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Taking Better Photographs: The Rules of Composition
May 8, 2015

President Obama stands next to another man while they answer questions.
(Photo Credit: Lawrence Jackson, White House)

There’s more to taking good photographs than having the latest technology. There’s composition. Generally speaking, photographic composition is the pleasing selection and arrangement of subjects within a picture. One way to arrange a photo is to place people or objects in certain positions. Another is to choose a specific point of view.

To help budding photographers sharpen their sense of composition — and take better photographs — Kodak developed these rules of photographic composition. You can find an adapted version below, along with sample photographs from the official White House photographer.


a child hold the hand of another person through a crack in the door.
(Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House)

The first rule is simplicity. Compose your photograph so that the reason you’re taking the picture is clear. Look for ways to give the focus of your picture the most visual attention. Arrange other parts of your picture so that they complement this focus instead of detracting from it.

One way to do this is to select uncomplicated backgrounds that will not steal attention from your subjects. In the picture above, the background is so simple that the eye is immediately drawn to the boy’s smiling face. We don’t see that he’s giving a “fist bump” to President Obama — nor do we need to.

Rule of Thirds

Two men sit close to each other while laughing.
(Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House)

The rule of thirds is a guide that helps photographers place objects and people within their pictures. Here’s how it works: Imagine your picture divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The intersections of these imaginary lines create four options for placing the focus of your picture.

If you want to make your photograph more dynamic, place your focus slightly off-center like the picture above. Generally, pictures with subjects directly in the center tend to be more static and less interesting than pictures with off-center subject placement.


A man and a woman stand next to each other while staring at a city skyline.
(Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House)

Lines play an important role in composition. You can provide the viewer a way into your picture by using diagonals as leading lines. In the example above, the diagonal line created by the sidewalk helps carry the eye from President and Michelle Obama to the Chicago skyline.

President Obama and soldier walk down an isle of photos.
(Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House)

You can also use repetitive lines to draw viewers’ attention to the subject of your photograph. In the picture above, the repetition of the shelves and picture frames actually directs the eye toward President Obama and Brigadier General Erik Kurilla.

Photo of an airplane.
(Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House)

Another common line used in composition is called the “S curve.” “Occasionally, a graphic element becomes the key factor in an interesting photograph,” explains official White House photographer Pete Souza. “Here, at Los Angeles International Airport, I ran out in front of Air Force One to preposition myself at a low angle to take advantage of the yellow stripe as the President walked off the plane.” The stripe brings the eye into the photograph and balances the visual weight of the plane.


obama shake hands in crowd of people reaching-it towards him.
(Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House)

Achieving balance is another rule for better composition. Good balance is simply the arrangement of shapes, colors and light so that these elements complement one another. In the picture above, for example, the shape and darkness of the crowd is balanced by the complementary shape and lightness of the brick wall.


president Obama looks up at individuals while walking.
(Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House)

Another way to improve your photographic composition is through framing. This means to use people or objects within your picture to frame the focus of your picture. In the picture above, for example, President Obama’s silhouette is framed by the tunnel’s structure as well as the onlookers.

Avoiding Mergers

Obama holds child.
(Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House)

Can you see how the flag’s stripes almost look like they’re coming out of President Obama’s head? This is a merger, and it’s something photographers should avoid. Mergers happen because we see things in three dimensions, while the camera does not.

Near mergers, like the one pictured above, are objects or lines that are too close to the principal subject. While they may not be as objectionable as a tree that looks like it’s sprouting from a subject’s head, they can steal attention from the focus of your picture.

Border mergers happen when you cut people in half or trim their heads or feet. To avoid border mergers, adjust your picture to leave a little space around everyone.