Welcome to Time Out with Tanya, where I’ve put my fast paced graphic design career on hold in favor of adventures in motherhood. I’m capturing every moment on camera, and you can come along if you’d like. Sign up for my weekly email here so you’ll never miss a Time Out.

I’ve met a lot of photographers over the years who were graphic designers before they even picked up a camera and most seemed to be able to produce dynamic, pleasing photographs right off the bat. Why is this so? I’m a firm believer that the theories of design can be learned and mastered by anyone. After you’ve nailed the technical aspects of creating a photograph, the rest is all esthetics and connection with your subject.

The principles of good design translate to any creative medium. Photography, typography, painting, architecture, apparel, interiors, even music contains some of these same principles. Many of these are dictated by what we find pleasing in nature. Balance, harmony, contrast, etc. There are so many I could teach you, but five fundamental compositional theories you can use to improve your photography are introduced in our Photography 101 DVD. These are a great place to start and honestly, they are the most used because they just work. I subconsciously use all five of these while I’m shooting. Here are some examples.

Rule #1: Symmetry

symmetry-photography-composition-rulesSymmetry is defined as the quality of being made up of exactly similar parts facing each other or around an axis. Both sides of the photo look the same. Symmetry works because it creates a feeling of balance and harmony. Look for opportunities to create symmetry in your images with architectural elements (like buildings, windows or doors), lighting techniques, shadows, or placement of your subjects.

Rule #2: Rule of Thirds

rule of thirds-negative space
The rule of thirds is loosely derived from the principle of the Golden Ratio, or the Golden Mean, which is a mathematical algorithm that shows up everywhere in nature. The human body, sea shells, leaves, etc. You might remember learning about it in geometry. Once you understand it visually, you’ll see it all around you. (Read more about the Golden Ratio vs. Rule of Thirds by clicking here)


To use the rule of thirds in your composition, divide your image into nine equal parts, using three equally divided horizontal and vertical lines. Then place your focal point at the intersection of any of those lines. It will add more interest to your images and help you mix it up when you’re stuck in the rut of always centering your subject. After some practice, you won’t have to think about this anymore, you’ll just do it.

Rule #3: Leading Lines

leading-lines-photography-composition-rulesLeading lines are pretty self-explanatory. Any lines or perceived lines that lead to the desired focal point in your image. In the above image, the beach line leads our eye up to the couple, which is where I want my viewers to look first.


Leading lines don’t have to be straight (they could be curved), and they don’t always have to be glaringly obvious. Leading lines can be subtle and still produce the desired effect.

Rule #4: Triangles and Geometry

Looking for geometric shapes in your scene or creating them with your subjects, can make your images very pleasing to the eye. Look at your favorite images and try to decipher why you like them. You’ll likely find triangles in the composition. Can you see the triangle in the composition in my image above? I like to look for other geometric shapes as well; squares, circles, ovals, rectangles. The human eye looks for shapes. Our eyes are drawn to order, and shapes are a way we visually organize information to separate the important stuff from the chaos.

Rule #5: Negative Space

Negative space is probably one of my favorite compositional rules. If you want someone to know what the most important visual piece of information is in your composition, surround it with nothing. This gives the viewer no other option than to look at the focal point. This seems like a no-brainer, but it can be a powerful tool and easier said than done to pull off nicely.

Negative Space-compositional-theory

Using negative space is also one of the easiest ways to take an image from average to high end. You’ll notice luxury brands generally use a lot of negative space in their advertising imagery. Try it. Look for areas of negative space and use them in your composition. Keep in mind the other fundamental rules we’ve talked about when using negative space. Notice I’ve also used the Rule of Thirds and Symmetry in my detail shot of the diamond ring above.

Learn more fundamentals of creating amazing photography in the SLR Lounge Photography 101 DVD Workshop. Once you complete that course, you’ll be ready to rock your composition by learning how to manipulate a scene using artificial light, from our newly released and highly anticipated Lighting 101 DVD.

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CREDITS: Photographs by Tanya Smith are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.