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Time Out With Tanya

Five Fundamental Compositional Theories You Should Master Today

By Tanya Goodall Smith on April 9th 2015

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.

Other articles you might find helpful:


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.

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Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner, brand strategist and commercial photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory creates visual communications that make your brand irresistible to your target market. Join the stock photo rebellion at

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Paul Empson

    :-) compositional guides… understand them and we can use, bend and break them… which will help us be creative and or create a consistent body of work… and occasionally a quirky image..

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  2. robert s

    body direction is also one I adhere to. which goes with rule of thirds a little. meaning, a person whos body is facing right gets put to the left of the frame although it will work acceptable if the person is looking left.

    something I think is just horrible and should be a crime are photographers who shoot 7/8 of the body and cut the heads. this is style but this is no fundamental. its just a crime.

    and last. something thats been around so long that it has its own term “american shot” which is just tacky. its neither here nor there. there is a face shot, half body shot, and full body. there are variations of each, like how much face. does it go down to chest or is it a tight crop where you show only the eyes and mouth. or the half body where you make sure to not cut just above the hand at the wrist but a bit above, and a full body shot. there is no 7/8 shot where you cut them at the shins. the second I see a photographer do that, that says what level he is to me.

    and picture #4 is meh. either shoot it vertically with the girl and baby or crop it tighter. yes, I see what was done, but you dont crop 2/3 of the girl for a basket. the person is more important than the accessory.

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  3. Ben Perrin

    Just remember if you want to stand out from the crowd follow these same rules that everyone else has been taught to follow…

    Just kidding but it seriously is a good starting point but emphases should be placed on finding your own unique style.

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    • Tanya Goodall Smith

      Style and good composition are two different things entirely.

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    • Ben Perrin

      I disagree. Composition must fit the style to make sense. A lot of these rules are hundreds of years old and do not necessarily fit every situation. Not knocking these rules just saying that following these rules blindly without knowledge of ones own shooting style is of no benefit. Asking people to follow these rules without questioning why stifles creativity. Just my opinion.

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    • robert s

      I disagree. its like food. there are certain guidelines to creating food. things you do because it comes out properly. getting a certain taste is something else. like you dont add the onions in the end. or not preheating an oven beforehand. these are just basic things you do when you cook. its even more critical when it comes to pastry/baking. theres concrete guidelines you follow.

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    • Ben Perrin

      I don’t disagree that guidelines produce predictable results but that’s my point. Rules determine that you have to light in a certain ratio. Well have fun with that because you’ll never go beyond anyone else’s own knowledge and style that way. A technical instrument can never make a creative decision (Joel Grimes says that). My point is that these rules and guidelines can be more of a hindrance than a help. They are often there as a way to stop amateurs from making bad mistakes which is a noble sentiment, but just remember that sooner or later the training wheels need to come off. When these principals are being taught that caveat needs to be kept in mind. However I find that it’s almost never mentioned. Basically these should be guides, not rules. Anyway, I’m not meaning to put a negative spin on the article just trying to voice an alternate path. YMMV.

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    • John Cavan

      I would agree that the composition choices should be appropriate to the style, but style isn’t composition. Tanya didn’t tell people to follow them blindly, she explained the basis of each of them so that people could understand what makes them a “rule of composition” so that when they do break them, they can do so with an understanding of why. Without that, they’re just snapshots.

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    • Rafael Steffen

      Thanks for bringing this out.

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    • Rafael Steffen

      Great discussions.

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    • Rafael Steffen

      Great composition with great lighting = Amazing photography

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  4. Edward Carrington

    Rules can be broken as photography composition is very subjective; what may not look good to you, may look good to me. I feel we generally as humans tend to follow rules without testing out alternatives for ourselves. Just because someone made up a rule, does not mean you should follow it.

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    • John Cavan

      Compositional “rules” for images have been around well before photography because they work. However, breaking them is also a good thing, I think, presuming you understand the rule that you’re breaking and why.

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    • Rafael Steffen

      I Totally agree. In the past I use to not like rules of third, but now I learned how to make it look wonderful.

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    • Thomas Horton

      Breaking a rule because you understand the rule and are making a deliberate artistic decision is better than just violating a rule because you don’t understand the rule.

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    • Thomas Horton

      Concerning picture number 2.

      I don’t think the rule of thirds worked well because the mode was facing squarely in the frame. A little head turn might have been better.

      I did like the light coming from the “empty” side though.

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