Hampstead School / Liane Harris / Visual Literacy activities

Activity: 5 Rules of Composition

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Learning to both recognise and utilise lines, light/tone,pattern and space in photography.

Materials needed:

  • PPT (see below)
  • Tracing paper (A5)
  • Acetate (A5)
  • Coloured sharpies
  • Photographs (A5)
  • Slips of paper with one compositional rule on each
  • Cameras


  • Make a PowerPoint in two parts; a) showing different images that illustrate shape, line (& eye line), light/tone, pattern and space. b) Use one photograph to demonstrate all 5 compositional rules. (See PDF)
  • Draw a grid on acetate to demonstrate rule of thirds
  • Write a different compositional rule on slips of paper. (1 slip per student)
  • Print out a variety of photographs including; fashion, documentary, art, portraiture, landscape, etc.
  • Useful photographers for resources; Albert Watson, Shirin Neshat, Cindy Sherman, Erwin Blumenfeld, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Nan Goldin, Martin Parr, Fay Godwin, Khalik Allah, Imogen Cunningham, Jerry Reed, James Nachtwey, Mary Ellen Mark, Awol Erizku, Dawoud Bey etc.


a) Spread all the photos out on a table (I use between 60-100)

Ask students to:

  • Choose an image they like and/or are drawn to.
  • In pairs – tell your partner 3 reasons why you chose the image. This can include things like memory (it reminds them of someone or something), the colour, the subject matter, etc.
  • If time, feedback to whole group

b) Hand out tracing paper, sharpies and one acetate sleeve each.

  • Students place the acetate on top of their photo
  • Group discussion on rule of thirds (which elements of their photo rest where on the grid? How does this effect the composition?)

c) Show part A of PPT as a general discussion around the 5 compositional rules.

d) Using part B of your PPT, go through each compositional rule one by one

Ask students to:

  • Cover their chosen image with their piece of tracing paper.
  • Use different coloured sharpies for each rule
  • Draw on their tracing paper to illustrate each rule you go through for their own photograph (see examples)

Feedback/discussion with whole group

e) Working in pairs (one camera per pair), each student is given a slip of paper with one compositional rule and asked to take a series of photographs using this rule as the intention behind the image.

f) Students upload and in a separate edit file, place their favourite photograph.

All images to be printed out and responded to in next session.


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