Photography rules of composition: 7 simple steps to harmonious portrait photos

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You meet your model on location, the light is fine and the camera is all set up. Before the shutter can finally be released, something very important is still missing: The photography composition. The composition of the image decides whether the photo will succeed or not. If the model is stuck in the image format, squeezed into the frame or simply pictured in bad size ratio, all the preparatory work is in vain.

Photography rules of composition for better pictures
What makes a successful image composition? When does a picture look harmonious? | Model: Max Rübensal

If you often struggle with positioning the model harmoniously in the rectangle of the viewfinder, then this article will help you. I will show you the basic photography rules of composition to take better pictures.

Let’s start!

1. See and think in shapes

Basically, you don’t do anything different in photography than you do in graphic design or painting: you arrange elements and shapes so that your composition will look good in the end. Everything should look well balanced. Except that in photography we don’t have a sheet of paper or a canvas. Neither we design directly with (vector) shapes.

Instead, our canvas is the rectangle of the viewfinder. The section of reality. And within this we would like to create a harmonious design. We must first recognize and interpret the forms for this from the real environment.

There are shapes everywhere in our environment: Circles, squares, rectangles, lines, patterns, etc. Often these things are noticed after you have already photographed them once. So try to find them and recognize them on the camera display.

If necessary, it helps to squint your eyes.

It may sound silly, but it often helps to squint your eyes to better recognize shapes and arrangements. So you see then only dimly, basic shapes become clearly visible. Now analyze all the shapes in the photo and the background. Step by step you will develop a photographic eye by repeating this at every photo shooting.

Exercise: Simply drag the slider in the examples to see which shapes can be found in these images:

It’s not that hard, is it? Sharpen your sight and start recognizing lines, rectangles and circles in all real objects. Then you already have half the rent.

2. Three proven methods: photography rules of composition

You have analyzed which shapes are hiding in the photo. But that was only the first step. Now you have to arrange all these elements and shapes somehow harmoniously.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to figure that out by yourself. For this there are some photography composition rules that have proven to be harmonious over time. They often even find their origin in mathematical phenomena. As these are widely used, we will have a closer look at them:

  • Golden section
  • Rule of thirds
  • Central perspective

First align your model within these design grids. Let their lines lie over prominent areas like the eye or face. However, the cut is often in the middle of the face or, in the case of full-body shots, simply on the torso. This varies from image to image.

Optimally, you will also manage to harmoniously arrange a few elements of the environment in your photo. So try to additionally place the shapes just seen around the model on these lines. However, the model is most important first.

Tip: You can also find these composition grids directly in Lightroom, so you can overlay them on your image when cropping. To do this, just start cropping mode and press “O” to switch through the different overlays.

Tip II: Especially the sharply focused areas of the model (for close-ups the sharp eye) should be considered here to lie on the composition grid.

Let’s dive in a little deeper into the composition grids.

Photography composition by Rule Of Thirds (example)

By using the Rule Of Thirds, the image is divided into 9 pieces of equal size – exact thirds. Both horizontal and vertical. Your model and other design elements of your image should lie on these lines or their nodes. Many cameras also give you the option of displaying the Rule Of Thirds lines directly in the viewfinder when taking a picture.

In post-processing, you will also find the Rule Of Thirds grid as a Lightroom overlay when cropping. In general, you should already find the best layout in the moment you are taking the photo. So you can save up megapixels in resolution and work the composition out better.

The rule of thirds was used for these photos:

photography composition rule of thirds
Rule of thirds photography example | Model: Ceyhan Ince
rule of thirds photography example
Often the photo harmonizes better if the model looks out in the direction of the longer side of the picture. | Model: Enisa Medar

Golden section photography example

You have heard the word Golden Section about 500 times already? That’s good – because it’s really one of the best and easiest ways to compose your images. Similar to the Rule Of Thirds, it is based on 2 lines running horizontally and vertically through the image. But this time they do not show regular thirds.

I don’t want to annoy you with mathematical approaches, where you can find the origin of this rule. Let’s just say that they are directly linked to the Fibonacci spiral (in Lightroom also “Golden spiral”). The photo will be marked with a line at 62% and 38% respectively.

