As with every skill, be it conscious or instinctive, your ability to choose composition for any given moment you wish to capture improves with time, practice and experience. And it’s not just composition, of course, but the sense of light, peak moment, emotion. I strongly believe our photography, from a certain point, represents us not just as artists (especially because not all photographers are inherently artists, which is in no way a bad thing), but also as personalities. Our choice of light, mood, subject and/or object, environment, color and message mirrors that which we like, do not like, how we see, how we live, how we feel. It mirrors our character, for we imprint ourselves in our work, leave a signature made not with ink or light, but with our very essence. And so it is with composition. If you are a calmer person, prefer simple, few things and like your environment tidy, it is likely these personality traits will reflect in your photography and you will seek simple, minimalistic, tidy, static, calm composition choices. If, on the other hand, you are an active, emotional person, there’s a good chance you will take a more dynamic approach to composition with more subjects and perhaps even chaotic arrangement of elements within your work.
Now, if we are to take this assumption to heart and see the photographers within us as an inseparable part from the everyday people that we are (and, yes, there’s always the other side of the coin, the other opinion, which, too, has plenty of arguments to be properly supported), it stands to reason that everything affecting our character and personality also affects the choices we make as photographers. Thus, it affects composition of more or less any photograph that we take with at least some thought or feeling. As we grow, our photography grows with us. Having said that, leaving the improvement to such a natural process alone is perhaps a little… lazy. If we can do something to deliberately grow as photographers, why not do it?
Grow as a Person
I will not pretend to be a master of composition, light or photography in general. I’m not really a master of anything, in fact. But after several years that I’ve enjoyed photography, there is one advice I can give you with certainty. It holds true for all types of photographers, be it landscape, bird, wildlife, portrait or artistic. Actually, it holds true for any sort of work you may do, or at least it should hold true. And this advice may sound very, very strange, but bear with me as I believe this to be the most important advice I give you in this article: go and watch a good movie. Read a good novel. Then read “Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible”. Or find a philosophical one that you might like (Roland Barthes, perhaps?). Listen to good music. Listen to music while you photograph. Get up early in the morning for no reason at all and go take a walk. The next morning, before anyone is even thinking of being awake, before some people even go to sleep, get in your car and go for a drive. No destination is necessary, just get in the car and drive. Just for the hell of it. Spend some time with your family, spend some time with your friends. Watch a good movie with them. Have some pop corn. Laugh, joke, talk, cry, be quiet and still for an hour. And as you do all that, step out of yourself and look at that scene, at that experience from a side. Then jump back in there and keep laughing. Do something spontaneous, go fishing if you’ve never done it before. Buy a book. You know what? Buy several. In paper, not electronic. Clean up your apartment, cook something for your sweetheart, lie down on a sofa and listen to some more music, watch your children sleep, make breakfast for them.
The next time you do all of this, have your camera with you. Photograph. Be mindful of what you’re feeling, listen to the noises, look at other people, observe them, notice the smallest movements, smallest details about them. Next time you set off to photograph birds, spend the whole day there. Make yourself some sandwiches, bring a tent with you, and enjoy the time. Next time you set off to photograph landscapes, bring a book with you and don’t take a single picture. Look, but don’t capture.
You may wonder, how does reading a book about a designer or listening to music help your photography? And that’s the thing, everything helps you and, by extension, your photography. It’s the core ideas that you will find in those books that will change your thinking, the way you look at photography and everything else in life.
You don’t know what or who will influence you and your work. Take it all in, then. Find joy, be moved, find something meaningful, spiritual in every single thing you do. And I swear, I promise – you will grow. As a person and as a photographer.
Wait for the Right Mood
As a writer and as a photographer, I noticed how much my mood can influence my writing and my ability to see what’s going on around me. And it’s not just a matter of “good” versus “bad” mood, it’s much more subtle than that. Without going into too much detail on this – don’t want to stray that far from photography – I can only say that you can’t force yourself to do something to your absolute best ability if your mind is not ready for it, if your psychological, emotional condition is hampering your photographic vision in all senses of that word.
