It is often said that there are no ‘rules’ of composition. And yet, there they are – Rule of Thirds, Golden Rule, Leading Lines, S-Curves, Layers, Off Center, Symmetry, Perspective, Lines of all sorts and on and on. And why is it that when so many fellow photographers comment on one of your photographs they comment about the rules of composition and not what the image expresses? In fact, most books and courses on composition begin by stating that there are no rules of composition before launching into an exhaustive analysis of, yep, the rules of composition. And of course, it’s not fashionable to refer to the rules of composition as rules anymore because ‘there are no rules of composition.’
And yet we diligently study them all the same.
Edward Weston acknowledged that there are rules of composition when he said, “Studying the rules of composition before taking a picture is like studying the law of gravity before going for a walk.” Now, you’ll not find any compositions that are better than Weston’s. He was the consummate master of compositions. And they came to him naturally without him having to think about the rules; composition was second nature to him.
OK, I get it. The goal is for composition to come naturally, for it to be second nature. And yet, not all of us are as blessed with this gift as Weston. And so I put together classes that cover the rules of composition, just like most everyone else. I’ve justified this by recalling that early in our lives we all studied the law of gravity. Yes we did. Not from a physics book and certainly not Newton’s equation for gravity – the force of gravity is directly proportional to the product of the masses of the two objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between then (I studied physics and just had to show off a little).
But we did study the law of gravity when we learned to walk on two legs. That requires a holistic grasp of gravity and how to cope with it.
I’ve struggled with Weston’s quote for years now and just recently gained some insight that I personally find helpful and I hope you do too. And it’s this – as one becomes aware of more and more of the rules of composition, we start to see them all around us and we to see more and more in the world. It helps us expand the way we see the world which in turn becomes a richer place. Wow, that’s a good thing. And as we see more in the world, that works its way into our photographs. Take Golden Rule. This is when an accent element is placed in the lower right quarter of the image. It can be very effective at times but if we’re not aware of it we’ll never see it and we won’t be able to use it in our photographs.
So becoming aware of the rules of composition can help us see more and in that way directly influence our photographs. But of course the mantra, “There are no rules of composition” also serves as an important reminder. Because if we blindly adhere to the rules of compositions we run the risk of producing images that are stiff and mechanical.
The rules themselves are analytical which comes from the problem solving side of our brains. They do not come from the creative side. And by focusing on the rules we block the creative approach to composition. So there are three ‘principles of composition’ that I try to keep foremost in my mind and they are Unity, Balance and Visual Tension.
These are principles that one can feel and that’s the side of the brain where creativity hangs out. Unity simply says that every element in the composition contributes to the overall intent of the image. Balance says the elements are arranged harmoniously. And Visual Tension says that they are arranged in such a way as to breathe energy and life into the image. I can get analytical about these but in the end, the best use of these principles is to stop thinking and just feel the composition. When it feels right you’re on to something.
So study the rules of composition. Increase your awareness of them so they are your constant companion. Take them with you when you photograph. Experience them when you look at the world. Become conscious of using then. And then, without giving up the expanded vision they give you, move beyond them to feel the composition – its Unity, Balance and Visual Tension. And you will be well on your way to strengthening your compositions and expanding the expressive power of your photographs.