The Ultimate Guide to Composition - Part One: Just Say "No"keh

The Ultimate Guide to Composition - Part One: Just Say "No"keh

Note: This is Part One. For Part Two: Beyond the Basics, click here.

Composition – it’s perhaps one of the most important elements of photography. And with today’s technological marvels in lenses, it’s an even easier thing to forget – especially when bokehliciousis is so much more fun to talk about. Your composition is how you see – and that makes it infinitely more important than how out of focus the background is.

Obsession with bokeh is bad for your photography. There. I said it. I know it's not a popular opinion when there are a lot of people out there that drool over this very thing. Bokeh not only lets you obsess about something pretty insignificant, but it oftentimes makes for lazy composition. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, William Eggleston, Alfred Eisenstaedt. These were not photographers obsessed with the shallowest depths of fields – these were iconic photographers capable of producing iconic photographs built on the foundations of masterful compositions and superb timing. Forget f/1.2. Think about what's around you, and use that to build a better photograph.

Keep in mind that these compositional “rules” are really just “guides” and don’t need to be followed to exacting precision (or sometimes even at all). Not every rule of composition can work well with every scene. Overall, composition helps to bring balance. And remember, as Tony Roslund says, the most important thing is talent. “All the other stuff is great, but it won’t help an otherwise shitty image.”

Center Composition

Let’s begin with the most obvious type of composition – center composition. If one were to hand a camera to an aunt, and ask her to take a picture, she would most likely photograph the subject in the center of the frame. Center composition places the important thing in the middle. When it’s done well, it excels in the use of symmetry. Center composition is like roasting a chicken. It’s easy to do, but it’s hard to do really well.

For truly great examples of center compositions, we refer to Wes Anderson.

Center compositions can be broken down even farther than the overall objects and can use the position of things like facial features to actually indicate the next rule…

Rule of Thirds

Once we learn a thing or two about composition, we start to use this. This is the first of the photographer’s “Golden Rules.” The Rule of Thirds says that an image should be divided into nine equal parts by two evenly spaced vertical and two evenly spaced horizontal lines. Important compositional elements should be along these lines or at intersections. These intersections are called “eyes.” A person’s closest eye to the camera should be placed at one of these intersections.

Using an off-center composition creates more tension and visual interest than a typical center composition would. These compositions can be basic with only one subject….

…or they can be much more complex, using multiple intersections and lines to draw the viewers eyes around the image.

Golden Triangles

This rule works by having strong diagonal lines pass through the image, dividing it into three (or four) triangles. The strongest line (called a major line) divides and dominates the image diagonally. Then, from one corner, an intersecting line connects to the diagonal line perpendicularly (this is called a reciprocal line).

In some cases, a third line extends from the opposite corner creating another reciprocal line.

The resulting triangles all have the same ratios – also know as golden (explained much more in depth below). This works really well on images with perspective or strong architectural elements, but it also works well when wanting the subject to fill the entire frame. Putting elements of composition on a diagonal plane gives them a more dynamic presence.

The Diagonals (Baroque and Sinister Diagonals)

One of the best things a photographer can do is study paintings and art history. Beyond the study of light, color palettes, color theory and the fact that it was the dominant visual medium for tens of thousands of years, studying great painters is the key to expert composition. When everything in a scene must be methodically arranged and obsessed over and placed just so in the frame, we are able to begin to understand why things are placed how they are. One of the more common compositions in art (do in large part to the boom of this style during the Baroque period) is using diagonal lines.

There are two predominant kinds of diagonals – “Baroque” and “Sinister”. Baroque Diagonals are read from left to right and Sinister Diagonals are read from right to left. One can only assume that this is an allusion to the notion that lefties burn in hell. In an amazing read by Adam Marelli, he breaks down the work of Alfred Eisenstaedt by using this “Sinister” composition of ballerinas.

We notice the ballerina on the left (her face is at the eye and the only face visible – therefore she is the subject), looking to the right, drawing our eye in that direction across the image, creating the diagonal, and lining up with other important compositional elements (like the pointed toe). Read a much more comprehensive breakdown of Eisenstaedt’s work on Adam Marelli’s blog.

Golden Ratio / Golden Rectangles / Golden Spiral

Classic thinkers from Plato to Pythagoras to Kepler believed that geometry is a powerful underpinning of the cosmos. Plato supposedly even said, “God geometricizes continually.” Leonardo da Vinci had an obsession with proportions – creating large areas of his work around the exact proportions of the Golden Ratio. So did Salvador Dali. As this particular rule of composition is a little complex, let’s break it down.

-The Golden Ratio describes an aesthetically pleasing proportion where the largest shape is divided by a perfect square, and the resulting rectangle is in exact proportion to the original one – all the way down the drain. This, subsequently, results in a sort of spiral (more on that below).