Doing professional work is one thing, of course. You just do it no matter what. I would never tell my clients I can’t shoot their wedding because I am in a bad mood, that would be ridiculous. In fact, my clients never, ever see me in a bad mood. I will do my job no matter what, as well as I can possibly manage. But my best ability depends a lot on the state of my mind and my ability to put myself into the necessary mood, it’s human nature. Let’s say my clients like the photographs that I made without giving all of my feelings and thoughts to it, but will I like those photographs? Or will I find there’s something missing? In this case, it is very important to know how to trick yourself into the necessary state. Music can help, or a book, or anything that moves you.
With personal projects, you don’t have a deadline. There’s no set date when you have to take the photographs. And that means you should keep trying to achieve your goal, realize your project to the fullest and only accept photographs that are not just well composed and technically sound, but also have that last, most important bit – feeling.
When showcasing your work, you are not only showcasing the picture itself, you are showing the viewer yourself. Your ability to show those feelings grows as you grow as a photographer, but only as long as there’s something to be shown in the first place. So don’t rush into anything, unless rushing into it feels like the most natural thing to do, like something you need as much as the air you breathe. Otherwise, take a moment to settle down and direct all your thoughts and feelings into what you are about to photograph. All the other choices will come naturally.
Learn and Follow the Rules
I’ve heard these words so many times “break rules!”. I am now inclined to do the very opposite every time I photograph. The problem is not with the idea itself. The problem is that many photographers rush to “break rules” without even taking the time to learn and apply them in the first place. But if you’re going to break rules, why apply them, right? Wrong. There is an enormous difference between applying a rule and then subtly shifting away from it, and not bothering to apply it at all. In the latter case, you just get chaos, and not the good sort.
“Breaking” the guides of composition, such as the golden mean or central composition, is not the same as not following them at all. They are considered to be guides for a good reason – people much smarter than you and I figured them out by studying the effect they have on a person. So in order to break any of them successfully, one must first learn, then apply them to the scene, and then find a very subtle, unexpected way to add some intrigue to the photograph by placing an element or two in such a way that does not follow the said rules.
To some people this comes naturally, while others have to spend quite a bit of time and effort first (I am one of those unlucky people!). Before it does become natural, composing photographs according to various guides and rules is always a very deliberate process that requires a lot of concentration. So here is my advice: before you take a photograph – any photograph, even that of your cat, a cupcake for Instagram or a flower you just got from a friend – stop and look at the scene. See what elements are there and how to arrange them, see what’s necessary, what adds to the image and what does not. See where to best place your main subject, see if anything in the background or foreground is distorting it. Sometimes lowering your camera by even a few centimeters can make all the difference in the world. See if, perhaps, the scene itself is dictating your choice of composition, be it central, one according to the rule of thirds or symmetrical. And please, please make sure your horizon is straight, unless you deliberately need it at an angle (this is something I often have trouble with myself). Only then take the photograph.
For me, this process has been both exhausting and fun. Exhausting for understandable reasons, because you always, always have to think and consider and reconsider your composition, and it does take its toll eventually – you can get tired. But also fun, because it’s something of a challenge, a game of sorts that you play with yourself whilst trying to find a better, more appealing way of showing your subject.
Having said all that, I cannot but also encourage you to break rules of composition eventually. Only after you learn to apply them, of course. And yet it is quite necessary. You see, if you always compose according to the rule of thirds, for example, your images may become slightly… boring? Perhaps “predictable” is a better word. Also, effortlessly appealing. Whether that’s good or not is an arguable point, what’s certainly good is that following rules opens the path into breaking them, into making your images intriguing. Naturally, a well chosen subject, light and environment, the whole story of the image adds to that dramatically, but composition plays a big role, too.
Let’s say you are composing a landscape image. You have a beautiful seaside scene with a gorgeous sunset and the most obvious way to place your elements within the frame is perhaps to use the rule of thirds. Instead, why not place the horizon at the very bottom of the frame and emphasize the vastness of the subtle sky? Or, on the contrary, place the horizon almost at the very top of the image thus concentrating the viewer’s attention on the ripples in the water and the reflection of the sky in all its majesty. You could also wait for a seagull to enter the frame somewhere to ruin the overly static calmness of the image and add some needed intrigue to catch the viewer’s eye.
This is, of course, a very classic example, but then landscapes are really not my strongest suit. I do, however, experiment this way with portraits. And let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like that feeling when you try something and realize – darn, it works!
