The New Rules of Photography Composition

Like many other disciplines, photography has its own rules. However, portrait photographer James Allen Stewart has found that by breaking these long standing composition rules, you can compose more intriguing and vibrant images. In this helpful tutorial, Stewart shows four traditional photography composition rules and how breaking them helped him create two new rules for photography composition:

One of the amazing things about photography is the ability for photographers to strategically break away from the rules to create their own unique spin on things. By utilizing different concepts to create the image, Stewart further explains how to maximize the elements within your frame to create more dynamic images. To begin, he starts by reiterating four common principles of photography composition.

Rule of Thirds

One of the most commonly utilized concepts in photography is the Rule of Thirds. This simple concept breaks the entire frame down into nine individualized squares, with important elements one third of the distance from any of the sides (e.g. the subject’s eyes or a landscape horizon).

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Rule of Thirds

Straight Lines

Straight lines give stability to the image. These lines typically go from one side of the image to the other or from corner to corner, providing a sense of motion or drama.

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Straight Lines

Balancing Objects

Balancing objects is another simple composition concept. The premise is to balance out your image by placing objects to fill the voids within your frame.

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Balancing Objects


Once you’ve captured your images, you may find elements within your frame that distract your viewer from your subject. By cropping your photos, you can eliminate these distractions and create a more pleasing image.

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Cropping an image to remove distractions

Balance Between Light and Dark

Instead of starting by using principles such as the Rule of Thirds, Stewart considers the weight of both light and dark elements within the image and how the dark elements of an image weigh more than the light. For example, if your dark elements are situated towards one side of your frame or image, it will appear heavier on that side. This in turn gives your image an uneven feel, and can draw your eyes to the edge.

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The image on the left pulls the viewer’s eye to the edge, while the image on the right is balanced out with light elements.

Therefore, if you use a dark subject on one side of the image, you need to balance out the weight of this portion of the image on the other side, similar to counter weights on a scale. This can be achieved by using dark elements on the other side of the image, or by adding more light elements. The purpose of this technique is to allow your eyes to rest where it is suppose to when looking at your image. This concept is very important to understand, because as Stewart explains: as long as these two components are balanced within your photo, the Rule of Thirds becomes less relevant.

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Direction / The Story.

Direction / The Story

One of the more fascinating concepts introduced by Stewart, the Direction / The Story concept is based off how we read and write from left to right. Similar to writing a story, your photo composition should tell a story with a beginning, climax, and ending. For instance, in the first image (above) if you were to use the eyes as the ‘climax’ of the story, then it occurs too soon within your photo’s story and doesn’t allow your viewer anywhere to go afterwards. However, flipping the image around (second image above) allows your viewers to see your story unfold more naturally.

“The hard part is listening to what you feel. It’s like the movies, where a bank robber tries to open the safe lock and he’s listening closely for the small clicks. This is what you do. You nudge it until it clicks…”

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9 responses to “The New Rules of Photography Composition”

  1. Louis Joseph says:

    This is such a great article…, I love the part about composing photographs like stories being read from left to right and to flip the photo in post, if necessary, to get that affect. Great tip!!! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Louis Joseph says:

    … Oh, and I also really like the part about balancing the dark and light parts of the image so that once you find that balance, the viewers’ eyes go to the part of the photo he/she should see rather than get distracted by uneven highlights and shadows.

    Great post!

  3. Jerry says:

    Interesting concept. Accidentally used this “method” a few times , however , I did not fully comprehend what I was achieving. Now , the light bulb comes on.

  4. Caarole Mall says:

    James, Very helpful information on composition. I followed along with my eye (s) doing the things you described in all the photos!
    Helpful, helpful, very helpful.

  5. George says:

    Outstanding, James. I never quite saw this before. I like the whole concept of both balancing with light and, especially, telling the story light to dark, left to right. Well done. Thanks!

  6. Holly Gayton says:

    James, you made some very interesting observations and your ideas on how the picture flows are great. I will try to remember these while I am photographing my grandchildren!! <3 I Loved the sound effects your dog gave and also loved to see the dog and cat playing at the end…….ok, I'm an animal person so maybe I should practice your ideas on my cats!! :-)

  7. Lourdes says:

    Thank you for making me aware and inspiring me of the light and darkness to tell a story. Love your cat and dog playing together at the end.

  8. L Robins says:

    I really appreciated this article. I never took photography classes, however, I absolutely love capturing life, art, and any natural element that inspires me. Light / dark and other contrasting images have always been a favorite to photograph; this gave me a more indepth explanation as to why.

  9. Praise says:

    From my point of view, this is a great concept. I love the part of balancing the light and dark elements of the image which draws the eyes of the viewers to rest on the part they are supposed to.

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