Breaking the Rules

'There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs'

  Ansel Adams

This image has been featured in juried art festivals and won awards, despite following no discernible compositional rules. Its impact comes from arresting and unexpected subject matter, the use of striking color and texture, and the sinuous, curvilinear geometry of the shapes.

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.

Artistic disobedience

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).


Click here to continue reading our Breaking the Rules article...

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 142
12
iAPX
By iAPX (Nov 11, 2012)

Bravo! Great article and great point-of-view on the composition rules!

0 upvotes
Alejandro del Pielago
By Alejandro del Pielago (Nov 11, 2012)

Very nice article and comments ! ! !

0 upvotes
wansai
By wansai (Nov 11, 2012)

Who is to say the eyes can't be a certain location. Picasso would certainly have words with anyone demanding such.

Are they a good starting point for beginners? Sure they are- if you're just learning & your viewer is equally as uninitiated. But these basics have poisoned the well even among experienced creatives. People become strict adherents to these limitations & work blindly by these artificial bounds.

I reframe in photoshop and more often than not, I find placing them in the 3rds rule makes them really flat & cookie cutter. I'll shift it around until it feels & looks right to me. I have a background in fine arts and design so dumping rules comes easy because my idea comes first. For others, it cripples their mind even if their skill is there. It's rules like these that make it diificult for creatives to understand something like Asymmetry.

Ultimately, It's your story, not someone elses' and not some artificial guide!

1 upvote
pdcm
By pdcm (Nov 12, 2012)

The 'rules' are not some artifical guide. If you think that then you don't understand them. Picasso knew the rules, and also knew how to break them; which is the purpose of the article. Some of the rules are based on mathematical formula while others have just evolved from observations by artists over centuries.

There are many out there that instinctively follow the rules, while others learn them subconsciously during their career. If you are trained, then you learn the rules formally; and probably follow them subconsciously as well.

Me, it's taken 30 years of looking at 1000s of pictures, taking 1000s of pictures and being critiqued to get to the stage where I instinctively apply them or break them at will.

What I learned is that there is another rule: don't follow the rules; make the rules. So, for all those who have commented negatively on this very good article then I suggest that you learn the rules...

2 upvotes
maccam
By maccam (Nov 24, 2012)

I think this photograph is absolutely arresting weather it follows or breaks rules. For one thing, it brought up a bunch of questions such as what the cloth is and is it all cloth, and how much is PP. This is a piece of art I could live with.

I try to follow the rule of thirds in PP. I showed my wife a shoot I did of a friends high school senior. She complained that he was not centered in some of the shots. I said that it was intentional, rule of thirds and all that. She did not agree. Oh well.

0 upvotes
JDThomas
By JDThomas (Nov 11, 2012)

“Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.” – Edward Weston

“The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial” – Ansel Adams

In my first book I mentioned these two quotes, right afterward I pointed out this: Find me an Ansel Adams or Edward Weston image that DOESN'T follow at least ONE rule of composition. You can't. The reason why these photographers art is considered great is simply because they followed these rules intuitively.

Edward Weston didn't need to consult the rules of composition, his brain and eye naturally saw that way. Not all photographers are lucky enough to have that talent. Most of us have to think about it and work at composing compelling images. More often than not when you THINK you're breaking a rule take a closer look and you'll probably see that you have followed one of the rules of composition perfectly.

3 upvotes
maboule123
By maboule123 (Nov 11, 2012)

Nice book. Nice try. Salt in the sea, my dear JD.
Books like yours, although written with the best intentions, no longer attract the untrained eye (Remember the great HP Books series?...gone) Nowadays it's all about filter effects and photo editors. I've seen pictures on catalogs or magazines, that insult the eye, makes you wish for a double drink of magnesia. Bob Carlos Clarke saw this wave coming. Some say this was the reason why he jumped in front of a train.
You can point the stars to someone, but he may NEVER see the light.
I love your images. I appreciate your effort.

Comment edited 13 minutes after posting
1 upvote
ManuelVilardeMacedo
By ManuelVilardeMacedo (Nov 11, 2012)

Have no illusions. Edward Weston and Ansel Adams knew what the composition rules were before they felt free to break them. One look at the former's pictorial photographs is enough to tell that. Picasso and Kandisnky's first works were very conventional and they only broke free of rules when they were accomplished painters. As someone else said before, you have to know the rules before you break them - otherwise transgression will be a lame excuse for ignorance of the basics of composition.

Comment edited 36 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
RomanJohnston
By RomanJohnston (Nov 11, 2012)

More than intuition...they LOVED what they were doing and shooting.

That is the key between good and great photographs. Rules mean nothing till you add in the human souls element.

Roman

3 upvotes
pdcm
By pdcm (Nov 12, 2012)

Adams was not a great photographer (gasp, groan) as anyone who has studied photography will tell you. His skill base and fame were due to the extraordinary quality of his prints and the methods he used to achieve this. I've been lucky to have seen an exhibition of his prints and they are outstanding; something you can not appreciate from books which do not do justice to the originals.

