Breaking the Rules
thomaspark | Photo Techniques | Published Nov 11, 2012
'There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs'
In a previous article, I discussed several so-called 'rules of composition'. Compositional rules, however, can be polarizing and divisive. Is this because as artists, we prize independence and don't like to, 'color in between the lines'? Or is it because we've all experienced disappointment when slavish application of the Golden Ratio still produces drab and lifeless images?
Certainly, great works of art have been produced throughout history that paid no heed to pre-determined compositional rules. You may ask then, if compelling art is not created by simply following rules, what's the point of learning the rules in the first place? That's a great question.
Now this is not going to be an article suggesting that all compositional rules are 'bad' or 'wrong'. Instead, what follows is a look at the rationale behind some established compositional rules. I'd argue that by understanding the intent behind a rule, we can subvert or break the rule to create drama or focus the viewer's attention in creative and novel ways. Let's begin with an example from another visual medium: drawing.
A story about eyes
Many years ago, my great-uncle - an accomplished painter and sculptor - was teaching me how to draw portraits. He suggested placing the eyes at the vertical midway point of the head. This 'rule' won't be surprising for anyone with a drawing background, but for many people, the idea that the eyes are halfway down the face is unintuitive - it seems too low!
I recently had a conversation with a friend who received the same advice from his father, despite the fact that he and I grew up in different countries. The fact that two artists from opposite sides of the planet were taught the same 'rule of eyes' points to one source of artistic rules: observations about the natural world.
|The rough sketch on the left has eyes placed slightly above the midpoint of the face. It has the feel of having been drawn by a child. The image on the right was drawn with similar proportions and style but has eyes drawn at the midpoint of the face; a much different look.|
In reality, are everybody's eyes exactly halfway down their face? No, but it's a good starting point that is visually pleasing and conforms to our expectations of illustrated portraits. In fact, a distinguishing feature of children's drawings of people is that the eyes are placed 'too high up' on the face.
This is a simple rule that helps us to draw a more realistic portrait. Just as importantly, however, understanding this rule allows us to make deliberate choices. We can draw a face with the eyes in the middle of the face for a natural look. We can instead place the eyes above the midway mark to give the drawing a more child-like quality. Or we can place the eyes below the midway mark to make the drawing look furtive or comical.
Making things concrete
Another reason I bring up this 'rule of eyes' as an example is because it offers a concrete, actionable guideline: place the eyes in the middle of the head. In photography we tend to be much more abstract in our instruction. Phrases like 'use your frame efficiently' or 'make asymmetrical compositions' may not mean much to a novice photographer.
Introducing a beginner to the rule of thirds though, for example, is an easy way to get them to start thinking about compositional space in a way that's immediately applicable, helping them to avoid mistakes and instead, focus on being creative.
Origins of rules
Where do artistic rules come from? Some are derived from observations and generalizations about the world around us. These observational rules may be common sense, such as shooting a level horizon, or non-intuitive, such as the rule of eyes I just discussed.
A second, more subtle category of what I'll call 'synthetic rules' come from the subjective values ascribed to qualities such as brightness, symmetry, balance and so forth. The rule of thirds fits in this category, where the use of thirds helps to create compositions with a pleasing balance between the main subjects. There's arguably nothing 'magical' about thirds, they just happen to be simple to visualize.
I mentioned earlier that a great benefit to having rules lies in gaining the ability to break them for a more creative result. It's important to realize that any compositional rule is nothing more than a guideline. The guideline exists to communicate an abstract concept in a practical, concrete manner. So, one way to break a rule is to modify its concept. A deliberate tweak to an existing rule can help lead to creative results that are based on the same concept. Let's look at an example, modifying the rule of thirds guideline.
One objective of the rule of thirds is to avoid creating perfectly centered compositions. To achieve a similar result without following the rule by rote, why not experiment with different divisions of the frame? Break the image into fifths instead. Start with a thirds grid and then rotate it by 20 degrees. Or, try to think in circular rather than linear divisions.
|The thirds grid is normally composed of horizontal and vertical lines. Imagine them as being rotated a few degrees in either direction instead. Doing so can help us to more easily envision compositions with subjects placed along a diagonal axis.|
Modifications to a rule can lead to different and very creative results, while still retaining the rule's benefits. I like to think of this as the visual equivalent of a jazz performance; you start with a given harmony, melody and rhythm (the concept) and then build an improvisation on top of it (the modification).
'Synthetic rules', or rules that have are derived from abstract concepts, offer opportunities for creative psychological manipulation as well. One such compositional rule suggests placing things like people, animals and vehicles (i.e. things that move and have a definite 'front') in the frame such that they have space in front of them. This is often referred to as 'leading space' or 'nose room', alluding to the idea that the subject should have space to move into in the direction that their nose is pointing. The underlying concept is that a subject placed close to the edge of the frame that they're facing can appear confined or restricted in the scene.
Once we are aware of the concept behind this rule, we can start exploiting it to purposefully alter the image's visual vocabulary. For a given image, do we want to frame a subject in a manner that makes it seem free and unfettered, or do we want to create tension for the viewer by placing our subject nearer to the edge of the frame?
It is possible to create energy in an image and focus the viewer's attention by purposefully violating the nose room rule. A composition that places the subject up against the edge of the frame without leading space can cause the subject to appear much more conspicuous. This can help to bring attention to secondary elements in a photograph, such as an out-of-focus subject in the background.
If a compositional rule is meant to create one effect, we can break that rule in order to deliberately provoke the opposite reaction. Similarly, we can flirt with the theory behind a rule to suggest the same result without being quite as explicit or clichéd. Let's look at an example.
Another common compositional rule involves 'leading lines' - linear elements that draw the eye towards a focal point or primary subject of an image. While this can be a very effective technique, it can also lead to overly-obvious or trite compositions.
One way to bend this rule would be to frame your subject in the middle of several strong linear elements, rather than having the lines in the image lead directly to the subject. This can serve to direct the viewer's attention in a subtle and more interesting fashion.
Earlier, I mentioned that some rules come from common sense or standard practice. Many of these concepts are so ingrained in our stylistic subconsciousness that we don't even consider them to be rules. For example, we shoot landscape scenes with a straight horizon because a slightly crooked horizon looks like a mistake; there's generally no good reason for the horizon to be off-level.
We can use the viewer's expectations of an image (the 'rule of norms', if we may so call it) to startle the viewer out of complacency. While this doesn't mean that we should create images that are simply sloppy, we can change the subject matter or treatment of an image to increase its visual impact.
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.
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.
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.