John Harvey Photo

Learn Photo Composition

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Rules are meant to be broken

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No composition rule is universal.  No rule will work for every case.  Some clever people have noticed trends in photos that can be summarized as rules and I'll try to summarize some of those rules.

"Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk."
- Edward Weston
"The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial"
- Ansel Adams

2D Composition Rules:

You can look at photos in two ways - either as a 2 dimensional plane with color, or as a three dimensional scene that has been flattened into a 2 dimensional photo.  Some types of photos (macro, long focal lengths or shallow depth of field) tend toward 2 dimensional interpretations and the 2D Composition rules seem to work well.  Other photos (mostly wide angle, deep depth of field) seem to require the strong three dimensional sense to really pop out to the user.  Of course no rule is hard - almost the opposite, simply following the rules often leads to just acceptable images.

Rules of Thirds: The rule of thirds is by far the best known composition rule.  If you divide the photo into thirds, place objects where the thirds cross.  Align horizons and edges to join the third lines.

Light HouseSnail On Wire

The opposite way of saying this rules is don't put the neat stuff in the center of the frame.

Disappearing Lines into Corners: If there are strong lines in the scene, try to get them to disappear into the corner.   If the lines break into the center or the edge, it tends to divide the photo, but disappearing into a corner seems to make composition stronger.

Bridge by Cheakamus CanyonCurved BridgeIn Front of Mt. Shasta

Mark And Andrea On Kintai-KyoSnaking Through Cave
This effect is often easily done with paths and railings.  It invites the viewer to walk into the photo or gives them a safe feeling.
Use "S" Curves
Apparently, they eye enjoys following "S" curves.  This rules seems to apply mostly to water, roads and the silhouettes of people.  It doesn't strictly need to be an "S" either - reverse it or even just a strong zig-zag can be enough.
Cascade of FallsStream By FallsFence at RathtrevorMixing Water Sources

This can be combined with the disappearing lines into the corner piece above to stronger effect.
Monotonous Content:
Some images would make killer jigsaw puzzles - they contain many examples of the same object but with deep detail allows the brain to dwell on and discover arbitrary parts of the photo.

Mixed GourdsStones on the BeachFish In Large Tank

Anti Left Right Symmetry:
The eye seems to enjoy a little surprise.  Left right symmetry is the rule in this world - many things have symmetry.  If you can find examples where there is symmetry (where it isn't expect) or symmetry is missing when it should be there, your eye will dwell to reconcile  the situation.

First BeachNon Symmetric Right Left

The first is a surprising example of symmetry - your eye goes to explore the exceptions.  The second is broken symmetry - if water is spaying up, why is one side of the background dark and the other bright?

Movement into the Majority of the Frame

If you have motion, try to place the object that is moving into the larger part of the frame (more space in front of the vehicle than behind).  If the moving thing approaches an edge, it may seem it's about to "fall off", which is discomforting to the viewer.  If you want to be edgy, go right to the edges.

Mark Go KartingTwo Elephants Walking In Fort

3D Composition Rules:
For landscape and environment photos, there are additional strategies you can use to make your photos stand out.  These seem to tap into the brain's ability to perceive or reconstruct spacial relationships.

Using Layers of {Textures | Lighting} One of the easiest ways to recover three dimensions from a two dimensional rendering is to use layers of lighting or textures.  They eye can easily trace outlines and assign a depth sorting priority to the various pieces in the frame.

View On CypressCouncil Building

Using Silhouettes
Another aid to the eye seems to be the use of silhouettes.  Silhouettes allow you to form a stronger sense of scene depth because there is a colour becomes a function of depth. Dark Silhouettes at dusk are the easiest form of silhouette to form - just over expose the frame in a high contrast scene.

Retreat Island SunsetRetreat Island SunsetMisty View

The second type of silhouette is a blend to ambient (often white).  Fog is the most common situation to cause these effects, although it happens for many other reasons (dust storms, forest fires, mist, tear gas.)