If you place your main objects and shapes on these lines (or their nodes), the image composition usually appears automatically very beautiful.

It looks like this:

golden section photography example
Model and forest path each lie exactly on an axis of the golden section. | Model: Max Rübensal
golden section photography example
The center of the face here is exactly on the axis of the golden section. The eyes also come to lie on a horizontal axis. | Model: Zasha Donner

Central perspective / center axis photography

The central perspective is another really popular photo composition grid. It’s a very simple form of image composition, which works very well. Because it is so simple, the angle at which the photo is taken (slightly from below, extremely from above, etc) will play a more important role than in other composition grids.

Basically, you’re doing exactly what you wanted to avoid in the first place: Putting the model exactly in the center of the image and press the shutter button. But it’s often not quite that simple either.

Because only horizontally you should use the center line. Keep in mind to place the head of your model on the right height. You can use the height of the rule of thirds or the golden ratio as a guideline for the vertical alignment in central perspective.

Especially when you want to achieve an interesting perspective effect together with the location, the central perspective is often used.


central perspective photography composition
With the central perspective, the model is placed on the central axis. | Model: Mia Möckel
central perspective photography composition
Model: Nathalie Hermann
Beispiel Bildkomposition auf Mittelachse

3. Pay attention to the background

You now know that you must first recognize all the shapes in the image and arrange them along with your model on a composition grid. Now I would like to write about where you should better NOT arrange the recognized shapes in the photo. I will show a few negative examples right away.

Be especially careful with hard/thick lines – they often hide in the background and literally cut off something from your model. It’s annoying to realize afterwards on the computer that you didn’t pay attention to these lines.

Avoid that these lines cross the model:

  • Curbs
  • Railings
  • Horizon
  • Cables
  • Branches and trees

Try to avoid “heavy” lines crossing your model. But be careful! Such elements can not only cut the model, but also unflatteringly expand it. Often, for example, a tree then grows out of the model’s head or leaves out of its nose.

A few examples:

Background in photography
A photo does not always look bad by crossing lines, yet it might look better without the bar through the model’s head. But sometimes things just don’t work out better on site.
not a good photography composition
Not only does the composition look choppy (partly due to lack of depth of field), but a tree is also growing out of the model’s head.

Avoid such optical mishaps by choosing a better camera angle.

In the end, you have to decide for yourself whether you want to use the image despite such a possible overlooked mishaps. If the photo otherwise shows more emotion than others of your photo series, or you like it anyways, then go for it.

Apart from that, sometimes there is no other option on location. And a photo taken is better than having no photo at all. If you can not solve it on location, try to remove those stains with Photoshop.

However, it is always easier and more time-efficient to pay attention to the background while photographing and to beware of the above-mentioned traps. If a crossing line can’t be avoided in composition, try blurring it out with the use of shallow depth of field.

Addition: If heavy lines cross the model, you should at least be aware of where this happens. In the second step it is also possible to cut the model intentionally.

4. Find the right perspective and vanishing points

At outdoor photo shoots you can move freely through the scenery and take pictures. Use this ability to experiment and find exciting angles and perspectives. Just imagine how probably 90% of the other photographers would have taken this photo. Then you can consider what you can do differently.

Do not always photograph at eye level, but also sometimes from below or overhead. Think in different dimensions.

Technic tip: An articulating camera display is really helpful when it comes to discovering new photography perspectives.

Also make sure to look out for vanishing points and other special camera angles. As just mentioned, you need to recognize the lines – except that they are used intentionally to emphasize perspective and spatial depth here. This technique works especially well when using central perspective. You can use this perspective effect in addition to a shallow depth of field to create vivid photos.

vanishing point composition in photography
Slightly raised perspective and using lines to vanishing point. | Model: Nathalie Hermann

5. Find the best size ratio between model and scenery

How big do you want to image your model on your photo? And how close do you have to get? Of course, this varies depending on the selected focal length. It is important that you know how large you want the model to be in the image to reflect the image you just had in your mind.

