Photo Composition Principles, Methods and Examples

Photo Composition Principles

Photography is an art. Acceptance of any form of visual art clearly depends upon its admirer. Therefore, the famous French slogan “Art for art’s sake” is justified. Basically, in modern photography, there is no specific rule that says about universal theory of composition. In fact, composition in a photograph is relative to the subject and the theme. However, the old school photography mentioned some dynamic guideline of composition which can be applied to any theme.

A good composition can make a photo look extraordinary. Now the question arises, what does composition mean in photography? It’s nothing but the elements in a photo placed in an organized way to represent the theme in an artistic manner. The final objective is to make the photo look beautiful and easily understandable. A specific rule of representation of elements can’t be applied because photography has different genre like portrait, landscape, fashion, wild life, and so on. Many years back, in the age of 35mm black and white roll film, some legendary photographers researched on different art forms of photography and indicated some guidelines. Here, in this article, I will discuss some frequently used principles of composition in photography.

Before getting into the subject, I want to tell you about the general concept of photography. Subject, object, and the theme are the three important major aspects of any photo. Many people misunderstand that subject should always be a living entity. In fact,the subject of a photo can be anything including inanimate object.

Rule of Thirds

This is probably the most important principle of composition of photography. If you are very new to photography, then this might be quite confusing to you. Until now, you heard about the word “third” but have you ever heard about “thirds”? Don’t worry, this is a very simple concept. I will simplify this word for you. Just imagine the diagram of famous kid’s time passing game called Tic-Tac-Toe on any photograph, regardless of the orientation of the image. The photo will virtually be divided in nine equal parts by forming an imaginary grid. The word “thirds”indicates every third position of the diagram. This can be diagonally, horizontally, or vertically. Each third position has an important part regarding the placement of subject. Most people place the subject in the center of a photo. But according to the principle, the subject should be placed slightly off centered. You can place the subject in the top right or left corner box or on the intersecting lines. This is a general concept but there are many variations. Remember that this is not any rule.Rather,it’s a general guideline.Photo Composition Principles

Look carefully at this classic example black and white street photography. A lady is making a call from road side public telephone. In the background, we can see a wall painting showing the trend. See how carefully the photographer creates a dramatic composition by placing the lady on the “thirds”position where the lines of grid intersect each other on the top right corner of the photo frame. In this photo, the subject is the lady and the theme is the contemporary trend. All great photos are based on some theme. The photo must say something. For your better understanding of the Rule of Thirds, I drew a Tic-Tac-Toe-like grid on the photo, so that you could understand the classic way of placing the subject in a photograph.Photo Composition Principles

Look at this picture. This is an action photograph. The photographer plays with reflection of a moving object. You may be confused about the subject in this photo. The person jumping is not the subject but the reflection of the man. Moving object requires high shutter speed setting. The subject is placed on the lower third position in this image.


Another classic theme of photography is repetition. I told you before that a subject may be anything. This can be architecture, trees, or anything that the photographer wants to highlight. You can play with repetition of object. Many architectural marvels display repetitive arch or pillars which can be the subject of your photography.Photo Composition Principles

Look at this image. A person is peeping in silhouette. I told you there is no fixed rule of placing the subject. Here, the person acts as a subject of attraction, which essentially makes the whole photo look marvelous. Now, assume the photo without the person. How would it look like? Without the peeping person, many will be confused at the picture. Because of the subject, you can easily recognize that this is an architectural marvel.Photo Composition Principles

This is another example of repetition. In this case, repetitive trees of same height and structure create an effect. Look at the contrast of black and white lines. The branches on the upper part of the tree create a gray shade from the beginning to end which is followed by the white stems.

The Depth of Field

Depth of field is one of the most important factors that every photographer should have a clear understanding of. I hope you know how to focus on the subject. Depth of field depends upon aperture and the distance of the focusing area from the camera. This has nothing to do with shutter speed or film speed. If you increase the f stop of lens, the depth of field will certainly increase. The distance also plays a major role. If you increase the distance, the depth of field will also increase. You may have seen many portfolio-style outdoor portrait, where the subject is so sharp and crispy but the background is blurred. This is because of a shallow depth of field. The photograph is taken either using low aperture like f/1.4, 2.8, or 5.6 or the distance of the subject was too close to the lens. Not only that, the depth of field increases in wide lens. Depth of field will increase if you increase the angle of lens. This will reduce if you decrease the angle of view. A 35mm lens will create more depth of field than a 52mm lens.Photo Composition Principles

In this photo, the street number 39 looks sharp along with the running lady. This is because the photographer used more than f/8 aperture and maintained at least some distance from the subject.Thus,the depth of field increased to some degree.Photo Composition Principles

Now look at this girl.Watch carefully.Except the girl, everything behind her looked blur.This is because of extremely shallow depth of field. The photographer shot this model from very close distance with wide aperture like f/2.8 or f/5.6.  Compare this image with the previous image and you will understand the difference of field clarity.

Working with Lines

The main objective of line photography is to show rhythmic flow of a line. Mountain road way photography is a unique example of this type of photography.Photo Composition Principles

The curve of the road is the subject of this photo. This kind of photography has a magical attraction.


Symmetry is another interesting composition of photography where an object splits into two equal parts. Either part reflects the opposite part. There are so many object scattered around us where we can find symmetry. Many photographers use reflection to create symmetrical photographic art. Architectural structural marvels often stand for good subject to shoot symmetry.Photo Composition Principles

The reflection of tram creates a unique example of symmetrical photography. Look carefully.The photograph is divided in two parts, and each part is complementary to other.Photo Composition Principles

In this picture,the photographer uses a cable tension bridge to show symmetry. Notice that the photo can be divided in two parts. And each part reflects another part. This is called symmetrical photography.

Playing with Shapes

There are numerous objects around us.You can easily use those objects to show a unique piece of art. Some of these objects may form various geometric shapes like spiral, diagonal, square, round, and so on.Photo Composition Principles

In this photo,the razor fencing wires form the shape of a spiral. The photographer takes this from inside the fence to show the spiral. Apart from creating a spiral view, the photograph exhibits shallow depth of field.Photo Composition Principles

Look at this awesome snap. A huge triangle is created exhibiting a mesmerizing effect. The photographer chooses a place and composition from where it looks like a giant triangle. This is the excellence of a good creative photographer who can see things differently from common people.

You Must Fill the Frame

Back to the Rule of Thirds, look at this picture where the subject is placed on the top right corner of the frame. The photographer filled the frame with relevant objects to illustrate the theme, by introducing a dramatic action. You shouldn’t leave any blank place on the frame, but at the same time, do not try to fill them with any irrelevant stuff. Completeness is very essential for proper framing.Photo Composition Principles

I hope you learned something about the classic way of accommodating the subject in a frame and apply the principle to your own work.

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