Reap the benefits of these simple tips and reliable techniques for composing your frame

Intermediate

A well-crafted composition is one of the most pleasing parts of photography, but sometimes it can be difficult to arrange the elements in front of you into a pleasing whole. Thankfully there are several helpful rules you can call upon when composing your frame, whether you’re looking to strike a balance between your subject and their surroundings, or draw the eye to the important parts of the image, or create order from chaos.

These compositional rules can be of great benefit to your photography, but keep in mind that they needn’t be followed too strictly. There’s one rule that trumps them all: if it looks right, it is right.

1 Rule of thirds

Easy to remember and simple to implement, this is one of the most useful compositional rules that you can apply to your photography. The basic idea is that things look better when positioned away from the centre of the frame. Simply divide the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically, then position natural breaks in the scene - like the horizon line - along the third lines. If there are small points of interest, like a person in a landscape, then try positioning them at the intersection of a horizontal and vertical third line.

Macro photograph of a Waterdrop on a Gerbera Daisy
You can apply the rule of thirds to focusing as well as framing - here in this image by Zoe Ferrie the point of focus adheres to the rule

2 Symmetry

The psychology behind the appeal of symmetry is fascinating. We subconsciously think of symmetrical faces as beautiful because as a species we have evolved to associate symmetry with good genes and health. When it comes to composition, symmetry can be similarly pleasing on the eye. Of course, framing a symmetrical scene down the middle is the opposite of the rule of thirds. But like all these rules, it’s about knowing which subjects and scenes will work best.

Train tracks through the Mojave Desert
Train tracks through the Mojave Desert. Image from Cliff LaPlant
Basketball basket viewed from bottom to top against a blue sky
Basketball basket viewed from bottom to top. Photo by Pedro Venâncio

3 Frames within frames

This is a compositional technique you’ll see used again and again, not just in photography but also in films, television and painting. The trick is to seek out natural frames in the environment and use them to surround your subject. Start to seek out natural frames and you’ll find them everywhere, from doorways to tree branches, gates and even people. The frames-within-frames rule can be especially helpful with portraits, as you can manoeuvre the person into the perfect position, or wait for a passerby to walk into the ideal spot.

Bride and groom kissing with kids in the background
Beautiful use of a natural frame 'Your Smile' by El.DiPi.
Blue hour on Lake Toblino, Northern Italy
Keep in mind that the natural frame doesn’t necessarily have to be in front of the subject ere the clouds and mountains form a frame in the background. Blue hour on Lake Toblino, Italy, by Mattia Bonavida

4 Golden ratio


The Golden Ratio relates to the ratio of 1:1.618. This is a proportion that features not just in many works of art but also throughout nature (look at your lower arm and you’ll see the golden ratio at work, the proportion of hand to forearm is 1:1.618). You can use the golden ratio to divide your image horizontally and vertically with the proportion 1:0.618:1. Of course, few photographers will precisely calculate this. It can be more practical to think of the golden ratio as like the rule of thirds, only the lines and intersections are slightly more central.

Seascape captured with the 'Golden Ratio' composition rules
To make use of the golden ratio roughly divide the frame into a ratio of 1:0.618:1 both horizontally and vertically, then compose elements in the scene along the lines and intersections. Image by James Paterson

5 Golden spiral


This is based on the golden ratio of 1:1.618, but taken to extremes. The first rectangle is divided based on the ratio, then the smaller rectangle is divided again, then again and so on. A spiral is drawn along the intersections of the ever-decreasing squares. Placing details along the spiral line and your subject at the centre of the spiral can lead to a strong composition.

Spral staircase captured with the 'Golden Spiral' composition rules
Example of the golden spiral technique in an image composition. Image by James Paterson

6 Foreground interest


This compositional device is especially useful in landscape photography. As the name suggests, it simply means framing to include interesting details in the foreground of the image. It’s very effective when you are presented with a stunning vista in the distance. The foreground details can draw the eye through the scene and on towards the distant spectacle. A wide angle lens can be very useful for framing foreground details, as it allows you to exaggerate the perspective.

Abraham Lake in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta comes alive in the long and cold winter with staggering beauty.
The ice adds a burst of colour and detail that draws the eye towards the distant mountains. Imagine how much less effective the image would be if it had instead been taken a few paces to the left in the snow. Image by Luis F Arevalo

7 Cropping the body


Unless you frame every portrait full length you need to decide where to crop in to the body when composing your portraits. But some incision points typically look more neat than others. For example, if you need to crop off the feet then it’s better to cut through the shins rather than the ankles. As for arms, don’t crop off fingers or wrists instead crop above elbows.

For three-quarter shots, crop above the knees rather than through the crotch. For top-half shots, crop just below armpits rather than at wrists. And when coming in close to the face, crop halfway between the hairline and the top of the head to draw attention to the eyes - as seen in the example below.

Buddhist monk standing in front of the colourful door
Crop above the knees for three-quarter portraits to get a neat finish in your environmental portrait shots. Image by Niney Asman
Portrait of a woman in black and white
Portrait by Dejan

8 Negative space


Filling the frame with your subject can be a reliable way to compose a shot, but sometimes the opposite approach can be more interesting. Negative space is typically any part of a frame that is devoid of detail, like a plain wall, an expanse of sky or a blurred backdrop. Framing to intentionally leave empty areas can be a bold aesthetic choice. Images with negative space can also be useful from a design point of view, as the space can be used to add text or titles.

Candy minimal shot of a Victorian Pier taken on iPhone, in Clevedon, UK
Negative space can sometimes lead to a stronger composition and serve to strengthen the details elsewhere. Old Victorian Pier by Karen Morgan

9 Triangles


This is a simple technique that - unlike most of the rules mentioned here - doesn’t require you to divide the frame up into specific portions. Instead it’s about seeking out or arranging points of interest so that they form a triangle within your frame. There are two aesthetic principles at play here. The first is that diagonal lines within a rectangular shape are pleasing on the eye. The second is that, as the saying goes, good things come in threes.

Overhead view of two people drinking in a bar
'Let's have a drink' by Lore Sabău
A busy street corner in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
Pleasing to the eye - the diagonal lines in this scene form a triangle. A busy street corner in Mong Kok, Hong Kong by Chris Peterson-Clausen

10 Leading lines


Lines can be extremely useful when composing a frame. Look around and you’re likely to see plenty of natural lines around you that can be put to use, like a wall, a shoreline or a tree branch. The viewer’s eye naturally follows the line through the image, so you can lead them towards important points like a person or a distant detail.

Boy looking over a bridge in the Lake District, England
The bridge creates a strong leading line towards the boy in this shot. Image by Simon K. Allen.

Editing tip: use Lightroom crop overlays


It’s best to apply these rules of composition when framing your shot, but sometimes the ideal composition may not present itself at the time, or events might happen too quickly for you to compose perfectly.

Thankfully, these rules are equally useful when cropping your images later. If you use Lightroom to crop your photos, you can use handy composition overlays as a guide such as the rule of thirds, golden ratio, diagonals and triangle. You’ll find the overlay options under Tools> Crop Guide Overlay. While cropping hit H to turn the overlays on or off, and O to cycle through the different overlays on offer. Shift+O will rotate the orientation of the overlay. Simply align points of interest along the overlay lines as you crop in to the image.

Screenshot of the Lightroom crop overlay tool
Go to Tools > Crop Guide Overlay in Lightroom to view a range of handy compositional guides when cropping.