As you can see, there is no simple trick that you can learn to improve your photography, no “read this article and shoot like a pro in five minutes”. It takes longer than five minutes to grow and “shooting like a pro” doesn’t really mean much. If anything, it sounds negative, as if you should learn to photograph the same way someone else does, the way you are expected to. But as no two people are really the same, no two photographers can be, either. What I hope you understood after reading this article is that you-the-photographer is an inseparable part of you-the-person, and the two grow and change together. Guides and rules and tricks can be learned, new equipment can be bought and new locations visited, but if you want to imprint yourself in your work, if you want your photographs to say – “this is me”, that is where you ought to start first of all: with yourself. The rest of it, well, it’s much further down the list of importance.
I like rules. And I like when people know how to break them effectively. It’s almost like some people create new rules by breaking others. But I don’t like when people photograph without any rules, be it the generally accepted rules or ther rules they have made for themselves. If you don’t like the rules of the masses, at least make your own rules and follow them. Great article!!
Wow, great article. As an aspiring photographer who gets frustrated sometimes with being told to follow rules, no wait, to break them – this is very helpful. I also find it encouraging to also think about photography much more as individual expression than just a set of principles that need to be followed. In sum I think it’s not either/or but both.
I thought the article here was spot on but you lost me when you got to the rules section. You lost me because all of those rules only exist in amateur photography sites and literature. Pick up a text on design or an art textbook on composition, you wont find any of these rules or guidelines (you might find a discussion of the Golden Mean, however, it is not presented as part of the foundational principles of composition, just as a theory. Why, because all of these rules and guidelines were created to help the beginner be able to create a photograph “without so much skill or effort”. These are shorthands for the true basis of good composition, the Principles of Design and Elements of Art. It isn’t that these rules don’t work, they do have their legs in these principles, but they are nothing more than shortcuts to predictable, not creative results.
I suggest you take a look at Betty’s post 11). I understand that there are savants in the world, prodigies that master art forms at an early age. You, sir, must be one of these. You bypass the instruction and inject your expertise in a haughty manor. Many here, at Photography Life, are indeed beginners and as Betty states there are rules and technical aspects of photography which need to be learned first before one can branch out to break these rules. As children, we learned to count 1+1, then 2+2. Then we learned to multiply and divide and subtract. Little steps which eventually lead some of us to algebra, trigonometry and further into physics. Evidentially John, you were born with the sense of composition and artistic expression which you need not have learned but was intrinsic in your make up. Some of us need to take the baby steps and that is why many are here to learn from others who have already been there and done that.
Personally, I found Betty’s post 11), inspiring…yours…not so much. Nothing personal, just my observation.
Thanks for your response Mike,
I am sorry if you took my comments the wrong way, but let me explain. You see, various rules and guidelines have been around for centuries and where they are found is in guides and instruction for amateurs and hobbyists. You wont find these rules and guidelines in any textbook on design or in any textbook on art and composition, nor will you find them taught in the curriculum for design or art in colleges or universities. They are meant to allow those who haven’t yet taken the time and trouble to learn the foundational concepts and principles to have some success in making images. The idea being that over time they will move forward to learn the core principles, which will allow them to leave such rules behind. It isn’t that most of these rules don’t have their legs in those core principles, it is just that they are just limited snapshots of the possiblities and which can be applied easily by the novice.
So, what you will find in the text and classes on composition in colleges and universities is study and discussion of the Principles of Design and Elements of Art, as I mentioned above. The problem with these for the novice or casual shooter is that they don’t give quick fix answers or shoulds or shouldn’ts to composition. Rather, they are about learning how things like line, shape, proportion, motion, balance, unity, emphasis etc are accomplished or effect an image. When one learns these things, they have at their disposal the understanding of visual principles that they can use or abuse to create the image that fits the scene before them and their intent for that scene.
So, my objection isn’t that rules can’t help the novice or the casual image maker but that they are not foundational and thus suggesting breaking them is an issue is just not based in fact. They are is just a quick short hand for aspects of those more foundational principles of composition, ones that can be easily applied by those who haven’t yet taken the time to learn the more foundational principles. That is not a bad thing, it’s just that there is such a void of factual information and perspective in much of what amateur photographers are learning.
