In this tutorial, we’re talking about six rules of composition that I believe will drastically improve your photography. I’m Joel Grimes—a commercial advertising photographer with over 35 years of experience and will teach you today my most important composition tips for better photos! I’m also an educator and love talking about photography.
You can download The Rules of Composition ebook used in this tutorial to follow along step-by-step, click below.
We’re going to talk about six basic rules of composition that I believe will drastically improve your photography. That’s what I’m all about—making better pictures.
It can be overwhelming learning about things like the rules of lighting, the rules of composition, etc. It’s important to learn those guidelines, and then once you know them you can always go and break them. So, the old adage is, “rules are made to be broken.”
I’m going to talk about that a little bit more. So, if you feel a little bit more overwhelmed when you start seeing all these sorts of patterns, read until the end.
If you look up the rules of composition and say, “Oh my gosh, there are so many. I can’t remember them,” don’t worry. We’re going to keep it simple with just the most powerful six. Let’s start with a definition:
Rules of composition are based on directing your viewers’ attention to a specific point of interest. Once you understand that, then you’ll understand how you can force your viewers’ attention toward a specific point. That’s what the rules of the composition allows you to do.
Above is a picture I took years ago of an Olympic diver. Below, you can see the grid patterns of some of the things we’re going to talk about.
When taking a photo, the focus point is subjective, meaning that you, as an artist, are the one that determines where that point of interest should be. A good test is to show your photo to someone and ask them where their eye naturally goes. If their eyes do not go where you want them to, then evaluate and ask how you can draw the viewer’s eye to the desired point of interest.
Remember that the rules of composition all go back to creating that point of focus. However, no photography rules are etched in stone.
So, one of the most important things when it comes to applying a composition or putting your subject in a background or even working with a landscape is that your intuition is your best guide.
Ultimately you’re an artist so you can create whatever fits your vision of what you like. If you come up with something you really like but it breaks the rules, it’s okay. You’re the artist. Remember, the most important person to please is ultimately you.
Of course, if you work for a client, you may have some basic guidelines. For example, if you’re working in the advertising industry with copywriting, you’ll have to make room for certain things. But overall, you’ll want to be able to produce an image that works for your vision as an artist and what you have to offer the world.
Most images will end up using multiple different rules of composition all at one time. So, you’ll see that when I use the rule of thirds, I’m also using the rule of triangles, or you’ll see that the rules of forced perspective and converging lines can work together.
You won’t have one rule applying to one photograph. Instead, you’ll have multiple things happening at once. Sometimes it gets a little complicated, but it’s really fun once you start understanding these basic rules.
I have put together an eBook that you can download and put on your iPhone, iPad, or computer. This eBook talks about the basic rules of composition. You can always have it as a reference, as it’s free.
So, let’s get into the six basic rules you should know.
First, one of the basic rules of composition I use all the time is the rule of triangles.
I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it. But I use it all the time. You’ll see, I’m going to show you some examples of how simple it is to think about the rules of triangles.
In my photos, I position my athletes’ faces and backgrounds in a way that uses the rule of triangles.
There are some converging lines here, as this is a dead-on center portrait, but really look at all the triangles that are happening here.
This is intentional and thought out. There are triangles created in the way I have the athlete hold his hands and the football. It creates a triangle pointing up toward his face. So, what is the point of interest? With portrait photography, it is the face. So create focus on the face.
Note that it doesn’t need to be a perfect triangle. Instead, you can think of it as two points of interest going to one point of interest. That’s how a triangle works. So, it’s the two point of interest that anchors your one side of the triangle, and then the one point is what it forces it to do.
You’ll see here there is another one here. I have a musician as the anchor two points of anchor interest going into the car pushing it away. There is also the rule of thirds here, which we will get to soon.
So, we’ll see another one here.
Look at the triangle coming across the car. You’ll find triangles in everything once you start looking. It’s actually kind of fun!
In the next example, the body shape going into the face creates a triangle. Also, the face is a triangle from the eyes down to the mouth. So, triangles are happening everywhere.
