Rules of habit

So far, we have discussed a few observational rules and synthetic rules, along with some ways of breaking them. There is yet another category of rules that I'd like to discuss. Unlike the others, however, these rules exists solely within our own heads.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, 'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.' This quote is meant to encourage us to challenge ourselves and be deliberate in our actions rather than becoming complacent and simply doing things that are easy or comfortable.

How does this relate to composition? We are creatures of habit that can easily fall into a creative rut by not challenging the way we work. Rarely do we put ourselves in a situation where we're forced to do something differently. Here are two ways to change that.

Try a new tool

I started photography as a black and white film photographer. My first camera was a 35mm SLR; I later started shooting medium format. My medium format cameras captured a 6 cm x 6 cm square image.

Switching from a rectangular viewfinder to a square one involved a radical shift in my compositional sense. Even without introducing any new rules or maxims, I started to see the world in a totally different way when framing things in a square.

This is an example of a compositional geometry that comes to me naturally when shooting with a square-format camera. The image can almost be broken down into interlocking blocks of dark and light. Personally, I find that the mere act of using a square viewfinder helps me to visualize the world in fresh and novel ways.

Using a medium format film camera has another important difference from shooting digitally - a roll of 120 film in a 6x6 format camera gives you just 12 images per roll. Imagine having a memory card so tiny that you could only fit 12 images on it! That fact alone makes me slow way down and make much more deliberate choices about what I shoot.

Even if you're not willing to commit to a whole new camera system, finding ways to shake up your routine, such as renting a specialty lens with a different focal length/range than your normal gear can be a refreshing deviation from the norm.

Create a project

How else can we break the rule of habit? Creating an artistic project with a specific theme or restrictions can help. Try spending an afternoon shooting nothing but backlit images or images taken from no more than 10 inches off the ground. Grab an object from your home (a chair, for example), carry it around town for a day and shoot it in different places. Find a rainy day and take pictures of wet leaves on the pavement. Creating collections of images can be very rewarding and also has the benefit of producing cohesive bodies of work.

These images are very different from my usual fashion and beauty work. Macros were new territory for me when I began this project; this was a refreshing exercise in shooting a new style. Here is another image from my recent macro project.  I was inspired to create this series after borrowing a lens from a friend that had a maximum focusing distance of 4 inches (10 cm).

Summing up

Great art is not created simply by following rules. Yet ignoring the rules doesn't guarantee the creation of a masterpiece either. A work of art is obviously greater than the sum of its parts. Just because a great image follows a given compositional rule does not mean that the image is successful solely because it follows that rule, just as the act of owning a Fender guitar will not magically turn you into Jimi Hendrix.

There is no denying, though, that certain principles seem to be harmonious and make visual sense to us. The study of composition represents an attempt to codify these universal concepts into guidelines. Be aware that not every rule or guideline is going to help every artist. However, understanding them provides useful starting points for any of us to play with the concepts behind the rule.

I will leave you with one rule that should never be broken: have fun, keep experimenting, and enjoy the journey!


Thomas Park is a fashion / fine art photographer and educator based in Seattle, Washington. To follow his work, please visit http://www.thomasparkphoto.com.

Models: Alison P., Seline Chauntel, Marisa Ventura, Aisha R., Marissa Quimby.  Marisa appears courtesy  Heffner Management and wears Wai-Ching. Crew: Hair and makeup by Calvy Tran, Heather Nichols @ Zendipity, Miguel Vigil @ Foxycut Salon. Special thanks to calligrapher Eri Takase for her work on MU.