Composition 101: The Basic ‘Rules’.

Composition truly is, IMHO, the foundation of good photography. You may have great gear and know all the basics of ISO, aperture and speed [exposure] but if you’re not paying attention to some of the guidelines or ‘rules’ of composition, then something’s missing.

None of this is rocket-science and for those of you who hate ‘rules’, then don’t think of the following as a set of rules but as a set of suggestions. Learn them and by all means then go out and bend or break them. But, learn them well and practice them. So that even when you break them people will be able to guess quite easily which guideline you chose to break and why.

Photography is a language. Yes, a language. In Greek it basically means ‘writing with light’. If you write, there are words, sentences, paragraphs: there’s dialogue. For me composition is most akin to the ‘paragraph’. Individual objects or components of the scene you have captured might be regarded as the words. Sentences – the linkage of words to explain a concept – could be how your objects [the words] relate to each other. As to how they all fit into the frame or ‘paragraph’, well, perhaps the paragraph is like composition. You’ll probably have your own ideas on this. Tell me. I’m interested as to how you both read and write photos. Drop a comment in the box at the bottom of the page. Thanks.

If you want to read a bit more about this ‘language’ of photography and how to become literate in reading photos you see and writing in the language with your camera, click here for a PDF [64Kb] on ‘Building Visual Literacy’.

So, what guidelines of composition are there?

We’ll deal with the main ones here in this article but there are others which I’ll get to in a second piece, which I will hopefully – barring or perhaps because of divine intervention – get around to writing in a few days.

The lines on the diagram represent 3 different rules which are further explained below. It’s kind of useful to see them all together, just so you can understand how they work together or separately and how they relate to each other.

1) Rule of thirds. 2) Diagonal rule 3) Golden section.

One thing that plays part in making a photograph that is pleasing to the eyes is the spacing, or the position at which the subject lies in the picture. Architects use the “divine ratio” or the “golden ratio” which has a value of 1:(1+√5)/2 or 1:1.618034 as a basis for making intrinsically appealing structures.

Sheesh, maths. Wait a minute, thought we’d left that behind in school? Well, sorry, but if you are into photography you’d better get used to a bit of maths and physics. Lenses, composition, fractions.. it’s all here and the whole thing is part science and part art. Actually, that’s why I like it. It’s arty but it’s geeky too.

Why the ‘divine’ ratio though? Surely divine is a description reserved for stuff that godlike creatures get up to, yes? Well, it has been proven that anything in nature that we find beautiful uses this ratio. It seems to flow naturally and has an inbuilt visual harmony for the viewer’s eye. For those of you who pin the creation on god, there’s your divinity. For the rest of us who aren’t sure how it all got here, divine still works.

Cool, huh? That’s folks like Euclid and Pythagorus for you. Not gods but they gave us the maths and they bothered to set up some framework for why stuff looks ‘nice’.

Let’s go back in time a few thousand years and meet them, just for a laugh…..

Rules of Divine Composition – The Movie, Take 1:

Euclid: Wow, look at that building, ‘Thagorus!!

Pythagorus: Cool, dude. Great. Amazing. Awesome.

The End.

Pretty crap, huh? Reminds me an afternoon looking at some of the comments that have been left on my Flickr page.

Let’s try it again……

Rules of Divine Composition – The Movie, Take 2:

Euclid: Wow, look at that ‘Thagorus me old mate.

Pythagorus: Wow. That really is amazingly well laid-out…. but why?

Euclid: Just what I was thinking, old chap. You get the kettle on and tidy up that f***ing mess of a desk. I’ll nip down the Agora-mart and get some choccy biscuits and some Rizzla papers. Then we’ll sit down and work it out.

Pythagorus: Sorted.

Cut to busy studio, papers still strewn all over the room and desk: spliff-butts clog the ash-trays. Euclid and Pythagorus are vigorously debating, eventually coming up with mathematical formulae to explain why ‘some shit looks cool and other shit don’t’.

[Soundtrack for this scene: ‘All My Life’ by The Foo Fighters]

Several scenes, cups of tea and packets of biscuits and some head-banging along to the music later, blah, blah, blah….puff, puff, exhale……

Euclid: Done?

Pythagorus: Think so. It all basically boils down to objects being in a rectangle and in an arrangement along the ratio 1:(1+√5)/2 or 1:1.618034

Euclid: Yep. Can sort of see that but my f***ing head hurts though mate, to be honest.

Pythagorus: Exactly why I told you not to have that last hit on the bong…and why my name is the one on that formula we came up with last week. You know, the one about diameters and areas of a circle.

Euclid: Yeah, Mr. Pi, whatever.

And thus the Divine Ratio was born, creating for generations of painters, architects [and eventually photographers] to come a guideline for how to create ‘cool-looking shit’.

The End.

Version 2 is the better one, yeah? Right, so I made some stuff up – the bits about these legendary Greek mathematicians being pot-heads, for instance – but the point is that someone, somewhere at some point decided to actually sit down and figure out WHY some stuff looked cool and in doing so they left us with a series of formulae and diagrams so that we could do the same forever and ever after, amen. Respect to them sandal-wearing Greeks. Right on. Pass me the bong, Euclid.

So, the next time someone on Flickr leaves the comment ‘Great capture‘ for the 350-millionth time, ask them…….

‘Thanks, but why do you think it is…….?’

And if they can’t come up with anything other than: ‘Well ‘cos it’s, like, awesome dude….’ send them that PDF about visual literacy.

Here’s the link again:

Improve your visual literacy with this handy, downloadable PDF document thingy.

So, what guidelines of composition are there?