So, for me, Adams comments are not set in stone.

1 upvote
JDThomas
By JDThomas (Nov 12, 2012)

Adams was not a great photographer? Haha. If his skill set as a printer was the only thing he had going for him then his fame would be limited to photographers ONLY. Yet ask almost any layperson to name a famous photographer and Adams is usually the first name out of their mouth.

Why? Because he was a great photographer, his printing skills not withstanding. I've seen exhibitions of his prints as well, being lucky enough to go to the exhibit they had at the University of Texas more than two dozen times. It wasn't the quality of the prints that kept me coming back. It was the astounding artistry.

1 upvote
Abbas Rafey
By Abbas Rafey (Nov 11, 2012)

The main thing is that you should have an idea then compose your thoughts to the picture at the end the good thoughts will be turned to rules followed by all

0 upvotes
Steve FStop
By Steve FStop (Nov 11, 2012)

I get it; Disciplined Anarchy Rules!

1 upvote
edbowman
By edbowman (Nov 11, 2012)

The so called rules of composition should never have been invented, They are poison to the imagination. If you have to think about composition when taking a picture then you are truly f*****. The greatest work are produced by the unconscious mind before thought ruins the whole thing, pray for accidents and keep looking at the works of great artists and their genius will seep through into your mind and will work for you.Never trust pedants.

2 upvotes
olyflyer
By olyflyer (Nov 11, 2012)

That's just not true, border to nonsense. The greatest artists you are talking about are almost always pedants when it comes to their art. Be that music, painting, writing or photography. But... to those people, the great artists, the rules come natural and instinctively followed. Rules of composition is not an invention to limit great artists, it is more like documentation of how the human brain works, what is pleasant to look at and so on, so it is more like helping hand as opposed to limiting. If you feel limited by such rules fine, don't follow them, but like I said earlier, knowing them is not wrong at all. Unless you know them you don't really know if they are limiting or not and that you break them. Quite the opposite, the above is an excuse used by those who don't know anything better. Once you know all the rules you can break them as long as you know you are breaking them and why.

17 upvotes
inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Nov 11, 2012)

nooot true haha

it just tells everybody that you think youre talented and dont need those rules. but if you would investigate a bit why those rules exist and why we use them you would want to delete your post ;)

0 upvotes
AcerAntec
By AcerAntec (Nov 11, 2012)

Aah... not quite so bad, edbowman!
Yet... am I a pedant if I just manage to beef up my knowledge through trial and error around definite, discernable rules?
If I ain't no genius, nor dare I pretend to become some great artist, couldn't I use my elders' points of view with some profit--and joy? I personnally appreciate some headlight flashing at times.

0 upvotes
John Tannock
By John Tannock (Nov 11, 2012)

The analogy I've always given to those who want to 'create' or 'be different' in their photographic art is....
"if you want to write a piano concerto, it would be good to know how to play the piano first".

9 upvotes
migus
By migus (Nov 11, 2012)

Thanks, it's useful to know more about what we can break and howto :-).
I wish dpreview would also offer single page versions for print, in stead of the multi-page articles like most of the rest (maximize the no. clicks and adverts)

1 upvote
olyflyer
By olyflyer (Nov 11, 2012)

Good article, thank you. But... to break the rule you must know the rule you are breaking. I find that many photographers are saying that they are breaking the rules just using that as an excuse when they make mistakes and many, especially on amateur forums, don't even know about the rules they are breaking, so in those cases there are no broken rules, just lack of knowledge about good composition. First when you know which rules you are breaking you can say that you are breaking a rule. Making up rules of your own is not the same.

5 upvotes
Amadou Diallo
By Amadou Diallo (Nov 11, 2012)

'But... to break the rule you must know the rule you are breaking.'

That's precisely the the argument the article makes.

1 upvote
olyflyer
By olyflyer (Nov 12, 2012)

Yes but not everybody understands it that way. Just read some of the other comments.

1 upvote
rmbackus
By rmbackus (Nov 11, 2012)

' Photography is an art, so there are no rules. '

3 upvotes
olyflyer
By olyflyer (Nov 11, 2012)

Of course there are rules, there are rules of what's good composition. Just look at your own images here and you will (should) see that you are following many of the traditional rules of photography.

4 upvotes
bossa
By bossa (Nov 11, 2012)

For Artists there are no rules, only balances and relationships that are seen and intuited. Rules are what keep mediocre 'artists' from expanding and expressing themselves freely. Rules tend to breed connoisseurs more than 'Artists'. The idea that someone else has determined a set of boundaries for you to function within is absurd to anyone trying to expand their abilities and consciousness. Being an visual artist is not about reaffirming centuries old values of the picturesque or classical ideas of beauty but about being aware of your own situation and trying to find a visual means to externalize whatever you are interested in and in what ever way you deem necessary to get 'the point' across.

