"Never mind rules, shoot what feels good" is the sort of photography advice that shows no understanding of how to craft an image. Amateur photographers can fire off thousands of photos and—mostly through luck—manage to catch a handful of really good images. Understanding how to compose a photograph will enable you to create many more successful images without having to use the shotgun approach of shooting everything and praying to hit something good.

Applying some of the composition techniques described here can enable you to take better pictures. Note that good composition does not guarantee a good photograph. Composition is simply the foundation on which to build your image.

How do you take a good picture?

What is "good" is a matter of personal taste for the individual. If you are taking pictures for yourself, then you have to decide what what you like and stick to it. However, if you are trying to appeal to a larger audience, you need to recognize the elements that appeal to the greater population. Do a web search for photography contest winners and you're likely to see some astonishing images. As different from one another as they may be, they will likely adhere to some basic composition principles (sometimes referred to as "rules"). Understanding and applying these principles will help you create images that will appeal to more people.

Think about how you take a picture. You see something interesting, you raise the camera to your eye, perform whatever technical manipulations are required (e.g., focus) and trigger the shutter. You have captured some event or semblance of objects just as you saw it. When you add composition into the mix, you consider a lot of things about that image before you click. Seeing something interesting is only the beginning. To make it a good photo, you must figure out how to best compose the image, to present it at its best.

The Old Masters of painting spent a great deal of time planning their images, drawing lines and making numerous sketches to lay out the location of each item before putting brush to canvas. Understandably, the painting process requires more effort than photography, but they deliberately put each element in its place to create a compelling composition. You might not have as much freedom when taking a photograph, but understanding what these great masters were doing, and why they went through that exercise, will help you craft better images.

Composition basics

Good composition draws on some well-established principles. Composition does not require that you follow all of them, but any you can apply will generally add appeal to your image. Some of the most common principles are included here.

Emphasis

What is your subject? A picture without a point of interest is unlikely to grab the viewer's attention. Go through a stack of old photos and I'll bet that the least interesting of them do not have a viable subject or any recognizable point of interest. Most snapshot images lack emphasis. When you compose your picture, figure out what it is you're trying to capture.

This is a picture of an interesting landscape. Without a center of interest, it's just a snapshot of a memorable place. This is an interesting picture of a landscape. Your eyes are drawn to the fruit stand as they scan the scene.

Rule of Thirds

Putting the subject in the exact center of the frame is the most common composition error made by novice photographers. Even experienced photographer are prone to this, especially when the auto-focus system picks up whatever is in the center of the in-camera frame. The single most effective way to improve your composition is to avoid centering your subject and utilize the rule of thirds.

Imagine dividing the frame of the image into thirds horizontally, a top third, a middle third and a bottom third. Then, divide it into thirds vertically, a left, a center and a right. The mental image it creates is a 3x3 grid looking like a tick-tack-toe board. Putting your subject(s) on one or more of those lines creates a stronger composition.

This technique is particularly useful for images that include the horizon. Put the horizon on the top third or bottom third line and you have a more appealing photo. If the sun is involved, put that on one of the vertical third lines. Variations on the rule of thirds generally move the subject even further from the center.

For a more detailed examination of the rule of thirds, see The Rule of Thirds: A Simple Way to Improve Your Images.

The Background

When we see an appealing subject, our brain focuses in on it and ignores all else. Cameras are not so forgiving and all the distracting background details are there to behold. When looking at photographs, we tend to look at the whole and the background becomes very apparent. One of the most common and egregious examples of failing to note the background is photographing a person with some random object appearing to stick out of their head. It's also common in macro photography when a flower or insect is set against a jumbled background of leaves and stems.

Avoid this background clutter by looking beyond your foreground subject and consider what's behind it. If you've got a distracting background, you run the risk of creating a snapshot.

The necklace practically blends in against distracting background elements. The picture could have been improved with a more uniform background. This can sometimes be achieved with a very large lens aperture, blurring out the background. Shooting against a very bright or very dark contrasting background to make the subject stand out is effective. With the subject in very bright light, the distracting background is all but eliminated.