Eagle In Foggy TreesIMGP 0114_Smoke Through Trees
Using Reflections

Yellow Pond-Lily - Nuphar polysepalum - On Lake
Again, our brain seems clever at resolving a three dimensional scene with the aid of reflections.   If the reflection folds at the center of the frame, it is less effective than using the third line, or even leaving the fold out of the frame all together.

 Reflecting Pond Lake on Black Mountain

Using Depth of field to Guide the Viewer (Foreground Background Composition)
Sometimes a complex scene can be softened if the shallow depth of field is used.  If you have a trace that maps from the foreground to the background, that also can aid the effectiveness of the image.

RainbowOrange Pulling Rope

Using Depth of field with Monotonous Content
Monotonous content is a good 2D rule - it has a 3D equivalent.  If you have a vast collection of objects that are all (roughly) the same, they eye can use that to reconstruct the 3D scene (assuming it's worth doing).  If there is two much object variation, the scene falls apart.  Too little and it's boring - move on.

ShrimpDrying Fish Hanging

More on Composition
The above rules are generic - could work for anything.  Different types of photos have different types of "rules" to be followed or broken.  For more specialized topics, see:

Red Corn Flower
Learn Flowers

Flowers are something that I enjoy taking photos of.  While many of the principals involved in traditional composition or portrait composition apply to flower photography, sometimes just seeing examples can inspire.
Justin Looking In Camera People Photography

The true bread and butter of photography, there is a huge number of variations available.
Fireworks Over Vancouver From Fairview Slopes
Learn Low Light Photography

Requiring a bit of technical know how, light really takes on new properties when there isn't much of it.
Glowing Waterfall
Learn Water Photography

It's one of the requirements of life and often a focal point of landscape photography.

Stand In Red Light

I really enjoy markets but getting a good photos at market isn't obvious. There are a few things to keep in mind when you are visiting.

Moon Jellies Near Surface
Giving Up

Rules don't define the edges of photography.  Sometimes photos that are technically poor making striking images, but there are few guidelines to help.
Spines On Urchin
Tide Pools

An amazing world on the boundary of the ocean and land, A single visit to a beach will often have more animal species than you would see in a week of hiking.
Tree Beside Hotel

One of the most difficult subjects to make a compelling photograph out of.

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Glowing Waterfall
Location: Go To...
Tags: Japan, long exposure, waterfall
Retreat Island Sunset
Location: Go To...
Tags: gulf island, silhouette, sunset
Mark Go Karting
Person: Mark
Tags: Mexico, racing
Yellow Pond-Lily - Nuphar polysepalum - On Lake
Species: Nuphar lutea (yellow pond-lily)
Tags: lake, reflection
Tags: rainbow, shallow depth of field
Snaking Through Cave
Tags: cave
Retreat Island Sunset
Location: Go To...
Tags: gulf island, silhouette, sunset
IMGP 0114_Smoke Through Trees
Tags: atmospheric perspective, forest, smoke
Misty View
Tags: atmospheric perspective, silhouette
Bridge by Cheakamus Canyon
Location: Go To...
Tags: bridge, canyon, rail, train
Red Corn Flower
Tags: flower, shallow depth of field
Lake on Black Mountain
Tags: lake, mountain, reflection
Fish In Large Tank
Tags: aquarium, fish, Hong Kong
In Front of Mt. Shasta
Tags: road
Cascade of Falls
Tags: coast, waterfall
Non Symmetric Right Left
Tags: gyser, New Zealand, volcanism
Mixing Water Sources
Tags: New Zealand, stream, volcanism
Stream By Falls
Tags: long exposure, stream
First Beach
Tags: fireworks
Fireworks Over Vancouver From Fairview Slopes
Tags: city, fireworks, Vancouver
Stones on the Beach
Tags: rock
Orange Pulling Rope
Tags: costume, Japan, parade
Two Elephants Walking In Fort
Tags: fort, India
Council Building
Tags: city, Tokyo
Eagle In Foggy Trees
Location: Go To...
Tags: fog, forest
Reflecting Pond
Location: Go To...
Tags: gulf island, reflection
Drying Fish Hanging
Altitude: 13m (42 feet)
Location: Go To...
Tags: fish, Hong Kong, market, seafood
Mixed Gourds
Tags: market, produce
Curved Bridge
Tags: bridge, hiking
Tree Beside Hotel
Tags: Japan, lone tree, sunset, tree
Justin Looking In Camera
Person: Justin
Snail On Wire
Tags: Japan, snail
Spines On Urchin
Species: Strongylocentrotus franciscanus (Red Sea Urchin)
Tags: sea urchin
View On Cypress
Tags: Cypress Provincial Park, vista
Moon Jellies Near Surface
Species: Aurelia aurita (moon jelly)
Tags: abstract, jellyfish, vignetting
Mark And Andrea On Kintai-Kyo
Person: Andrea, Mark
Tags: bridge, castle
Fence at Rathtrevor
Location: Go To...
Tags: beach, fence
Stand In Red Light
Tags: market, neon, produce, Seattle
Light House
Location: Go To...
Tags: Hawaii, lighthouse
Tags: fish, Hong Kong, seafood, Tai O
Tags: bridge(3), gulf island(3), silhouette(3), reflection(3), Hong Kong(3), fish(3)
People: Mark(2), Andrea(1)
From: John Harvey Photo > Learn Photography > Learn Composition