In this next example, the sky above the stadium and the stands behind her are triangles. Also, the athlete’s body is shaped like a triangle with two points of interest going to her face.
Even the birds are creating a triangle pointing toward her. Clearly, the triangles force your viewers in a certain direction.
Here’s another example with an athlete jumping. Look how his body shape is like a triangle. I mean he fits within a triangle—that is not an accident folks!
It is important to note that when I was shooting this athlete, I didn’t tell him to “jump into a triangle” but I asked him to do certain things to get his body shaped like a triangle. I used a wide-angle lens to stretch the perspective there.
In the next example, we have a gold medalist. There’s a triangle on his face, triangles coming from the stands, the background, and the sky. Triangles everywhere.
Once you start thinking of triangles, you will see them in your photographs. Remember this, you are pushing your viewer’s interest toward something you want them to see.
Let’s talk about number two: the rule of thirds. Now, you’ve probably heard this before. It is the most basic rule that we hear all the time.
I’ve overused this rule of thirds over the years because it’s the first rule you’re taught in photography. It breaks photos into thirds. With the rule of thirds, you can see the top quadrant goes to his eye and then we have the street scene coming down.
You’ll also see a triangle going toward him. So, I love this again once you start seeing this, you’ll definitely start applying it to your photograph.
So, here we have the rule of thirds and a triangle on the floor with the forced perspective back to the little gazebo.
She also has an s curve on her body. I’m no genius at this, but over the years, I’ve been practicing this.
Here’s an ad campaign I did.
Here is an example of the rule of thirds with the athlete’s face positioned in one third, body in another third, and the ball in the last third. You can see a triangle there too.
There are the stands in the background, the stadium is creating a triangle too.
Next is an image from an ad campaign that I posted on my social media. Half the people said I was a really lousy photographer and half the people said I was a genius.
I purposely cropped his head off because I wanted him to be jumping out of the frame. But you can see he’s set up in the rule of thirds, and there’s also a triangle between both his feet and the ball, and his body. Triangles, rule of thirds, converging lines—all these things are happening at one time.
Moving on to rule number three: symmetry, or balancing form as I often call it.
Here we have a SWAT guy and he’s dead center in the frame. I love centering my subjects.
Then I love to counter the center subject with a balancing form – balancing things. So here he is, dead center. He’s the main subject.
In photography school, I was taught not to dead-center the subject. But again, rules are to be broken. See, I often balance my dead-center subject with opposing elements, like these two guys. Alternatively, I could have done two guys dead center or put him to the left, and then make the triangle to the left or right on either side.
But when you position someone dead center, you want to balance.
And of course, there are a lot of things going on here with converging lines and triangles—like the triangle between all their heads.
Here is a dead-center subject, with her body positioned larger on the bottom than the top. The head and body sort of balance each other.
Then look at the triangles—my goodness, they’re everywhere. This skill takes years of practice, folks, but it’s something you should be thinking about.
In this next example, we have a subject dead center right. Her arms, coat, and hair are opposing elements that all balance out to make a very beautiful symmetrical shape.
There are triangles to force your eyes up to her head.
Now here’s a portrait that I did. When I sat him down originally, I probably would have started out maybe with the rule of thirds. But when he sat down, I saw all the other elements balanced him. So, I put him dead center.
Look at the elements that are balancing him—all these old engines.
Things are balancing everywhere. So, when he sits nicely in it, it’s like a circle around him.
Here, we have a picture of a beautiful model and she’s dead center.
There are circles and a triangle on her face and then a triangle set up from the bottom going up.
Here is another dead-center image.
The rocks and the lines behind her add balance. The overall dramatic lighting also helps make and sell this image.
There’s also a triangle. Once you start to look, you’ll find there are triangles everywhere—you’re going to start dreaming of triangles.
Here is Clemens, the gold medalist. He’s dead center. There is also an optical perspective.