The Foreground

While having a suitable background is important, a good foreground can also improve your composition. An appropriate foreground provides some context for the image and will pull your viewer's eyes into the subject.

A wide angle lens captures the subject's environment. The viewer's eyes scan between the leaves in the foreground and the groundskeeper, creating a feeling of motion. The easiest way to get foreground in your pictures is to lower your shooting angle.
The stone wall provides scale and context while drawing the viewer's eye to the thatched houses. Almost every photographer shoots from about five feet off the ground. Lie down and a whole new scene appears. Note how the pond and brickwork pull your eyes to the manor.

Framing

One very simple technique to improve your compositions is to frame the subject within the image. The frame serves to draw the eye to the subject. Obvious frames include doorways and windows, but more creative frames utilize foreground elements and sometimes background elements.

In this image, a soldier is framed between his fellows at a parade ceremony. The dancer is framed by her out-of-focus colleagues in the foreground and background.
Foliage makes an excellent framing element. Trees are particularly good for breaking up an uninteresting, uniform sky.

Lines

Painters recognized the power of lines in composition centuries ago. They use them to draw the viewer's attention and to divide up the image. Some lines are very obvious in that they're visibly recognizable. More subtle lines can also be used; for example, the placement of three or more minor objects on a straight line that point to the principal subject.

Leading lines

A line segment leading toward the subject draws the viewer's eye to that subject. Multiple lines pointing to the same object create even stronger pull. Lines pointing to different parts of the image can create an appealing tension.

Converging lines

The convergence of multiple lines creates a center of interest without a specific subject (as the convergence point is the subject). Occasionally, the exclusion of the convergence point, because it falls outside the frame, creates a center of interest outside the photograph ... and more appealing tension.

 Curving lines

A gentle curving line is often a subject unto itself. Having a seperate subject on that line can create an even stronger composition.

Implied triangles

Although used frequently by painters, triangular elements in compositions are difficult to do in photography. The lines are not visible, but by linking three major elements in the image, you can form a strong relationship that pulls the viewer's eyes between those elements.

Contrast

Contrast isn't just about light and dark, but any very noticeable difference between image elements. You're probably familiar with the contrast control for your editing software, but contrasting colors are also effective in good composition. Don't stop at light values, visual contrast also applies to shapes, textures, and sizes.

The bright gold color contrasts nicely against the dark blue sky. Here, the red and blue contrast against the white tower.
The smaller craft is dominated by the enormous cruise ship, creating contast in size as well as color. The soft texture of the flower is contrasted against the rough, dry coral.

Complimentary or harmonious colors are also effective in creating good images, but color theory is a domain separate from composition.

Negative space

While related to contrast, negative space refers to empty areas around your subject that are interesting in and of themselves. It can be argued, in some situations, that the negative space is the actual subject of the image.

The negative space isolates the subject. The foggy sky makes the subject appear to be suspended in a void.

Patterns, shapes and textures

Although each of may warrant a separate section, as they are closely related, this article only introduces these elements. Patterns seldom occur in nature (beyond the miniature) so our eyes are drawn to them. Accurate two dimensional representations of texture also catch our eye as we see something that isn't really there.
 

The repeating patterns and textures of kernels and cobs create an interesting composition. Flowers make for excellent pattern images, even if the pattern is not regular.
Repeating patterns create visual interest. Repeating patterns to infinity.

Lead room

While not a composition element itself, motion can affect the composition. Lead room, or leading space, provides a place for a subject in motion to move into. It's generally better to have the subject entering the photo than exiting. Lead room is also important when your subject is looking or facing anywhere other than directly toward the camera. For all but the tightest cropping, provide a bit of space in front of the subject to avoid crowding.

The moving subject has leading space to move into the image. The subject is turned and the composition provides space ahead of him.

Using composition

If nothing else, this article should encourage you to pause a moment just before taking a picture and think about the composition. Do so often enough and you may find yourself composing well before you raise the camera to your eye. Eventually, you will see compositions before even thinking of taking a picture.

Taking a picture? This implies that you are passively capturing a scene. Take the next step and actively create images by posing your subject, adding foreground, adding framing elements, and whatever other composition techniques that might improve the image. Take an active role in the image creation by composing.