Monday, November 15, 2010


(This is a work in progress but posted here as is for people that have been asking for this. Check back for edits and sample images)

What makes a good photograph? Is it the incredible subject matter alone? Is it the perfect technical aspects of the images, exposures, sharpness, color and so on? Is it the angle of view and composition that makes a great image? Or, is it all of these elements along with great overall quality?

Composition has to do with layout, positioning and overall balance. It includes the rules of thirds and many aspects of a photo including, simplicity, contrast, framing, viewpoint, lines, movement, direction of movement, diagonals, ‘s’ shapes and paths, curves, leading lines (vanishing points), mirrored objects, patterns, textures, and even Depth-Of-Field and so on. Even how a model is photographed, i.e. position of limbs and such is part of composition.

Just because one follows any of the rules doesn’t mean the composition will be good. Lighting, direction, subject matter, surroundings and so on can make or break the images composition. The rules can however be applied in many instances.

There are even instances where ‘breaking’ the rules just works. Then that would also be a good composition.

Composition is something that can be learned by looking at many photos but a good study and understanding is best gained from experience. Having someone explain what compositional elements are in a photo (or what elements are broken) and trying out all the different aspects can also be a great tool.


Simplicity Rules! This is a statement. Simplicity is king. Even before the rule of thirds, I personally think that simplicity should be the first thing you think about when composing a photograph. Try to keep you image "clutter free". Remember that you want to draw your viewer to the main subject of the photo as quickly and instinctively as possible. Here are 2 tips to help simplify your composition.

1- Get in close. To easily remove some of the distractions around your subject is to zoom in on it. Once you think your close enough, zoom in even more! This is a simple yet very effective way to simplify your image.

2- Simplify your background. You don't always want to get in really close to compose your image so the next thing to do is to remove the "clutter" from your background so that the eye isn't distracted away from your main subject. You can do this with 2 different approaches. The first one is to choose an even background. This could be a single-colored piece of fabric or paper or an even-textured surface like a brick wall. The second technique is to have a blurred background where all the elements blend into each other to form a blur of colors. A blurred background is created by using shallow depth of field (DOF).

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is based on the fact that the human eye is naturally drawn to a point about two-thirds up a page. Crop your photo so that the main subjects are located around one of the intersection points rather than in the center of the image.

Golden Section Rule (Golden Mean)

It has been found that certain points in a picture's composition automatically attract the viewer's attention. Similarly, many natural or man-made objects and scenes with certain proportions (whether by chance or by design) automatically please us. Leonardo da Vinci investigated the principle that underlies our notions of beauty and harmony and called it the Golden Section. Long before Leonardo, however, Babylonian, Egyptian, and ancient Greek masters also applied the Golden Section proportion in architecture and art. The Chinese have applied this to Bonsai.

To get a clearer sense of these special "Golden" composition points, imagine a picture divided into nine unequal parts with four lines. Each line is drawn so that the width of the resulting small part of the image relates to that of the big part exactly as the width of the whole image relates to the width of the big part. Points where the lines intersect are the "golden" points of the picture.

Golden Triangles

Another rule is the "Golden Triangles". It's more convenient for photos with diagonal lines. There are three triangles with corresponding shapes. Just roughly place three subjects with approximate equal sizes in these triangles and this rule would be kept.

Golden Spiral or Golden Rectangle

And one more rule is a "Golden Spiral" or "Golden Rectangle" (you'll see why it's a rectangle in the tools section). There should be something, leading the eye to the center of the composition. It could be a line or several subjects. This "something" could just be there without leading the eyes, but it would make its job.

Diagonal Rule

According to the Diagonal Rule, important elements of the picture should be placed along these diagonals. Linear elements, such as roads, waterways, and fences placed diagonally, are generally perceived as more dynamic than horizontally placed ones

Point of Interest

Identify a primary point of interest before taking the picture. When you’ve determined which area is the most important to you, you can compose to emphasize it. (Studying advertising photographs is a good way to get acquainted with emphasis in composition.)