-The Golden Ratio is best explained using the Fibonacci Sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …) where each number is the sum of the previous two. The actual formula for the ratio is:

Algebraically, this is shown as:

This results in the number 1.618 (approximately). This is like rounding Pi to 3.14, but this number is called Phi. Using this number helps to illustrate the ratio.

Imagine this rectangle has a width of 1 and length of 1.618. When we divide this up using the Golden Ratio, the result is that every square would have a 1:1 ratio and the leftover rectangle would always be 1:1.618. This method isn’t limited to rectangles and squares though. It also works on circles, triangles, pyramids and various other geometric forms. Theothiuacan (the pyramids of Mexico) as well as the Great Pyramids of Egypt both use the Golden Ratio. Stonehenge, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Temples of Baalbek, the Parthenon, the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Notre Dame and the Mona Lisa, all use the ratio. It’s found in the human body, in seashells, in hurricanes. Obviously, the Golden Ratio is pretty important. That’s because it’s EVERYWHERE.


When we draw a curve along the outer edge of the perfect square’s intersection, we are given the golden spiral. It’s simply an easier way to illustrate the Golden Ratio in a more fluid way.

The second part of the Ultimate Guide to Composition discusses Frame Within a Frame, the Gestalt Principles, Negative Space and more. For Part Two: Beyond the Basics, click here.

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Previous comments
Chris Knight's picture

I stand corrected!

Awesome article Chris. So many photographers struggle with this stuff.

Chris Knight's picture

Thanks Michael! It's true! It's uses lot of brain power when sometimes all we want to do is push the button.

Paul Keitley's picture

Thanks Chris. I've recently taken to analysing my own composition using the various overlays available in Lightroom's crop tool. At first I was cropping a fair amount of my work, but as I progressed, I became more adept at framing the shot with these principles in mind. I'm not there yet by any means, but your article is a timely reminder of the importance of these artistic principles.

Chris Knight's picture

Thanks for the comment, Paul! Keep up the good work!

Roberto Inetti's picture

This article needs to be read more than once to understand its real significance. Great job Chris, and thank you.

Chris Knight's picture

Thank you for the reply, Roberto! Glad you appreciated it!

Gabe Hernandez's picture

Thanks for taking it as far as you did. This was some great information.

Chris Knight's picture

Thanks Gabe!

is something wrong with server/my browser? I don't see any article here

nice article. I once thought about writing something similar due to a discussion obout how I cropped an beauty image

Chris Knight's picture

Thanks Daniel!

gabe s's picture

So thats why Wes Anderson movies are so boring. That along with dull scripts.

Spy Black's picture

"Obsession with bokeh is bad for your photography. There. I said it."

Obsession with any photographic effect is bad for your photography. Instagram immediately comes to mind...

Chris Knight's picture

Great! Thanks for not missing the point!

Eder Novacki's picture

I was looking for something talking abot compositions just like this. Thank you very much!

Sean Shimmel's picture

I comment so late in the string. But here I sit in a Marriott hotel eating my eggs and hardwood bacon... all of which seem so geometrically pleased sitting on my plate. Indeed, composition is everywhere awaiting an ignited mind

Jose L Rodriguez Ritte's picture

Just a pointer: you said: "Theothiuacan (the South American pyramids)"... Theothiuacan is in Mexico, and that is part of North America.... I know that "North America" is understood as "United States"...but geographically Mexico (with Bermuda, Greenland and St. Pier and Miquelon) is part of it also... :)

Chris Knight's picture

Thanks for catching that. My mistake.

Andrej Ivanov's picture

Fun fact: Sinister comes from the latin word SINISTRA. Which means LEFT. Not Left-Handed. Sinistra dexter means left-handed.

Full definition:

The Latin word sinistra originally meant "left" but took on meanings of "evil" or "unlucky" by the Classical Latin era, and this double meaning survives in European derivatives of Latin, and in the English word "sinister".

Now if my memory serves, it took on the meaning of Unlucky/Evil, becauuuusse who sits at the right hand of God? Jesus. Who sits on the left? The devil. Yup. I wish I could make this stuff up. So the SINISTER diagonal, is just a left diagonal :p like a Camera is short for Camera Obscura (aka A dark chamber)... Artists... we are witty beyond repair.

DEFINITELY loved this article and now I need to think more... or think less.. I don't know.

Neo Racer's picture

It would be a no brainer for Camera manufacturers to have this be a heads up display in the view finder, I know you can get grid on 'live view' but thats terribly slow to shoot with. So I have to try and imagine it..meh..

Firstly, great article.

Sadly, the Mona Lisa is a terrible example to use for composition; it is not in its original form. The Mona Lisa has been cut down several times in the past and the composition has been altered. As such, it is rather hard to say what was the original composition. You can see the original composition in the Isleworth Mona Lisa