Composition Rules – Part I

Composition Rules or Clichés, as I like to call them, have been used by artists since long and for the last many decades, photographers have also started using them to their advantage, calling them the ‘rules of composition’. These play on the creative side of our brain and guide our subconscious mind across a photograph. Some of these are highly debated ones. Proceed at your own risk. Risk of loosing your own way of looking at things!


Leading Lines

Some objects that have a a difference in color, contrast or texture, tend to associate with one another. When seen from far or from periphery of our vision, they form structures or lines. Sometimes there may be shapes in an image that are actually lines. These lines tend to lead a viewer’s eyes from one point to another. Culture and education also modifies this to an extent. Leading lines is one of the commonly used clichés that almost always works.


Leading Lines

(Picture of a boat using leading lines. See the image below how our eyes get guided across it.)


Repeated Shapes

Repeated shapes are sometimes a composition of their own. Fractals (repeated shapes with similar shapes in a bigger frame) are interesting to look at. When used creatively, these can result in a powerful composition. Fractals and simple repetitions are very attractive to the subconscious mind. One of the easier clichés to find and capture!

Geometric Patterns

(Geometric patterns in red stone)


Rule of Thirds

This is so much overused that it sometimes clouds the mind. Still it is very easy to use. Divide the frame into three vertical and horizontal parts and then place the subject at the junction of any of these dividing lines and along these lines. That is all that is to this rule. Like I had said that it gets so ingrained into photographers that they fail to look beyond it. Don’t let that happen. Use it once in a while but compose your images as you feel right. Sometimes when I compose photographs, I feel that this rule is totally wrong but then that is like saying that the whole photography fraternity is wrong. So I keep my voice low on this particular rule and have listed it here for the sake of completion. Interestingly, however flawed its origin or interpretation, this is the most loved rule of photographers all around the world.

Rusted Mechanicals from a Boat

(Rusted Mechanicals from a Boat. Notice the placement of the major elements according to the rule of thirds, as shown in the image below. Can you also identify the leading lines in the images above?)

Rule of Thrids


Empowering the Subject

This is done by making use of the various objects in the photograph and getting them to keep on getting the eyes back to the subject. This also includes use of leading the eye, placement of the various elements in the photograph and sometimes even a very specific and selective focusing. Shallow depth of field also helps in empowering the subject.


(Photograph of an Angel praying. The statue has been photographed at an angle so that multiple lines lead to the angel’s face. The light falling on the face further empowers it by giving a feeling of enlightenment. Space between the eyes and the frame in front adds to the drama. The dark and out of focus background further empowers the subject.)

Empowering Subject

Negative space used in front of the eyes of the angel is a strong empowering tool. More about negative spaces – Negative Space


Frame within Frame

A concept based on the ‘Golden Ratio’. Fortunately the camera frame is already almost in this ratio for most cameras. (Square format is not so common in consumer market). All that remains to be done is to create another frame within the boundaries of the film or sensor and place the subject within it. Think of the common photograph of TajMahal with the dark entrance gate forming the frame around it.

Frame within Frame

(Nikon Df with Zeiss 135mm, f/5.6, 1/160. An example showing frame within frame concept. Do you also see the repeated lines and rough implementation of rule of thirds?)


The Color Theory

In this age of color, understanding color theory is vital for strong colored compositions. This again plays strongly on our subconscious, partly due to our eye and brains and partly due to our evolutionary history. First step is to understand the color wheel. There are colors which are adjoining to each other and there are colors which are opposite to each other. Using colors which are adjoining to each other creates harmony in the overall picture. For drama, try adding an element from the opposite side of the color wheel. The colors around ‘red’ tend to catch our eyes more than the ‘blues’ and ‘greens’….. one of the reasons why a simple picture of a red flower against green background looks beautiful.

Red Rose

(Red Rose. Nikon D200 with Sigma macro 105mm lens, f/6.3, 1/400 sec at ISO 400)

Frosted Window with Flowers

(Picture of a greenhouse window with color theory in action. Leading line, rule of thirds and golden ratio further contribute to it.)

Color theory though written for colors also can be used in black and white photography. Our eyes tend to focus on bright parts of an image if there are no colors seen and tend to search in dark parts of the image. This is another aspect of our evolution and functioning of eyes. More about colors – Using colors effectively

By the way, old photographers also used color theory to find out the filters to be used for black and white photography and present day image editing programs use it to remove color casts. (Red Filters (and other colors))


Fibonacci Spiral

Another derivation of the golden ratio and the Fibonacci numbers. Placing the subjects using this spiral brings about pleasing results. The spiral can also be flipped or rotated. Many photographers confuse it with rule of thirds but they are different technically. On the other hand, this has also been touted as just a coincidence or figment of imagination of some photographers. This small group considers the use of Fibonacci Spiral in photography as just something which just clouds our minds.

Fibonacci Spiral

(Fibonacci Spiral)

An example of this kind of image is included in the Composition Rules – Interpreting Images page along with a few more interesting compositions. More about Fibonacci Spiral – Fibonacci Spiral and Photography

Continuation of this article – Composition Rules – Part II

Do consider this famous quote too – “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso

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