Thank you for your Course. It's very helpful to us, amateur photographers in all world around. Thanks, again Daniel Domínguez México
Daniel Dominguez
Monday, May 7th, 2007 at 10:15:10

Great tips on composition! It is very helpful for amateur photographers.
Ryan Chan
Friday, May 11th, 2007 at 04:44:22

Hi, I am a schoolboy at a school in India and my father was against the idea of sending me to expensive photgraphy classes to learn photography. What you have done to me cannot be measured since you have boosted my morale and given me an insight into the basics. Thanks for everything. Regards, Krishna Iyer
Tuesday, June 19th, 2007 at 05:32:13

Hi! It is really cool and illustrative to read, thanks for putting some of your time into helping us (amateur, and not so amateur photographers). Regards!
Claudio García - México
Sunday, July 8th, 2007 at 08:16:58

hi i see many pro site but your site is very god & simpel for leraning photography . i hope to see many page for learning photography . you help the pepole around the world . thank you .reza from IRAN
reza jaffari
Monday, July 16th, 2007 at 16:01:29

hi i am annie sherchan from nepal , i m very excited to view ur website .....bekoz i want to be a good pro photographer ..............thank you very much , it was really great job that u did ...i love it ..................
Saturday, July 28th, 2007 at 00:19:18

Thanks for the great website. I know a lot of these rules already, but referenced your website in a blog post. Thanks again.
Tuesday, September 25th, 2007 at 21:48:29

oh my goodness i love your work so much!
Thursday, October 4th, 2007 at 09:39:21

Thanks - this is very useful. I am looking for resources that relate to composition in 3D graphics scenes, and it turns out that rules for photgraphic composition is easily adapted as the aims are very similar - producing a pleasing still image.
Richard Lyall
Sunday, October 14th, 2007 at 06:36:57

Agree Rules are there to be broken!! Excellent site Thanks
Saturday, October 27th, 2007 at 12:11:13

Excellent page, very informative, I've been doing photography as a hobby for the past two years, and this is one of the best and clear explanations of composition with great examples I have seen. Thank you so much.
Thursday, January 10th, 2008 at 08:25:26

Excellent - very useful and informative. Great examples ! Thank you so much !
Thursday, January 24th, 2008 at 10:14:15

Vere helpful to me. Thank you very much for sharing of your great knowledge.
Moe Ko Ko
Saturday, February 2nd, 2008 at 20:23:43