This sets the bar for how important every particular element becomes in the picture:

The things you show big become more important than things that are shown small or barely visible.

So ask yourself: How much space do you want give to the backdrop and how much to the model?

If the location is huge pictured with a small person on it, it goes in the direction of landscape photography. A full body shot could be about the model’s outfit in addition to the environment. A large image of the face is mainly about the expression of the model.

Especially landscapes often look better with the model as size indicator. This photo is mainly about the landscape.
Close-ups of the face let you dive into the emotional world of the person | Model: Nathalie Reils

So be aware of how big you want to image the model. What do you want to show?

6. Photography framing: Find the frame of your photo

Whenever you take a photo, you only show a certain section of the scenery. What do you want to show in there and what do you want to hide? Just compare the edge of your view finder with a picture frame.

Through a deliberate cut, the rest of the environment remains “hidden”. You determine what you show all yourself. Therefore the question:

Where to cut the model and the environment?

Framing Fotografie Bildkomposition
In reality it was a boring railing. Harmonic framing transforms it into an exciting composition. | Model: Enisa Medar

What should be in the photo and what should not? And where should the edges of the photo crop the scene?

Here we come back to the design rules from section two. You can still use e.g. the Golden Section for making your cuts. By looking at the photo’s content the frame will follow automatically.

But also pay attention to the background: avoid both elements that protrude slightly into the picture and points of direct contact. This is where elements touch the edge of the picture and therefore build up a static effect. These are also called tangents. The bad thing about them is, that you do not know which element is in front and which is behind the other.

Always make the composition look like everything was your full intention.

Of course, an object can protrude into the picture – but if then intentionally and with more space.

When edges cut the person

As soon as you stop taking full body shots of the model, you have to decide where to “cut” through the person with your framing. For example, when you take an upper body portrait – where does the edge of the picture go through the person?

The cut should be as advantageous as possible and so that the person still looks alive. Yes, cutting can be dangerous 😉

Our brain always tries to imagine how something might look outside the frame. For this reason, you should always avoid cutting off the edge of the picture between the joints. Joints are natural “holding points” of the body, two bones are connected there. So if the cut goes directly through the joints, the brain is not able to complete the image of the body parts outside the frame. For example, if you cut directly through the elbow, the brain cannot reproduce the rest of the arm. If you cut in between, you can better see how the respective body part could continue.

This imaginary completion of elements outside the visible image area works not only for the body.

The brain generally continues exiting lines from the image area at the same angle at which they leave it. If lines diverge towards the edge, they will be thought wider. If they run together, they become narrower. So even with portrait poses, you should make sure that z.B. the leg lines become slimmer towards the bottom and do not diverge. By doing this, the model will appear slimmer, too.

This was an excursion to my portrait photo shoot poses guide. Here you learn more about topics regarding the model.

7. Learn the rules and then break them

This “Rules” are of course not mandatory. Basically every photo is individual and often work even without these rules. So see these rules more as tips and tricks to approach an image composition.

So it doesn’t always have to be a cut exactly in thirds or golden ratio. It can also work with a different arrangement, sometimes even better. The only important thing is that you should learn the rules first and use some proven methods. Once you have internalized them, it will be easier for you to automatically build up your image with tension.

Different rules apply to each photo.

Eigene Fotografie Bildgestaltungen finden.
The model here lies neither on the golden section nor on a third.

This is why it is important that you go out and try out again and again. I have adopted the habit of capturing and experimenting with different compositions of each image. In retrospect, you can then calmly decide which composition works best here.

By the way, you can find all these techniques and many more in my book “Seeing Outdoor Portraits”. I would like to recommend this one to you at this point, because you will learn all these points almost playfully through simple before-and-after examples.

Otherwise I hope that I could show this technique of portrait photography comprehensible for you and you will soon improve your photos with a appealing composition.

Markus Thoma

I'm Markus and I write about the creative way of photography - all from my experience as a professional photographer. I prefer to shoot portraits outside - in natural light. Because less is usually more. Sometimes I also like to travel. When I'm not taking pictures, you can find me at metalcore concerts, in nature or at the snack bar. Also check out my social media channels:

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