A "frame" in a photograph is something in the foreground that leads you into the picture or gives you a sense of where the viewer is. For example, a branch and some leaves framing a shot of rolling hills and a valley, or the edge of an imposing rock face leading into a shot of a canyon. Framing can usually improve a picture. The "frame" doesn’t need to be sharply focused. In fact if it is too sharply detailed, it could be a distraction.

Shapes (Circles, Areas, Triangles)

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Form is the illusion of 3 dimensions in a 2 dimensional image. It is achieved through the play of light on your subject in a way that brings out the depth of the object. Soft directional light is best at doing this.


Cropping is Key. A great photo that is improperly cropped can be ruined. Cropping can be used to control Balance and Summitry.


A light subject will have more impact if placed against a dark background and vice versa. Contrasting colors may be used for emphasis, but can become distracting if not considered carefully.


Hue: refers to the names of the primary colors, red, green and blue.

Value: lightness and darkness of the color - the amount of white or black added.

Intensity: the purity or saturation of the color

Monochromatic color: use of one color where only the value of the color changes

Analogous colors: colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel, e.g. yellow and green

Analogous colors next to each other on the color wheel "get along" and are referred to as being harmonious. Analogous colors are often used in visual design and have a soothing affect.

Complementary colors: colors opposite to each other on the color wheel, e.g. Blue-violet and yellow, represent colors positioned across from each other on the color wheel. Complimentary colors exhibit more contrast when positioned adjacent to each other - for example yellow appears more intense when positioned on or beside blue or violet.

Warm colors include: yellows, red and orange we associate these with blood, sun and fire.

Cool colors include: violet, blue and green because of our association with snow and ice.

Colors are called warm or cool because of our association with various elements in our surroundings. Red, yellow and orange are considered warm colors whereas blue, green and violet are considered cool colors. These contrasts are relative since yellow-green are cool next to red, orange or yellow, but would be considered warm next to blue-violet. Photographers can position different colors in an image to maximize contrast between them and also to provide perspective. Perceptually, cool colors tend to recede into the distance whereas warm colors appear to advance.

Viewpoint or Perspective

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Direction of Movement

When the subject is capable of movement, such as an animal or person, it is best to leave space in front of the subject so it appears to be moving into, rather than out of, the photograph.

Leading Lines

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Unity refers to an ordering of all elements in an image so that each contributes to a unified aesthetic effect so that the image is seen as a whole. Failing to accomplish this results in the premature termination of the viewer's experience - they look away. There are a number of ways to achieve unity to attract and keep the viewers attention.

Dominance and Subordination

An artist or photographer attempts to control the sequence in which visual events in the frame are observed and the amount of attention each element receives. Making an element dominant can be done through size and color. Large objects dominate smaller ones and warm colored objects dominate cooler pale colored objects. Another way of achieving dominance is through positioning various elements within the frame. A centrally located object will draw more attention then one at the periphery. However the center is not the best place to position the most dominant element - usually just to one side of the center is more effective.

Another method to achieve dominance is through convergence or radiation or lines. The eye tends to follow these lines to the point where they converge.

Dominance can also be achieved through nonconformity i.e. difference or exception. If all the elements are similar and one is different in color, tone or shape- it will stand out and become dominant. The brown cattail leaf below is dominant because it is different from those around it.


Coherence refers to the belonging together or the various parts of the artwork. In reality these parts may be unrelated, but within the confines of the image their color, shapes, and size form a sense of unity. Visual coherence can be achieved through the use of analogous color and color tonality. It can also be achieve through similarity of shape, color size or texture. However too much similarity can lead to boredom - we need some variety to add "spice" to the image.


Balance implies that the visual elements within the frame have a sense of weight. Large objects generally weigh more than small objects and dark objects weigh more than light colored objects. The position of the elements is also critical. We unconsciously assume the center of a picture corresponds to a fulcrum. A heavy weight on one side can be balanced by a lighter weight on the other side if the lighter weight is located at a greater distance from the fulcrum.

