Composition; Rules are made to be broken, but they are useful.

People always talk about the rules of composition; the rules of composition say you should do this or this picture is following the rules of composition. Saying that composition has rules, makes it seem more like there is a winning formula for taking a picture. I will say that good composition helps a picture but it is not the only thing that makes picture. Good flour is need for bread but it is not the only ingredient. I also feel that the minute you are thinking constantly about rules when composing your images, you are no longer photographing a scene with your heart but with your head. Your gut instinct or intuition is your best guide. You are always the first person to see your picture so why not go by your gut and activate chimp mode on your camera[i].

The other problem with rules is that they are there to be broken. If you are told don’t touch the red button you will because of the negative suggestion planted into your brain by the instruction. I see this in my daily life. How many people really follow the speed limit to the number? We always go a little bit faster. Rules are there to be broken and sometimes it can work.

Instead of calling them rules of composition, I call them guides because really that is what they are, a guide to help you compose a pleasing picture.

Theory of thirds

Photographic people know of the rule of thirds and will mention it as if it is a very simplistic idea. The rule of thirds and the golden ratio are complex theories that people have written whole books about.

The basic principle of the rule of thirds is something to keep in mind when composing a picture. On most cameras you can choose to have the rule of thirds grid overlay on your LCD screen. I use it on my compact and mobile as a guide.


In the rule of thirds an image is divided into nine equally spaced sections. The compositional elements of the Image should align with these intersections. By using this guide the image will create more impact and interest.

You can use the horizontal and vertical lines as a guide to place points of interest or division to give the image more balance.


As with the picture above I used the theory of thirds to evenly balance the picture. The ceiling of the underpass comes down from the top of the image and fills the top third, the same with the floor. The middle third is home to the old telephone booths.

If we now look along the vertical you can see I have used the central walls on the lines of the thrids to balance out the detail in the central horizontal third.

Your eye is naturally drawn to the phone booths in the centre of the image with the whole image pleasingly balanced.

I did break one of the rules that the rule of thirds says which is never put your subject in the middle. In this scene though, the overall balance of the image and balancing the image  to make it pleasing to the eye is more important than not having a subject in the middle.

This is why you are told not to place the horizon of a landscape in the middle of the picture but higher or lower than the middle. This advice follows the rule of thirds by placing the dividing line on either of these guides.

Using lines

You can use lines in an image to guide the viewer’s eye from one point to another.  Lines don’t have to be straight but can also be curved. A good compositional trick is to use lines to guide the eye to the subject of the image. You can convey the feeling of movement by using converging lines.


This image does follow the rule of thirds roughly in the foreground but with the use of leading lines the ratio of the rule changes as you look down the image.

The leading lines in this image are everywhere and all of them take you to this pass in the back ground of the image passing the bright light on the right hand side. First looking at the floor; there are two floor areas and the border between them runs down the image as a line parallel to the wall on the left. These natural boundaries act as lines. The same can be seen in the ceiling with the difference between the two ceiling types and the lights and the cavities. All of these make lines as well. Finally the pillars on the right also make a line.

Lines do not need to be hard and solid but several objects together that make a visible line.

Foreground Interest.

Creating foreground interest can be great when it works but you have to be careful not to have anything to interesting so that is does not distract from the main image.

The subject of your image is the main character of your image and as in the movies you need supporting characters to help develop the main characters role

By using foreground interest you can create an added element for the viewer to look at before they move on to the subject. This interest can work as something to contrast against the subject or to give further information or context about the subject.


The image of the black and white tower block does place the horizon in the middle of the frame. I did this because I wanted to include as much water as possible without cutting out the subject.

The subject of this image is the 1960’s tower block which is situated next to a park in the centre of the city. I used the water and the reflection of the building as foreground interest. It works as foreground interest because it keeps bringing your eye back to the tower block as your eye starts to move. The fact that it is a blurry reflection of the subject itself means that although it is interesting to actually see a clear version of what is there you need to look at the tower block.

It there is nothing interesting in the foreground leaves it out. There is nothing worse than a boring foreground to negatively affect the subject.

You can use this guide in reverse as well by using background interest.

Lens Choice

Think about your lens. Your lens can have an effect on your image so sometimes it is good to think about what the best lens for your picture is.

Wide angle lens


  • Creates a lot of back ground
  • Brings you close to your subject
  • Bend horizons
  • Stretches features

Telephoto lens


  • Can pick a subject out of the background due to the shallow depth of field.
  • Pushes features together

Negative Space

Negative space is the area around your subject that is empty. This space can be used as a line to guide your viewer’s eye or it can isolate your subject to let it breathe. The use of negative space usually works well when your subject has a lot of detail; by having a negative area around it will enhance these details.


The leaves use negative space to isolate the subject and enhance the detail. With the white space the image seems lighter if I had used black then the image would seem darker and more contrasted.

The use of negative space here means we as the viewer are looking at the contrasting details between the rough large leaf and the smoother smaller leaf on top.

This is a simple trick that greatly enhances the image.

Shape and Patterns

To create an interesting compositional point you can use shapes and patterns. Patterns are usually found in nature and shapes can be found in buildings. Once you have found something interesting get close and concentrate on the shape or pattern.


In New Year Milk, I used the repetitive rectangle shape in the image. The shape is the door and in the door itself as well as in the frame set into the wall next to the door. To compliment these rectangles I frame the image as a portrait.

Your shapes and patterns don’t need to be blinding obvious but enough to make the picture intriguing.

The one thing in the image not a rectangle are the Champagne bottles. The Champagne bottles are the subject of the image so with them not being a rectangle they contrast against the reoccurring shapes.


Contrast is all-around us, once you can see it you can bend it you your needs. Contrast is more than light and dark but it is also in colours, texture and clarity. A picture of a woman in a yellow coat of a foggy day makes an amazing image with the contrast between the yellow and the black and white of the weather.


I loved the contrast in this scene and it works nicely as a picture The contrast between man-made and nature, between the living green and the dead cold metal and the brown bramble, all work together to make an interesting and compelling image. 

Keep it simple, Keep it safe

When composing your picture decide on the most important elements of your image and remove the rest. All parts of an image must earn its place. If it is not needed leave it out making your image bolder and more effective.


In the end there are no rules for good photography only good photographers.

[i] Chimp mode is the OH HA noise we make when we preview a picture after it has been taken.

6 thoughts on “Composition; Rules are made to be broken, but they are useful.

  1. Nice run-down of rules – and great reminders! Especially like the “New Year’s Milk”. It is so true that there are no rules, but in this day when everyone and their cat thinks they are “photographers” it is probably a great idea to throw some guidelines out there….

  2. Agreed, an excellent tour of the rules there to be broken. I particularly like the photo of the bride & groom. I’ve bookmarked this for future reference.

    • The picture with the bride and groom was quite hard to take and in hindsight i should have used a longer lens but in doing so i would have needed a bigger lighting set up which would not have been practical.

      I think the rules are made to be broken because when you are composing a picture you don’t get out the check list you just look and shoot. Esp when like you the subject is mainly with nature and wildlife and the subject can move at any second. It is good from time to time though to run through the basic ideas.

      Thanks for bookmarking it and commenting.

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