I was fortunate, I guess, in that when I started photography back in the 70’s that I never ran into these sorts of rules and guidelines, in fact, I never heard of most of them until I visited an on-line forum in 2005. During the years between, I studied with recognized masters of photography including Ansel Adams, Richard Misrach, Jerry Uelsmann, Linda Conner, John Sexton, Bruce Barnbaum, and others, taught in an art college and took art and photography classes in colleges (I, like most here, came to this later in life and without an art background) and never heard any of the plethora of rules and guidelines that are so common these days on amateur sites and in literature aimed at that market. I have spent the last 25 years working commercially as well and having worked with top designers and art directors from around the US, never heard or discussed such rules or guidelines. Instead, in all of these venues, images were always discussed as to how the visual problem was based on the image and the intent (implied or actual) according to the foundational principles of composition, not rules or guidelines.
Anyway, if you would like to know more about where I am coming from, you can visit my websites, johnacurso.com is my fine art site and links to both my blog and commercial site. The fact is that I am passionate about people learning the real principles of photography and while I recognize that beginners want quick results, I just feel that there is a real void in the educational material being presented to the amateur.
One clarification, because this does come up when discussions of this sort ensue. When I suggest leaving behind the rules and guidelines, that doesn’t mean one wont create images, or shouldn’t, that will appear to have applied such rules. The point is that the compositional structure one ends up creating, whatever it might be, is determined by the nature of the scene being photographed and the photographer’s intent, what they intend to communicate. Whether it seems to comply with some rule or guideline or not is not important. What is important is that we are trying to optimize our compositions such that they present our intent clearly.
Now we are in perfect agreement.
You are completely correct and I agree with everything you say in your response. I have a degree in Fine Art Photography and a Masters in Photojournalism. Although it is true, and I can’t remember any of my teachers or instructors ever saying to me, “use the rule of thirds”, in the critique of my work they would make mention that by positioning the subject or utilizing aspects and elements to direct the viewers eye to the main subject essentially were doing just what we are talking about. In short, with this thread, they were actually saying use the rule of thirds or leading lines or whatever to direct the viewers eye toward the main subject.
My first teacher was my uncle Willie. He was a wedding photographer and portrait artist. A master at lighting. I guess by looking at his work, I automatically understood that certain elements needed to be placed somewhere to make the photograph interesting. However, by the time I got to college I was already breaking these “rules” in order to find my own style.
There are many beginners here as well as advanced enthusiasts who have found a style and use or abuse the “rules” of photography to create some very beautiful photographs.
It doesn’t matter what someone like you or I or Betty or Nasim or Romans know intuitively about creating composition. We’ve been there and done that. However, I think it is up to us to help those who don’t do what we do automatically and help them think they way they need to in order to learn and then break away into a style of their own.
I recall one lesson in product photography in college where I was given the assignment to photography a toaster. I had no experience with product photography and made a wonderful picture of a toaster but left no space for the copy that would accompany the product. The critique gave me insight to the correct way to utilize dead space so the manufacture could add copy to see the item. In essence my instructor was defining the “rule of thirds” without using those words. I’m sure the same thing still happens in photography courses in colleges today.
In any event and as I read over your comment to me, you do agree that whether or not we call certain design elements by basic terms these still need to be learned and are taught in some aspect or another.
The end result of this conversation is we agree in principal. I just think it is easier to teach a certain way and as I work with some of my friends children will guide them to the basic rules by critique and have them redo assignments as I provide. True, I never talk about the “rules of thirds”.
Mike, while I would likely not ever, nor have I, “teach” these rules and guidelines, that doesn’t mean that they have no value to the novice. But we have to be clear that they are only things that are easily understood, easily applied and quick fixes to creating more pleasing images. They are not fundamental/foundational principles in any way.
The Rule of Thirds. Funny, but this one kills me. I don’t think anyone even knows where it came from and yet since I first heard of it in 2005, it has continued to grow in stature within amateur circles. I actually did research its roots, the grid and all, but what we know today is so oversimplified and static compared to its origins–where it appears as just one iteration of a series of possible grids that also have a series of rules and subdivisions for the application of these guides. It was the author of that book who I paraphrased above. Essentially in the preface of that book, he suggests that what he is presenting, which included many more rules as well, does not mean that any of them have to be followed to create a successful image but rather they are to facilitate successful image making by those that have not yet taken the time and effort to learn how to create successful compositions.