A forced perspective happens with a wide-angle lens. His head is bigger in perspective than his feet because the lens does that. I like that, but I know some people don’t.
There’s my triangle.
Let’s talk about rule number four: leading lines or forced perspective.
Of course, you were probably taught this too. Here we have rapper and actor Mustafa. Look at all those lines forcing your eyes to him.
This I use all the time; this is sort of my trademark when it comes to athletes.
Finding a situation where I can have leading lines forcing the viewer’s eyes and attention to them.
Rule number five is foreground dominance or stretched perspective.
I love this bold in-your-face, style of portrait. So, I use it over and over. And again, this portrait is dead center.
There’s no question. Look at all the lines forcing your attention to her. This next one is offset a little bit but still bold.
Then here this portrait is pretty dead center but you have the other three people balancing him out.
There’s the triangle with the faces and the bodies.
For a lot of CEOs or people that I want to look very powerful, I use a wide-angle lens and I have them cross their arms. I put them dead center and it works very well.
Here’s Mustafa again. His coat is also triangle but also look at all the forced perspectives and the things that are happening there. He’s dead center.
All right, so let’s go to number six: eliminate clutter.
If you look at my pictures, you’ll notice I try to minimize the clutter. In some cases, you just can’t do it, like with an environmental portrait I took of that man with all the motors inside a shed. There’s a lot of stuff going on in that one.
But, as a general rule, I want to make my photographs simple. In the advertising arena, you have about two or three seconds to win over your audience, so you don’t want too much clutter or too many things distracting from your subject or point of focus.
So, you’ve got to eliminate clutter. This is something I’m constantly trying to do. I’m no genius at this but I work at it very hard.
So here we have a cowboy with a horse. When I scouted this location, I knew the sun was going to be setting coming from the right. So, I’m facing north and I set the cowboy in the field to minimize clutter. I knew this ahead of time. That type of preparation and setup helps my viewers go straight to the subject.
Here’s a studio shot with a background but it is very simple and very clean with as little clutter as possible.
Another example is this Harley series I did. Again, drawing you in to the subject without clutter. There are bricks and all that stuff but nothing really distracting enough to draw you away from that bike.
White backgrounds make for a beautiful, clean, minimal shot. I do a lot on white.
In this next example, we have a tunnel in the background but it is very simple and not complicated enough to be distracting.
It’s making you draw straight to the subject. We’re using converging lines and all these things here but also using a simple, clean background minimizing clutter. That’s how you go and win over your audience.
So, learning great composition takes practice. That’s the number one thing I hope to convey.
I’ve been doing this for so long that a lot of these things just happen. Later, I look and I go, oh wow! I didn’t realize but I used a triangle here, I used a converging line here, or whatever. I’m not always pulling out my six rules of composition.
It’s happening inside my head because I’ve been doing it for so long. The more you do this, the better you get at it, so I encourage you to practice.
The free eBook I have for you to download is a great reference to keep to hand while you’re practicing. The next time you’re sitting on an airplane or have some time to burn, flip through the ebook and remind yourself of the different rules. As you’re building your images, use it to remind yourself and get better.
And always stick with your creative intuition—don’t be swayed by the critics.
I got a lot of criticism early-on when I started doing a lot of really in-your-face portraits dead center. People would email me and just try to shred me saying that I can’t center my subjects.
Well, I stuck with my guns and I’ve been doing it my way for years. So, if you come up with something that you really like but someone says you’re not using the rule of thirds or whatever—don’t worry about it.
I’ve sat through critiques or I’ve critiqued and there are a lot of people who think they know everything. They’re going to try to tell you you’re doing something wrong. If it’s good criticism, it’ll sink in and you’ll apply it in the future. But if you really love something, don’t be afraid to stick to your guns.
So, I hope you enjoyed this little tutorial on the 6 basic rules of composition. I hope it encourages you to create photos of your own. You can find more on my YouTube channel, so please subscribe and share with your friends.
I love doing this, I love teaching, and I hope to see you soon.