Thanks for the tips. My wife has been laughing at the way I took pictures and claiming that she took better picture much better. I hope to practice with your tips in mind and hope to show off and surprise her soon. Keep up the good work. Again, many thanks.
Sunday, March 2nd, 2008 at 22:15:21

thanks for sharing!
Wednesday, March 19th, 2008 at 04:04:19

Great Job, well done, thanx
Yasir Zeb
Wednesday, March 19th, 2008 at 06:54:54

hey nice work!! i loved it ..It taught me so much. LOL
Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008 at 13:00:25

DUDE !!! u rock !!! my computer teacher is using your site to teach us photography !! thanks alot !!! ... Pogo
Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008 at 13:02:25

Thanx alot for your great effort. Honestly it is really a great simplified summery in which everybody needs to know what he is doing.
Haytham Zireeni
Monday, May 5th, 2008 at 03:53:06

Hi, many thanks for such a beautiful and helpful course. I have learnt quiet a things and am still learning by reading here and implementing. Just wanted to ask you one thing, a SLR is necessary for getting those dream shots even for a hobbyist like me..isn't it?..Your advice please?
Wednesday, June 18th, 2008 at 01:22:51

thanks for your valuable tips... it is very helpful for me & amateur photographers. great website done thanks....
Shrinivas Patke
Tuesday, July 8th, 2008 at 03:19:50

Great Site... Great Advices! I specially liked the "Giving up" one. Great examples of "what's not normal" and "resulted perfectly" :D Loved it! Another section could be "how to photograph villages" or places... Capturing angles, and trying to get different perspectives out of the places we visit, is sometimes very hard :) Best Regards :)
Saturday, August 2nd, 2008 at 15:08:39

these where great tips!! thanks so much! my photography teacher is using your site!
Thursday, August 21st, 2008 at 12:40:04

Very well presented......great knowlege in laymans terms, with fantastic visual examples that emphasized your explanations so as to bring out the meaning so easily. Thankyou for your help. Cheers John
John Peel
Thursday, September 18th, 2008 at 03:55:20

whole photos seem a painting. This is a art.
Sunday, October 19th, 2008 at 05:04:59

good stuff, got new tips.......
Friday, November 14th, 2008 at 03:05:20

I'm starting a wiki for digital photography. It will basically be a body of knowledge. I'm looking for people to contribute. Articles can range from small definitions to full tutorials. Interested in participating? Please let me know. Aaron
Friday, December 26th, 2008 at 07:10:57

thanks for all the insight... i will sure come back to check out this site again... i have to review!
ian koyanagi
Thursday, January 22nd, 2009 at 01:19:36

Beautiful photographic examples!
Thursday, April 23rd, 2009 at 21:52:56

thanks for the tutorial! I love photography, after reading this I'm loving it more!
Thursday, April 30th, 2009 at 01:19:20

Brilliant composition tips! Thanks, Jon Harvey - England.
Jon Harvey
Wednesday, May 6th, 2009 at 04:22:31

This is great, fantastic and excellent. pls keep it up, it is a nice job! I love it.
Abdoulah I. Goumou
Monday, August 31st, 2009 at 07:31:20

These photo's are beautiful. it's so amazing the different types of angles used to create different looks and feels of a photo. photography is such an amazing art, you can depict so many different images and points of views, expressions, etc. unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. it's so awesome :)
Melissa Petraccoro
Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009 at 19:45:10

Thanks for all of the great tips, they were a big help!!!!!
Caitlin "Carter" Tuck
Friday, September 4th, 2009 at 05:36:44

This information was very informative and interesting. I know it will help me a great deal on future assignments.
Tierra Spence
Thursday, September 10th, 2009 at 14:06:19

these pictures are so amazing to look at!!! and interesting too!!!!
Wednesday, September 16th, 2009 at 07:50:08

Beautiful Photography. Touches My Heart. Sometime I also take Pictures
Friday, September 25th, 2009 at 01:14:38

