Photography Composition Cheat Sheet

One of the first compositional guidelines most photographers learn is the ubiquitous “Rule of Thirds”. This principle suggests that an image should be imagined divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections (Bryan F. Peterson, 2003). 

The effect of placing important elements like the main subject or a horizon line according to this rule creates more visual interest, better flow, and more visual energy than simply centering or placing features haphazardly in a scene. As photographic “rules” go it’s pretty solid and a great place to start with understanding composition. But make no mistake, this isn’t a rule at all, just a guiding principle. It can be modified to suit a given scene, or ignored all together. And it is just one one of many compositional guides that we can use to help assemble and arrange our images.

When I was first re-entering the world of landscape photography I found the abundance of compositional advice a little overwhelming. Leading lines, foregrounds, empty space, natural frames… It’s a lot to remember and can sometime be paralyzing for new photographers when attempting to apply poorly understood guides to new locations. As a way of dealing with the often conflicting or redundant compositional advice out there, I decided to create a table for myself of the most common principles I was encountering. I collapsed anything that seemed to overlap significantly (or noted when guides were related) and applied my own more flexible interpretations to what each of these principles really meant. It helped a lot to stop thinking of them as rules at all, but as guides or best-practices instead. Remember, these are starting points to composition, not edicts. I’m posting the table here for you to use as your own starting point. Please feel free to reinterpret or append as you see fit. And keep in mind, that’s the real lesson here, these are building blocks to composition, they are not absolute, they are not fixed or unmalleable.

Addendum: I’ve found some really great videos on YouTube recently that deal directly with composition that I think are worth sharing here: