In photography how you photograph is just as important as what you photograph. To really improve your images each element needs to be considered and composed to give the best result.

The rules of composition are a set of guidelines which help you to produce more pleasing and interesting images. Although they are called the rules of composition, they are not set in stone, but when you are starting out in photography, it is a great place to begin. The main purpose is to help compose an image that draws the viewers eye to the important elements of the image. The following are rules, ideas, tips to help improve the strength of your images.

The rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is used to achieve balance in an image, by dividing the viewfinder into nine imaginary areas using a grid of two horizontal and two vertical lines (many digital cameras have the option of a grid in the viewfinder or on its screen). The main elements of the scene you are photographing are placed at or near to the intersection of the lines. The main objective is to avoid placing of a subject directly in the centre. A prime example of where this works particularly well is in photographs of landscapes with a horizon line. If the horizon is placed on the centre of the image it usually unbalances the image and the eye jumps between the two halves.

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Leading Line

Leading lines are physical or suggested lines which lead the viewers eye into the image or direct them to look at a particular area of an image. Leading lines are everywhere in the form of fences, walls, roads, in portraits the arms and hands of the subject can be placed to produce leading lines or suggested lines can be formed by the direction that the subject is looking in. Lines help to prevent the eye from wandering around the image. They can be straight or converging, curved or s-shaped. Diagonal lines can also add a feeling of motion to an image drawing the eye into or across the image. Leading line in the form of suggested shapes in an image can help to hold the image together and prevent distractions. Group portraits are a great example of where this works particularly well. Arranging your subjects, or moving so that your subjects form triangles and diamonds, helps to form strong images.

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Less is more, remove distractions, anything that is unnecessary take out of your composition. Simplifying an image can strengthen the subject. It is important to identify your subject and remove anything that isn’t contributing to the image, if there are too many elements in your image it will be difficult for the viewer to identify the subject. It is also important to be constantly aware of your subject’s background. What seems to be a great image while capturing can be ruined by a distracting background. Often a distracting background can be removed just by moving position slightly and a complicated image can be simplified by cropping out the unnecessary details.

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Selective use of colour such as a bright, highly saturated main subject surrounded by lighter, pastel tones will add immediate impact to an image. Colours that compliment each other or colours of a similar tone, will also make a pleasing image. Some times lack of colour can create a strong image, soft shades and low tonal ranges can create just as much impact as highly saturated colours.

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Point of View

We are used to seeing everything at eye level and so changing to an unusual view point can add interest and impact to an image. Shoot lower and higher, shoot at an angle, look down on your subject to make it appear more vulnerable, look up at a subject to increase scale and add a sense of power. Get down on the ground to get an insects point of view of things, especially nature. Shooting from a different angle can help to remove a distracting background.

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Cropping, filling the frame and active space

A simple mistake to make, is making your subject too small in the frame. Tight crops can help to make the subject obvious, make it easier to exclude distracting backgrounds and create impact. That being said though, some subjects need space. Empty space in an image can suggest movement, give sense of openness and cause the viewer to look at particular elements. An object in an image, a car for example with the space in front of it will give the sensation of the movement of the car into the space, space behind the subject will force your eye out of the frame, which you don’t usually want unless you want the viewer to move to another image. The direction that elements in your image are facing is important, in portraits in particular, your eye is drawn to where the subject is looking. This can be used to move the viewer’s eye to other elements in the image.

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Pattern and Texture

Repetitive pattern and texture add realism to images adding depth and three dimensional qualities. Patterns are created when elements such as shapes, lines, tones repeat themselves they can even be produced by light and shadows. Patterns can be found in natural and man-made subjects and give a sense of balance and rhythm to photographs. The key to exploiting patterns is to exclude everything but the pattern. Once you have started creating successful pattern images, you will begin to see patterns everywhere. Texture in an image can evoke memories of how the subject feels. Contrasting textures also work very well, smooth and rough, metal and concrete, man-made and natural.

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Certain subjects lead themselves to being symmetrical. Symmetry like patterns can be found in man-made and natural subjects and with a strong point of interest can produce strong images. Often breaking the symmetry though can make a stronger image than with the symmetry alone. Symmetry can often be found in reflections which make fantastic images, they add realism and depth to images and produce a natural repetition.

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Framing elements of an image  in a physical or suggested frame helps to lead the eye into the image and helps to hold the parts of the image together. The frame could be tree branches, the gaps in a fence, a doorway, a window.

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Something of a known size in a photograph, can add scale and help to establish the size of your subject. A person stood next to a huge building or object can add a sense of awe, the size of a small subject can be emphasised if it is surrounded by large things.

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Suggested and actual movement add a whole different aspect to an image, it can bring an otherwise static image to life through the use of motion blur and light trails. Adding movement to an image is usually achieved through low shutter speeds with the camera still, to capture the moving object blurred or panning, following the moving subject with the camera so the subject is static on a moving background. Slow shutter speed photography at night can also be used to capture light trails created by moving vehicles.

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In the age of digital photography where cost is not a restriction on the number of photographs we can take, it is easier to experiment. Do the safe shots, take the photographs that conform to the rules, but then try something different. Change all the settings, use different focal lengths, different viewpoints, mess around and something unexpected may happen. Experimenting with the camera controls is also a great way to learn, making mistakes, happy accidents, blurred, over and underexposed will help to improve your understanding of photography.