Hey, John. Your site has been the best I've found for someone who has no idea what the fancy technical jargon mean! Thanks so much from this beginner for sharing, and I hope you'll keep them coming. :O)
Monday, November 2nd, 2009 at 20:04:46

You make me want to get better. Thank you. Rick.C.USA
Sunday, November 15th, 2009 at 11:03:41

Thank you for your generous and comprehensive post - and with sample images to express the visual form!
Tuesday, November 24th, 2009 at 11:30:35

Thanks for sharing your tips. This will be of great use.
Sandeep Thoppil
Tuesday, December 1st, 2009 at 18:11:29

i learn many things from you.....thanks
Thursday, December 3rd, 2009 at 00:08:13

Great site and pictures. However, the best part is the simplicity of the instructions and ideas and what constitutes a good picture. The ideas are relayed and conveyed in a way that I can see pictures and learn.
Tajinder Singh
Sunday, January 17th, 2010 at 16:15:27

Thank you for sharing. Your explanations are simple and to the point.
Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 at 20:10:27

Your comments a straight forward and concise. Thank you......
Sunday, February 28th, 2010 at 09:55:50

This website is brilliant, well done! I need to practice now =)
Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010 at 14:38:25

Very informative and educational. Thank you!!
Tony Ng
Wednesday, March 17th, 2010 at 06:47:03

I am very glad to see this rules of photo composition. it is much more useful for us, who want to learn photography/photo composition. thank you for your work.
Mr Govin
Saturday, May 8th, 2010 at 04:42:55

Excellent site. It gave me some good ideas for my photos. Thank you!
Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 at 07:15:25

this is a great website! it is very educational and the information is very easy to understand though fluent in advice... thank you
Saturday, June 19th, 2010 at 19:41:53

Thank you, it was a very educative course for newbie photographers.
Bikash Kundu
Sunday, August 22nd, 2010 at 00:33:50

looking over this let me know the different types of pictures....this is a very good site.
Monday, September 13th, 2010 at 10:54:39

Hey thanks alot. learned a great deal. really appreciated the content with photo examples.
Sunday, October 3rd, 2010 at 09:33:32

thank you so much for the info you are giving us. please don't ever stop sharing with us good work.
Comfort Mwanyisa
Friday, October 8th, 2010 at 00:48:25

i liked the tips, they're good to know
Madison Goodman
Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 at 11:45:22

I just got my first DSLR and I googled the heck out of online photo tutorials. This is by far the best I've seen. Very useful and the photo examples are breathtaking. Thank you, John!
Zain Mahmood
Sunday, March 13th, 2011 at 12:15:15

Wow! Great and wonderful photos. I am new to photography and your works inspire me. Thank you for sharing this with us.
Monday, April 11th, 2011 at 04:04:16

Fantastic website. You deserve much kudos and plenty of accolades for the wonderful instructional material. May your website grow even more! You have taught me the basics.
Thanks again
Ron Sundar
Sunday, July 17th, 2011 at 08:48:56

Hi thank you very much for your kind are awesome
Friday, August 5th, 2011 at 01:39:02

Thank you very much for your website. I learned alot.
Wednesday, February 8th, 2012 at 16:38:08

Wonderful site. Used much of the material (appropriately credited) in teaching a "Seniors" course at local university. Thanks for both the3m and me.
Gil Shaw
Sunday, April 22nd, 2012 at 13:24:12

Beautiful photos and very nice explanations! One can never know enough about photography.
Monday, December 3rd, 2012 at 14:13:43

John, Thanks so much for the Namu photos you published. They bring back so many good memories. Although my stay there was only one summer field season I eventually spent five years in Juneau, Alaska as an air traffic controller. The Namu/Juneau climate is wonderful and in both towns I lived with the natural movement of tides, fish, and rain. Your work is appreciated.
Lyle Van Horn
Thursday, October 17th, 2013 at 13:50:15

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