertical and horizontal lines in succession that create the 3/8:5/8 golden ratio. In this image the smallest rectangle (in blue) lays directly over the portion of the model's face closest to the camera.

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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 the
flowing 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.