The rules of composition are techniques that photographers use to create visually pleasing and impactful images. Understanding these principles empowers photographers to capture captivating images that resonate with viewers. However, it's also important to remember that rules can be broken creatively to achieve unique and striking results. We have curated a list of these rules and strong examples from a variety of photographers. These compositional rules aren’t specific to one “type” of photography, rather they speak to how humans see and interpret images. Take a look at how these Sony shooters deeply understand these compositional rules and how that informs the way they set up a shot. Then, give these rules a try, and tag your images #SonyAlpha for your chance to be featured. And for more aspirational imagery be sure to follow @SonyAlpha on Instagram.
While it's always good to break the occasional rule, these creators show how compositional rules can make good guardrails that can foster creativity.
Golden Ratio: Jen Guyton – @JenGuyton
The golden ratio is a guide for where to place your subjects in the frame. The ratio of approximately 1.618, creates a visually pleasing and balanced composition. This tool can add dynamism and emphasizes movement in an image. A great example of this is in the image below, made by Jen Guyton. Jen is a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and an explorer with the National Geographic Society. The photo below is framed in such a way that at first the viewer's eye goes to the hand holding the wing out, the eye then travels along the wing, to the second hand, and to the face of the researcher. This eye movement follows the golden ratio.
Framing: Mark and Tracey Crown - @Crown_photo
Framing, or ‘frame within a frame’ is another popular technique. For this, the photographer uses elements in the scene to frame the main subject, adding to the depth and context to the image. This can create a sense of focus on the main subject. The image below is a fantastic example, the photographer used the tree branches to surround the couple. This image was made by Mark and Tracey Crown, a husband and wife creative team. For the last 10 years, the Crowns have run their wedding and lifestyle photography business together. The pair shoot with the Sony Alpha 7R III, Sony Alpha 7S III, Sony 35mm f/1.4, Sony 50mm f/1.4, Sony 35mm f/1.8, Sony 85mm f/1.8, Sony 55mm f/1.8, and Sony 70-200mm f/4 G. Read more about their gear in What’s In Our Bag: A Husband & Wife Wedding Team’s Kit For Photo & Video.
Rule of Thirds: Jean Fruth - @JeanFruthImages
For the rule of thirds, you divide the frame into a 3x3 grid using two horizontal and two vertical lines. Then, you place key elements along these lines or at their intersections to create balance and interest. This can be used when shooting landscapes, wildlife, products, portraits, sports, and more. The images below were made by Sony Artisan Jean Fruth. She could easily have placed the baseball player in the center of the frame, yet by placing him in the left third of the frame, it adds more dynamic interest in the frame. It also creates space for the viewer to picture the player moving forward. Shooting with the Sony Alpha 1, Jean is a master of storytelling in sports photography. Learn more about her process in This Pro Sports Photographer & Alpha Female Is A Master Of Storytelling.
Leading Lines: Max Boncina – @max.bon
When you come across lines, natural or manmade, in your scene, you can frame them in such a way that they lead the viewer's eye. This is an approach that Sony Brand Ambassador Max Boncina has mastered in his urbex photography. While exploring abandoned spaces, Max keeps an eye out for staircases, tracks, or architectural elements he can use in his compositions. The image below is no exception. Max made it with the Sony Alpha 7R III and Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 G Master.
Fill The Frame: Charly Savely – @charlysavely
One way to achieve a sense of intimacy in a photograph is to fill the frame. This is exactly what it sounds like: getting close to the subject or filling the frame with it to emphasize details and connect the subject with the audience. Charly Savely, a Sony Brand Ambassador, achieved this with the image below. When photographing, there is often a tendency to show everything in a wide shot or at least include a bit of “head space.” And while this can certainly be impactful, Charly’s image is a great example of how focusing in and tightening up the composition can lead to a clean, moving image.
Patterns & Repetition: Sapna Reddy – @sapnareddy
Capture patterns or repeating elements in the scene to create visual interest and rhythm. These types of images can add dimension and texture to an otherwise flat image. Sony Brand Ambassador Sapna Reddy used this technique in the image below. By honing in on the repeating lines of the dunes and letting it fill up the frame, she has told a story about this place.
Symmetry & Balance: Nate Luebbe – @nateinthewild
We are drawn to symmetry and balance in visuals. As opposed to the golden ratio and the rule of thirds, some scenes do benefit from having elements placed evenly in the frame. Or, if you are trying to create a sense of tension, you can use asymmetry in your composition. Sony Brand Ambassador and landscape photographer Nate Luebbe has created a balanced image in the shot below. By slicing the horizon about halfway through the frame, he is drawing attention to the stunning reflection. He has also placed the human subject directly in the center of the frame, which balances the image well. Nate created this shot with the Sony Alpha 7 II and the Sony 28mm f/2 lens.
Negative Space: Alex Pansier – @AlexPansier
In some cases, filling the frame is powerful; but in other cases, you can use minimalism to tell a story and draw focus to the subject. Nature photographer Alen Pansier has mastered the use of negative space and has made it part of his photographic style. In the image below, and with most of his shots on Instagram, Alex uses empty space to create stark, emotive images. We love this technique used in the genre of nature photography in particular. Photos of animals in the natural world are often ornate and full of scenery. In contrast, Alex’s portfolio stands out and is very aesthetically pleasing.
Rule of Odds: Michael Forsberg – @mforsbergphoto
An odd number of subjects in an image tends to be more visually appealing than an even number. This can create a sense of imbalance that draws the viewer's attention. Conservation photographer Michael Forsberg executes this composition well in the image below. Using his Sony Alpha 1, Michael tells stories of conservation and the natural world. This image is of whooping cranes in Rainwater Basin, Nebraska. The line of the three birds diagonal across the frame is more visually appealing than if there had only been two birds.
Foreground, Middleground, Background: Henry Tieu – @henrysdiary
Create depth in the image by including elements in the foreground, middleground, and background. This gives the photograph a three-dimensional feel and it helps lead the viewer's eye around the frame. Sony Brand Ambassador Henry Tieu executes this beautifully with the image below. The foreground features the couple getting married, making them the first point the viewer's eye goes to when looking at the image. The middle ground is the beautiful landscape they are standing in, with water and cliff sides; this gives context to the image and helps the viewer feel more depth in the shot. Finally, the background is the hint of a rainbow on the upper righthand corner of the shot. This creates even more depth and of course, a rainbow makes the elopement image even more magical!