How to Make a Killer Photo using 8 Simple Composition Rules

The truth is, I should have started the blog with this article. After choosing a camera (this a huge subject too!), once you start taking photos and before considering lighting, exposure, noise and other settings, you should take good care of composition.
There are some rules (never call them rules because from definition art is free from rules) that make your pictures better, depending on the photography type.

Rule of Thirds
This rule applies for everything: landscape, macro and portraits, but exception would be the classic portrait. This means that instead of placing the subject (main focus of interest) in the centre of the frame put it on an intersection of the thirds. For me it is much simple to consider this mind drawing where my subject is placed either in point 1 or 2 or 3 or 4:

Sometimes cropping a subject to make the viewer focus on some specific detail is an extremely good idea. But other times, when it’s not about details, it’s good to have the entire subject inside the picture and don’t take a shoot as if the subject is just about to leave, but rather just about to come if it is not standing. If you are in hurry or not so sure about what you want and you also got a high megapixel camera, you can afford thinking about cropping after shooting in the post-editing process. Otherwise, get closer and if getting closer will scare away your subject (hehe) then use your zoom.

Straight Horizons
Even if the Earth is not plane, we are walking on a plane land. Therefore, if the pictures are meant to reflect reality, just keep the horizontal and vertical the way you see it with the eyes. The most common example of the placement of the horizon line is in landscape photography. Sometimes, however, the pictures are not meant to depict reality and just by questioning your imagination you’ll be able to find situations (frequent in architecture photography) when shapes look more interesting deformed.

Using Diagonals
For an unknown reason, this is my favorite rule. No matter of what or who your subject is, imagine a diagonal (I’ve been once told that down left – up right is better than up left – down right because it appears like going up instead of going down but I wouldn’t care too much about that). This is very easy if you have a road or a river or some other natural line, and harder if don’t have anything alike.

Most people keep the camera at the level of their eye but this is just the classic way of shooting. The perspective can change quite drastically, especially with wider angled lenses. Sometimes the subject requires you to get down. I’m a short person so I ask people to take pictures of me that way because it makes me look taller. Pointing up-down is a quite more seen situation than pointing down-up. Some cameras come with rotating LCD-s and I find this quite useful: you don’t need to stretch yourself and the camera to get a down-up photo, you only rotate the LCD until it meets your eyes.

Even if your eye caught something that makes you say this is worth shooting, after a while, you or other people looking at the picture may spend minutes until realizing where in that photo is the thing! This is happening when shooting against a busy background with many elements and colors (ex: people on the street). Macro and product photography mostly deal with background problems: it should be something as simple as possible not to disturb the attention from the main (and only!) subject.

I say the main and only subject because: another rule in photography spokes that one subject is better than two and also better than none. You must definitely have a subject, which means you are not shooting without thinking of something, and, if you really like to catch more objects that are not related to each other, just take separate shots.
The subject pops out when its colors and/or tones are in contrast to the background and/or other elements of the picture. This adds to the simplicity and background rules.

A book I recommend on this subject is Master Composition Guide for Digital Photographers .

In addition to these you may consider natural framing.

By Laura

I started photography as a hobby in 2005, during college. My passion slowly became a more important part of my life since 2008. Because of using a combination of my photographic knowledge, with those of internet marketing, I like to call myself a "photomarketer".


  1. good points,
    add one more..
    if you are shooting pics with people in it, make sure there is sufficient space in front of the direction they are looking into.
    A crude way of explaining would be this;
    | |

  2. Lau’s idea about the Rule of Thirds is NOT wrong!

    As she states she takes the numbers, not the intersections of lines.

    As a matter of fact the numbers almost reflect the positions of the Golden ratio better then the rule of thirds!

  3. Thanks for pointing that out Georg! If you take a little time to think about it Shaun, the numbers are almost in the same spots as the corners of the middle square. Think before you call someone out like that!

  4. Omigawsh, Golden rulez!! Man, just frame it so it looks good and stop overthinking it. Your pictures will be far more impacting and less clinical if you learn what it means to shoot from the gut instead of a bunch of photography school cliches. Learn the rules so you can forget them!

  5. Shaun Sander:

    You stated, “Your idea of “rules of third” is wrong”, however; the author said, “For me it is much simple to consider this “mind drawing” where my subject is placed either in point 1 or 2 or 3 or 4:” The author did not expalin the rule of thirds, but put forth an alternative.

  6. Shaun Sander:

    You stated, “Your idea of “rules of third” is wrong”, however; the author said, “For me it is much simple to consider this “mind drawing” where my subject is placed either in point 1 or 2 or 3 or 4:” The author did not expalin the rule of thirds, but put forth an alternative.

  7. Shaun, et. al.,

    Actually, the author’s and the link provided by Shaun are exactly the same. they are just diagrammed a little differently.

    Some people can look at a new concept when it’s presentd to them, experiment with it and fully understand it. When explaining it in their own words, it may differ from how it was presented the first time. This is all part of learning.

    Other people never really fully understand new concepts and can only parrot the examples as they were originally taught.

    Shaun, try and stretch a little bit. It might hurt in the beginning but maybe you’ll discover something new.

  8. Simple rules build a framework for complex thoughts, and understanding how to break the rules. I found the 3rds vs. Golden Ration conversation amusing. I found your rules to be excellent reminders of things I do (and forget to do). I have gotten lazy, “forgetting” a bit about changing perspective. Good reminders, thanks. And cudo’s to Digg’s link

  9. I think the most significan’t statement that everyone should follow is there are no rules in Photography. While all of the steps required to take a photograph are important they are all slave to the content that the photographer is striving to convey. Content is with out question the first thing to be considered when taking a photograph. Everything else depends on that decision. Exposure, composition, lighting, ect. must be altered to satisfy that content and as such dictates that there are no rules for any of them and following such rules may produce a significan’tly less appropriate final product.

  10. Good and easy tips, thanks. I would also include the Rule of Odds here. Acording to it, it is advisable to include an odd number of subjects in a photo. An odd number of elements is considered to make the image more interesting and aesthetically appealing to the human eye, while an even number adds symmetry to the image, which often dull and looks unnatural.

  11. Of course this is a creative process and an artist is free to improvise but even great improvisers learned all there was to it. If you contemplate a Picasso, you feel that he knew the basic principles although you can’t see it. So these simple rules are not to be happily overlooked. They really mark the difference between a dull, a weird and a killer pro picture. Thanks for the outlining them here Lau.

  12. Well, yes: I’m giving an alternative to the Rule of Thirds, because, like I said, I find this alternative easier to apply when actually shooting than in paper theory. If you are interested on technical aspects regarding the real rule, the link provided by Shaun is ok and there are many others about this subject over the net (i saw a good one on Wikipedia too).

    Someone mentioned Depth of Field as a rule, but here i talked only about compositional rules that apply to the actually point-and-shot. Depth of Field is a technique which requires the change of the camera settings, but I’ll go deeper into that on a later article.

    Good point with the Rule of Odds, thx for that Olga. Only that it sounds clearer like this: “an odd number of objects that form the subject”, otherwise someone will really think that having more than one subject is not disturbing.

    PS: of course, don’t forget to break the rules 😛
    PPS: sorry for the bad English, I’m giving my best to improve it

  13. Great simple tips that can make a big difference to your shots if you really not sure what to do with a camera. Good work!

  14. Hi!
    One day, I’ll shoot some photographs at Cluj as I have a friend there.
    Nice tips 😉

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