Learn the golden rules of photography (before you break them)

Learn the golden rules of photography (before you break them)

This article originally appeared in Popular Photography .

Photography is a collection of rules that are merely principles. They are guidelines that can be understood and not to be followed strictly. This series will discuss photography fundamentals and when to break them. We must first cover the most fundamental elements of composition in photography.

The rule for thirds

Learn the golden rules of photography (before you break them)
The rule of third split the frame into six equal sections. Stan Horaczek

The rule of thirds is one of the most common–and most misunderstood–fundamentals of photography composition. You should divide your frame into threes, both horizontally and vertically. These third lines should contain the most important elements of your image. Better yet, you can place them at one or more intersections of both vertical or horizontal third lines (like the truck in the above image).

While the rule of thirds may not be the only way to create beautiful images, it is a great way for you to avoid making big compositional errors. It will help you place the most important elements of your photo in the frame, without them being too centered.

If you have a reason to disregard the rule of threes, then go ahead. It’s a useful starting point for compositional principles.

The golden ratio

Learn the golden rules of photography (before you break them)
The golden ratio or spiral is based on an irrational number. Wikimedia/Romain

The golden ratio or golden spiral is similar to the rule of thirds, compositionally speaking, but with more mysticism and mathematics thrown in.

While the rule of thirds splits the frame into three equal sections, the golden ratio, also known as the Fibonacci Spiral, places a vertical frame line closer to the center of the frame, splitting it into one slightly smaller and one slightly larger quadrant. The smaller section of the frame is then divided vertically using the same ratio. As shown above, this process is repeated to break down the frame into smaller pieces.

Learn the golden rules of photography (before you break them)
An example of the golden ratio in use. Abby Ferguson

However, even though the ratio appears often in both great works of art and nature, we’ve yet to see an image where it creates a significantly stronger composition than the rule of thirds (they’re just so darn similar). It’s not something you should be obsessing about.


Symmetry is a great way to create eye-catching images. It is easy to create symmetrical compositions using reflections from the surface of water or man-made structures.

Learn the golden rules of photography (before you break them)
A symmetrical image that also shows some nice, nearly complementary colors. Stan Horaczek

Symmetry can also be one of the most challenging compositional principles. Images that combine symmetrical and unsymmetrical elements can be very compelling.

Complementary colors

Remember the color wheel from your first art class? The same principles that apply for drawing and painting also apply to photography. When colors are placed next to or side-by-side, they can appear brighter. Photos with reds and yellows, blues and purples, or oranges and purples will appear more vibrant and punchy. This knowledge can be used to your advantage.

Leading lines

Learn the golden rules of photography (before you break them)
Leading lines draw the viewer into the scene. Abby Ferguson

Our eyes are attracted to strong lines in images. This is why guide rails, whether they are a bridge or a road through a landscape can be a great way for your viewers to focus on the most important parts of your photograph.

Leading line is not a compositional rule that you should break but something you should be aware if you don’t want to. Strong lines will attract viewers’ attention. You will need to reframe the shot if you don’t want viewers to look at the lines.

Fill the frame

Learn the golden rules of photography (before you break them)
Fill the frame to draw focus to your subject or subjects. Dan Bracaglia

Filling a frame is a compositional strategy that states your subject(s) should take up as much as possible of the image. This is usually done when a portrait is being taken. This removes the background, and the context of the scene, which can often lead to dramatic results. This same approach can also be applied to a group, as shown in the above.

While this is a great stylistic approach for many types of photography, there are times when you should not fill the frame with your subject. Filling the frame with your subject will not only distract from your intended purpose, but it can also be a way to show scale by placing your subject in its environment.

Don’t cut things off

Learn the golden rules of photography (before you break them)
It’s best to not awkwardly crop out a human or furry friend’s limbs. Abby Ferguson

A common rule in photography books is to not cut limbs, bodies, or other important parts of an image with the edge. It’s easy enough to see why. Most people look ridiculous with half of their hand cut off. It can be difficult to do in practice, especially if you’re shooting street scenes or travel scenes.

At a fixed point, the photo ends but the world keeps going. It is worth considering what is being cut out of the frame. However, you will always need to make a decision about cutting something out. Keep as many limbs as possible in the image. )

Keep the action going into the frame

Learn the golden rules of photography (before you break them)
For photos with action, be sure to give the subject some space to move in the frame. Dan Bracaglia

It is a good rule of thumb to keep the action in the frame, especially for action photography and sports. If your subject is running to their right, they should be placed to the left of the image to run into the open space.

This rule is applicable in many situations but can be easily broken if you have the need. For example, if you are shooting a 100m sprint and want to show the gap between first and second-place runners.

Useful rules, but not laws

Photography is an amazing mix of science and art. Although the process of creating an image is governed by the laws of physics, mathematics, the art of photograph composition is pure art. The fundamentals of composition in photography are great, but they should be viewed as starting points. They will help you avoid making mistakes and not rules that cannot be broken.

In the next article of the series, we’ll show you how to do that.

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