Another way to achieve balance is through symmetry. Reflections of the landscape in still water are an example of almost perfect symmetry. Reflections can take on an abstract quality that resembles a Rorschach inkblot used in a psychological testing. Rorschach inkblots are created by folding a piece of paper covered and filled with ink to form a symmetrical pattern.

Positive and Negative Space

Positive space is where shapes and forms exist; negative space is the empty space around shapes and forms. In the photo below the black area is negative space and it serves to balance the area in which the marmot and rock occupy. Areas of a picture that contain "nothing" are important visual elements that provide balance in an image.


Rhythm refers to the regular repeating occurrence of elements in the scene just as in music it refers to the regular occurrence of certain musical notes over time. In photography the repetition of similar shapes sets up a rhythm that makes seeing easier and more enjoyable. Rhythm is soothing and our eyes beg to follow rhythmic patterns. To be effective, rhythm also requires some variability - rhythm that is too similar or perfect may be boring. Therefore when composing your images look for repetition with variation. For instance if you are photographing a fence - one that is perfect will not hold a viewers interest for long, but one in which some of the posts are bent, broken, larger or smaller will generate more viewer interest.


Chaos is a disordered state of elements and it is found frequently in nature. The goal of many photographers is to take a picture that exhibits some underlying organization so the viewer sees what the artists intends for them to see, but leaves enough chaos within the frame of the image so the viewer has to put forth some effort to explore and fully appreciate the image. New photographers often include too many elements in their images and can often improve their composition by removing unessential elements. Beyond a certain point, however an image that is too simple fails to hold ones attention (e.g. single leaf above has interesting elements but after a few moments I find little to hold my attention). Compare this to an image I took with my 4 x 5 camera of the rainforest shot below, and I find the rainforest image has so many textures and patterns that I can look at and explore the image for extended periods of time and still continue to discover things I have not seen before. The ability to introduce and handle complex elements within the frame of an image and still produce an effective composition requires a maturation of seeing that takes time to develop. I have also found that larger film formats encourage compositions with more detail and complexity then using smaller digital and 35 mm film based cameras. In short, the size and format of camera you use will also influence what you shoot, and how you compose your images.

Final Thoughts

Understanding elements of visual design and how they can affect our emotions can also help us make our photographic images more effective. However, keep in mind that no rule or guideline can ever guarantee success. A successful image depends upon a multitude of things that must come together including: timing, lighting, color, composition, and an audience sensitive to what it is you are trying to communicate. It is likely that many artists carry out design intuitively and arrange elements so they "feel right" and since art is in part a way of expressing our feelings to others no other guiding principle may be required. As Freeman Patterson put it so eloquently "Good composition is always harmonious with the design of the material being photographed", Art of Seeing 1985. Elements of design can be compared to the scales in music, they are starting points around which music is made but the elements are by themselves only building blocks. In conclusion, an understanding of the elements of design will not by themselves make you a better a photographer, but they can provide a framework in which to evaluate images and their effectiveness.

Another way to improve composition is to compare your images with those of others whose work you admire or respect. Mimicry is one way to begin to develop your skills and learning to copy the styles of certain artists is in part the road to towards developing your own style, although many artists may not admit to it. Take those stylistic elements you like and then integrate them into your own point of view. Evaluate and compare your work both technically and aesthetically against those of other photographers. Be realistic and critical when you evaluate your own images and edit your images ruthlessly. The better you become the more critical you will become of you own work and those of others. Listen to what others have to say when they view your images, what they like, what they don't like but always be true to yourself and what your vision is. My wife may not be knowledgeable about design, but if she responds to image I know others will too.

© 2010 François Cléroux

(Version 1.01 - November 2010)

Please feel free to leave comments, corrections, ideas, thoughts or suggestions.


  1. Wow! What a treasure trove of information! Thank you! :)

    1. Note that this is being updated, big changes and more information. Also more complete. Should be done within a week or so.


I value thoughtful comments and suggestions. If you like or dislike this post, please let me know. If you have any ideas or suggestion, comments or corrections (I do make mistakes) please also let me know. Thanks.

- Francois Cleroux