Here’s the actual quote from the author, it is much more illuminating than my paraphrase:
“IN GIVING the following rules for producing
Pictorial Effect, it is not intended in the slightest
degree to imply that pictures cannot be produced
without, or even in direct contradiction to any
one or all of ‘them; but the object of the present
work is to show how pictures may be produced
without requiring so much skill, or taking so
I think it is noteworthy here to mention that even here, it is about pictoral effect, not necessarily about effective communication of our ideas or intent.
I agree with this as well.
Again I’ll state that when working with other folks wanting to learn photography we discuss composition, not rules. I do however, go over these concepts but never indicate them to be rules. I just explain why the technique makes for a better composition. I do the same when talking about leading lines, etc. We are in agreement that the pictorial effect is what we are all after and that certain elements in a photograph or painting for that matter, make our work more appealing to viewers.
We can intellectualize this concept all we want but when teaching young folks about composition I will go over why certain elements should be placed in a particular way until that student understands composition and learns how to alter it for his/her/their own style.
That is the statement Betty made and I agree with her that it is the easiest way to understand what composition is and how to adjust it for ones self.
I also think this horse has been beaten to death in this thread.
Mike, you said “We are in agreement that the pictorial effect is what we are all after…”
I don’t really think that is true, not for me in any case but certainly it can be for some. The whole idea of Pictorial Effect, as to how I read this concept based on the study I have done on the topic, is that it is based on one’s intent to create images for the pleasure of others, in essence, in a style and manner that the general population will respond to. It is, in fact, in books on the pictorial effect, whether in reference to photography or painting and such, that you will find the laundry list of rules that help one create such generally accepted imagery. Rarely is there a discussion on how one might express their own ideas. I suppose that there is nothing wrong with this, people make lots of money doing this sort of thing. But the artist generally approaches their work with the need to express ideas and often will end up with images that can be wonderful to those that relate to them but may be awful or unapproachable to the masses.
For instance, I personally love the work of the abstract expressionists. I have been knocked off my feet by a Pollock dancing on the wall and I get lost in much of Rothko’s work whereas that hasn’t been the overriding response to that sort of work when mentioned on most photo forums. Similarly, take the photography of Gursky, Wall, Sherman and many of the others who lead the field in innovation and print value, these aren’t people who pursue pictorial effect or who generally receive positive regard even by the general population of photographers.
I am sorry you feel this way, but I can not agree. Learning the rules you’ve not heard about (which I find strange since they are centuries old) is not just about following some steps to get a “good enough” result with minimal effort. I’d never encourage that. Learning these rules is about discipline and observation. It helps one focus and actually analyze what they are doing, every single step, and turn composition into a conscious action to improve it and then make it subconscious again.
In any case, I enjoyed reading your comment, it is a refreshingly different approach. Thank you for sharing your opinion!
I think you are digging a little too deep. This article IS for beginners :) Not masters. I am certainly not a master myself, so I could not write an article meant for masters in the first place. Also, I have a degree in multimedia arts, which involved subjects from photography to audio art and design. The reason why these rules are not discussed in universities and such is the same reason why you don’t hear people talking about multiplication table in faculties of maths – these are merely basics. And do you know what? These very basics came from the work of masters. So I stand by what I said for most cases. :) Thank you for reading!
Romanas, I just saw your comments here, this and the one below, and thought I might respond here to both.
I assume you looked into my background with the link here and understand I am not coming from a shallow background. I am very passionate about people learning about photography but I am also concerned with the way things have become so codified. For all those centuries where guidelines and rules have been around, it has never been suggested that they “should” be followed, but more that they were things that could be followed to allow the novice to have some quick success.
As amateur photography has grown, even since I first visited a photo sharing site in 2005, these rules and guidelines have continued to become presented more and more as “actual” principles of composition–which they are not!–rather than as simple guidelines to help one as they learn about composition. My concern is not that it might not be beneficial for a beginner/amateur to learn these things to help them get started, however, it should be emphasized that these are not principles of design but rather that these are shortcuts to help one get started. As such, there is nothing to be “broken” , just alternative compositions–the success of which is no less predictable than by following those “rules” but which can be made more predictable as one learns more about composition and the actual principles of design/composition.
