3. Basics of Composition

Pictures by Nigel Reece, Brian Douthwaite, Lionel Davies, Graeme Bassett and Roger Butler

Like many things in photography there are no hard and fast rules in how you compose a picture, despite what many will tell you. In fact breaking the rules can itself  create interesting effects. However, there are several basic priniciples which will help you to acheive almost immediate results.

Rule of Thirds

Probably the most famouse principle of phtography is the ‘rule of thirds’ but what does this mean? A photograph can be divided into thirds by drawing lines both horizonally and vertically. In his examples below Nigel has divided his pictures in this way to demonstrate the principle.

In the example below the woman is stood on a line which divides the picture into thirds. This has created a more satisfying and interesting composition than if she was in the centre of the picture. The empty space to the right actually helps us to pick out the woman as the subject of the picture while there is also room on the right to tell a story. The table laid for dinner tells us more than the woman alone could have done about the setting and purpose of the picture.

By Nigel Reece

In the next example below Nigel hasn’t just placed the bee on the vertical third line but has deliberately positioned the bee’s eye on the intercection of two lines. With portraints of both people and animals this can be a very effective technique.

By Nigel Reece

In reality you will need to imagine the lines that divide the picture in this way. If you download a photograph onto your computer and find the subject isn’t on the thirds you can often adjust this by cropping (or cutting down) the photos to better position the subject.


Using diagonals is also a very effective way of leading the eye into a picture. In the example below Brian has captured a photograph where the diagonals take you straight to the subject. The parallel rows of grass lead the eye from the right of the picture and towards the tractor. The tractor also sits off centre which is also more pleasing. In addition the diagonal line comes from the side of the picture which is effective. Diagonals which come from the side or bottom of a picture tend to work better than diagonal line emerging directly from the corner of the image.

Farm project 2016_0017c
By Brian Douthwaite


Sometimes it is useful to add something into a photograph that helps the viewer understand the size and scale of the subject. In many cases it can be tempting to wait until there are no other people in the scene. However, the brain finds it very easy to process pictures of people and we can use this to our advantage. In the example below Roger was taking a picture of a sculpture at Compton Verney. He could have waited for our club President James, to move out of shot. If he had done so it would have been more difficult to know how big the sculpture was. The presence of James means that the sculpture looms over him and we get a much better sense of it’s impressive stature.

Roger Butler - Photographer at work
By Roger Butler

Think in Threes

The eye finds odd numbers more satisfying. Looking for objects that occur in threes often produces a more interesting and balanced picture. In this photo by Graeme the vases make a satisfying image and create a sense of perspective and scale.

malachite 1
By Graeme Bassett

Take a Different Perspective

In many case thoug the most important aspect of any photograph is to try to find a different angle, one that others might not have seen or thought about. This can be a particularly fun challenge when taking pictures of well known landmarks. Can you find an angle you have seen before? This picture by Lionel is a great example. Many people might have stood back to take in the whole of the plane. However, Lionel acheived a much more interesting shot by coming into the photo. The three propellors creating brilliant diagonals that draw the eye to the reflection in the chrome.

Wellesbourne airfield, 12 June 2014
By Lionel Davies