OK, as well as creating some guidelines that worked for architects and all sorts of other creative folk, in photography the golden ratio is also used as a basis for a well composed photograph. The Golden Section Rule states that the eye is naturally drawn to points that lie within this ratio in a photograph. In order to achieve this, the picture is divided into 9 unequal but symmetrical parts with 2 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines as a guide. The distance from the top to the first horizontal line must be in a golden ratio against the distance from this line to the bottom of the picture. The same goes to the distance of the bottom horizontal line to the bottom of the picture against the distance of this line to the top of the picture. The same must be followed for the vertical lines.

Following so far? There’s more diagrams below…. don’t worry.

Placing your subject along any of these lines, especially on the intersections, makes it more naturally attractive to the viewer. These intersections are sometimes called “Power Points”. I prefer to call them ‘Sweet Spots’. Sort of like you get on a tennis raquet or a cricket bat.

For portraits, the eyes of the subject are often positioned along one of the horizontal lines preferably near one of the sweet-spots to make the photograph more pleasing to look at. For landscapes the horizon is aligned to any of the horizontal lines depending on which part is the focus of the photograph. If you want to capture the sky, align the horizon to the lower horizontal line. If you want to show the field or the sea, then align the horizon on the upper horizontal line. Landscapes rarely look good when the horizon is slapped right in the middle. But, guidelines, guidelines people… not hard and fast rules. Just os it doesn’t normally work, doesn’t mean it won’t ever work. 

The Rule Of Thirds is based on the fact that the eye is naturally drawn to a point about two thirds up a page. This is basically a quick and easier variation of the Golden Section Rule. Instead of using the Golden ratio, the picture is divided into 9 equal sections by 2 horizontal and 2 vertical lines. At this point I must mention that if you are into type and books you must check out this set of rules and guidelines, for the layout of the perfect page. I’m currently using it as a guide to laying out the Japanorama magazine: the Van Der Graaf Canon. Awesome.

In the same way as in the Golden Section Rule [below] the subject or the most significant parts of your photograph is positioned along any of these lines preferably in the points where the lines intersect. But just getting the important stuff in the boxes helps.

This gives practically the same basic effect since this positions are very near the positions in a Golden Section. Many photographers use the Rule of Thirds because it is much easier even for amateurs to determine or estimate and a lot of cameras nowadays are already equipped with grid lines that fall on the same places as the lines used here. Not all though. My Nikon has some grid lines in it but they aren’t Rule of Thirds and not quite Golden Section either. Come on Nikon. Can’t be that hard to make different grids ][even widescreen and squares] that overlay on the screen in playback or in LiveView mode.

The Diagonal Rule states that a photograph looks more dynamic if the objects fall or follow a diagonal line. The diagonal line doesn’t have to be an actual line and it doesn’t have to be a straight one.  Use your judgement. Things leading from one corner to its diagonally opposed one will work even if they are loosely aligned. It’s all about inference after a certain stage.

Create three diagonal guides by marking the vertical edges of your screen 1/6th of the height from the top and 1/6th from the bottom. The same way mark the horizontal edges 1/6th of the width from the left and 1/6th from the right. Connect the upper left horizontal mark with the lower right vertical mark, the upper left vertical mark with the lower right horizontal mark, and the upper left corner with the lower right corner. You may also use the opposite corner combination if you want the opposite diagonal lines.

By placing natural elements that form a line along these diagonal guides makes the picture more pleasing and dynamic.

If there are no imaginary or real diagonal lines that can be seen within a scene, sometimes a simple change of position or elevation is enough to produce a useful angle on the objects in the scene. You might use the distortion you get from a wide-angle lens to start to fit subjects or scenes into this rule. Wides tend to be best either used in a totally straight plane, with no distortion. Or, to use the distortion to the max and get the angles that creates working foe best effect.


The Golden Triangle Rule is a variation of the Golden Section Rule where the Diagonal Rule is also strongly applied at the same time.

Why is it called a Golden Triangle? The answer is simple, it effectively uses the same golden ratio used in a Golden Section but disects the frame into triangles, formed by drawing a diagonal line across the frame and then a line from each of the other two corners into where it intersects that diagonal. Superimposing the golden section grid over the frame works to reinforce where this rule is coming from and how at least two of the sweet-spots are shared in that Golden Section rule.

You could remove one of the small triangles forming three triangular sections, a large triangle, a medium triangle and a small triangle, and fitting the three most significant parts of a scene inside these triangles. Taking this or any of the diagrams/guidelines somewhat apart and thinking about how you might use one part of the set of lines is just as valid.

Another practical use of the Golden Ratio is in the Golden Spiral Rule or the Golden Rectangle Rule. With this rule, the screen is divided along the longest side using the Golden ratio. The resulting smaller section is again divided the same way on the long side with the smaller section continuously rotating by 90 degrees every time. This process is repeated until the resulting rectangle is too small to be significantly divided further.

This rule helps you create a fluid and flowing photographs. The curves of a model’s arms, the flowing lines of a building, natural features in a landscape, petals in a flower. This rule is all about leading the viewer from one part of the scene to another in a sweeping curve. It doesn’t have to be about spiral subjects although it would obviously work perfectly for them too.

The point where the smallest rectangle lies is the “sweet spot” where the subject should be positioned. Following the direction where the resulting rectangles are positioned, a spiral may be drawn connecting the outer corners and this line is used as a guide for the rest of the objects in the scene.

Here are some of my shots over which I laid grids of these guidelines, just to see if I actually shot my pics to fit them. As you can see, some I did and some I didn’t shoot exactly fitting the guidelines. But they still work, I think….


Some links and resources for composition:

Original diagrams & inspiration; Dave Smalley

About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

We also welcome submissions of photos and articles for this site, so please get in touch via our contact page. Thanks. © 2015 All Rights Reserved

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