For instance, there is no evidence that the rule of thirds is anything more than an arbitrary proportion. In fact, its origin comes from roots that do not support it as being the only, or primary, proportion either in theory or by traditional amateur guideline. It is simply the easiest and most simplistic (the current rule actually ignores the guidelines that were originally set up for its use!). If you would like to read about this, I did give a history and perspective here: www.flickr.com/group…+of+thirds
Hopefully, you will see how this mother of all our current “rules” is just an arbitrary guideline picked out of a much more complex historical system–which was never a principle of design in any case, just a guideline for the division of space to help beginners.
Anyway, my point is just that as long as one is going to teach guidelines they should be taught as such and, thus, breaking or not breaking them is not any issue as they, themselves, are only “fragments” of larger foundational principles. The problem with these “rules” and “following” them is that we lose focus on what is important realizing our idea for an image or conforming to some guideline/rule!
Great article, as always. Please keep these flowing! :)
I always enjoy reading your “very, very strange” articles, as they usually lend a different and interesting perspective on photography. I even went back and re-read your articles on composition, hoping to glean more knowledge and insight.
I am planning to enter the Nikon Photo Contest, but after looking at past winners, I am more puzzled by what makes a photo “worthy” or is it simply in the eye of the beholder? I am an amateur and lack any formal classroom education, so that may explain my lack of understanding.
Perhaps, Photography Life may consider hosting a photo contest (since it is photography week), but more importantly, explain why one photo is extraordinary and why another is not (beyond the rule of thirds, straight lines, leading lines, things sticking out of the subject’s head, etc). Is it the lighting? Is it the emotion that one derives from viewing said photo? What is it that defines and differentiates good from better? Thanks…
This was an interesting essay on the “self” factor in photography. I have been taking pictures and fascinated with photography since grade school but just recently have begun to really explore techniques and understanding my own style. I would love to have a better sense of what makes a photograph extraordinary vs. great or good. Part of it must be in the “eye of the beholder” of course and when specific parameters are set, one can endeavor to meet those technical points. I have allowed this to hold me back in submitting photographs for contests or just local recognition, need to get over it and begin to put myself out there!
I agree, you need to submit some of your work and not matter what happens it will improve you photography.
I agree with your statement that the photography is in the eye of the beholder but there are technical elements which transform a photograph from something you are pleased with to something that would win a contest. Extend yourself and don’t let rejection discourage you. Learn from that and improve. The current series of articles coming out of Photography Life this week are just great and should give you much to think about and learn from. Happy shooting.
Good article Romanas.
I particularly like your emphasising the importance of learning the rules and how best to apply them before branching out into creative ways of bending or even breaking them.
This is something I have tried to say in relation to a number of aspects of photography recently and on which we and others, disagreed.
Namely, post processing workflow and exposure.
Learning to do these in a logical, evidence-based manner is essential to getting to grips with the craft of photography.
Once one has mastered the tools, one can then choose when it is appropriate to use them in unconventional ways to achieve a novel result, but to ignore them from the outset is likely to result in little more than the artless chaos which too often is presented as ‘creativity’ or a ‘personal approach’.
Composition is just the same.
First let’s learn the rules, the basics, things which have been tried, tested and shown to work by countless artists over centuries.
Then, and only then, should we feel free to strike out in new and untried directions – and even then keeping in mind what it is we are trying to achieve.
Very nice article. Very thought provoking. Keep it up.
“There are no rules for good photographs. There are only good photographs.”
– Ansel Adams
Yes, but Ansel Adams was an absolute master of photographic knowledge and technique.
He virtually single handedly invented the Zone System for methodical, calculated, exposure and spent countless days in the field perfecting his compositions and countless hours in the darkroom perfecting his images.
He knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it.
If you study his work you will see that he is constantly applying the rules of composition (and sometimes subtly departing from them) in innovative ways.
There is a difference between that and either not understanding the rules in the first place or throwing them out of the window altogether.
I completely agree with What Betty says here. If you don’t know the rules first, you don’t even know if and when you are breaking them.
All good images have good composition, even if it was accidental…
Wow! wonderful words, it inspire me alot. ;)
Fantastic advice! I love your final words “This is me”. That is what I am trying to do now!!
Thank you so much!!