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Should We Follow Composition Rules in Photography?

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

In my last post I said that in my opinion composition is the single most necessary aspect of photography that we need to master if we are to create good images.

I believe that to be true, but does it mean that we have to slavishly follow composition rules?

We hear a lot about composition rules in photography. Although many photographers like to refer to them as composition techniques rather than rules, there is undoubtedly an accepted set of conventions of composition designed to ensure that our images work for the viewer.

Tradition tells us that there are certain ways to compose an image to make a visual impact on the viewer.

All photographers are aware of conventions such as the rule of thirds, the golden spiral, the golden triangle, balance in images, and so on. Line, shape, form, number and scale all play an important role in composition, as does the relationship between elements in the frame.

While it is important to pay attention to these conventions, it is equally important to trust our own instincts regarding composition. We usually have our own innate sense of what looks right. When we look back at a series of photographs, we tend to have a good idea of the ones that work and those that don’t quite work.

However, we often come across a dilemma. We are not sure that if we trust this innate sense while we are composing our images, rather than being bound by rules and regulations imposed from outside ourselves, the viewer will also recognise the ‘rightness’ of the composition?

We are constantly encouraged to place a compositional grid on our camera screen and place our subject(s) along the intersecting lines. But if we allow ourselves to be bound by these types of restrictions, are we in danger of losing our own sense of how an image should look? Indeed, our own originality?

Obviously, there is a body of evidence to suggest that the human eye responds in a particular way to certain visual stimuli. We don’t want to risk composing in a way that will not have visual appeal.

So, we must strike a balance.

We must ensure that we neither relegate composition to a set of rules nor completely ignore time honoured conventions of composition.

But there must be a place for using our intuition, our natural instinct for how a photograph should work, for looking through the viewfinder and ‘seeing’ in our own way.


To continue the point that we usually have a good idea of which images work, it is often in an editing program that our innate sense of the rightness of a composition kicks in, and by careful editing we can achieve the look we want.

If nothing else, by examining our own images, and establishing what works, we train our eye for composition and develop as photographers.


In The Complete Guide to Photographic Composition, author Tony Worobiec writes:

“…if we become over-concerned with composition we may not truly engage the viewer. With some images the creation of a disquieting mood is more important, and it may be necessary to introduce ‘ugliness’ and imbalance in order to achieve this.”

Beauty of rotting leaf

This rotting leaf may not be beautiful, and if it had been lying on the ground it would probably have been ignored, but the sun lighting it from behine adds a beauty that is not always seen.


The answer to this question might well influence our approach to composition 'rules'. If we are interested in taking part in photography competitions, if we show our work on social media to get as many 'likes' as possible, or if we simply value others' opinions of our photographs then we are likely to want to stick as closely as possible to the accepted 'guidelines'.

But if we photograph for ourselves, if our own opinion is the only opinion on our work that matters, and if we want to develop our own unique way of taking photographs then maybe we will want to 'break the rules' occasionally, experiment with different ways of doing things, be courageous, try and fail and try again. I believe that our photography will benefit more from this approach than from slavishly sticking to rules.

Here are some images that may not be considered to be ‘perfectly’ composed, nor are they beautiful images, but they have a certain something that I like, and I am trusting my instincts in showing them.

What do you think?

sheep grazing
Sheep grazing

central composition works here
Deep in conversation

random composition

minimalist composition
Birds flying


Diagonal balance?
Rural tranquility

Unbalanced image - or is it?
Stormy sky


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