4 upvotes
inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Nov 11, 2012)

you cant break rules if you dont know them, its not meant as a law, its a rule like a rule of thumb.

2 upvotes
Wye Photography
By Wye Photography (Nov 11, 2012)

' Photography is an art, so there are no rules. '

Quite agree.

The 'rules' and what is called 'good composition' is just social convention and conditioning. Have a look at the art and design of other cultures, both ancient and contemporary.

0 upvotes
Diseewise
By Diseewise (Nov 11, 2012)

Sorry bossa - as a (successful) landscape artist myself I have to disagree with you there - for an artist there are all the rules - balances and relationships are part of the rules - and not understanding the rules keeps mediocre artists mediocre - it's knowing the rules then daring to break them is where masterpieces can happen.
And with respect, may I point out that like it or not, it's the eye that naturally rests easy on any form complying to the "rules" by design and intent or by natural fall.

2 upvotes
bossa
By bossa (Nov 11, 2012)

I am also a successful artist (painter) with a degree in Fine Art. Having spent 4 years in an Art College I can assure you that whilst there is a visual language it is not made up of rules.

0 upvotes
bossa
By bossa (Nov 12, 2012)

Replacing the word 'rules' with 'conventions' would be helpful in these discussions.

1 upvote
fireplace33
By fireplace33 (Nov 11, 2012)

Thanks for a great article!
Composition (with or without rules) is probably the most important aspect of any image.
It's also something that nicely unifies all Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus,.... users and stands above all the technical "discussions".

1 upvote
ottovds
By ottovds (Nov 11, 2012)

I always thought it was so stupid to only foliow the rules of 3s. Now with Magic lateen on my canon DSLR I came to make my own alternative grids witch also indicate the rule of 5 and 7. It bring s more complexity, yet I love it as they really work.

0 upvotes
xtoph
By xtoph (Nov 11, 2012)

I think the article is well written and helpful, though the title might be a bit provocative. That is, nothing could be more conventional than the gnomic admonishment to 'break the rules!' Just try googling that or something similar and see the hundreds of articles that come up; even nat geo has articles on its photo technique site walking you through the process of breaking the rules. Try to find an essay on what the rules are you're supposed to break, and it is actually harder.
But the actual article here doesnt get too lost in the romance of being a 'rebel', and gives some practical examples, so well done. Helpfully, it also seems to avoid the trap of demonizing the rules in the first place, which always seems rather silly, and to encourage some thoughtfulness about how to see your photos. That seems more productive than insisting there are no and never were any visual logics circulating out there to break in the first place.

5 upvotes
skimble
By skimble (Nov 11, 2012)

first you must like it and if other join in you know you got it right, if not you still can enjoy what maybe a weird shot but who cares as long as it makes you happy. Many famous painter painted a style others would not have paid a dime for it and now they are worth a fortune.
Creativity has no rules but rules can be used to find more creativity

0 upvotes
Jo_To
By Jo_To (Nov 11, 2012)

interesting, helpful, good examples, and well written, thanks for that.
(to the 8/5 discussers, your 8/8 grid isn't squared (because the picture isn't squared either) so it may miss the 1.6 rule)

Regards & nice weekend

1 upvote
Graystar
By Graystar (Nov 11, 2012)

Doesn't matter. It's 5 of 8 parts of the width across, and 5 of 8 parts of the height down...exactly. The frame isn't square, so why should the divisions be?

Let's recognize the rules used, but let's not add rules that don't exist.

0 upvotes
RoelHendrickx
By RoelHendrickx (Nov 11, 2012)

My conclusion: I do it all the time.

0 upvotes
KAMSA
By KAMSA (Nov 11, 2012)

I stil use the rule of the "golden cut", its an old rule but in some cases ,,its just that rule that make the picture"

reg.

3 upvotes
Graystar
By Graystar (Nov 11, 2012)

The rules are never broken. Whenever you think the rules are being broken, what it really means is that a rule is being applied that you're not aware of.

Divide that first image into 8 rows and 8 columns. Go 5 across and 5 down. You'll end up at the box where all the action is...the teeth into the arm. 8/5 = 1.6 It's a perfect Golden Mean placement.

The rule of thirds is actually a simplified version of Golden Mean placement.

18 upvotes
KAMSA
By KAMSA (Nov 11, 2012)

+I agree

reg.

0 upvotes
ottovds
By ottovds (Nov 11, 2012)

And than you have forgotten about the rule of all other devine numbers. I use 5ths and 7ths a lot, I even made them as cropmarks with magic latern hack on my canon DSLR

0 upvotes
Matthew Miller
By Matthew Miller (Nov 12, 2012)

This is magical thinking. You're taking a pre-conceived rule, making a somewhat arbitrary application of it, and then declaring that the result fits. But what's really so special about the left-top part of her fourth tooth from the left? The composition just has asymmetric balance— a fundamental rule which makes perfect sense — and the coincidence of alignment with some specific fraction is simply that: coincidence.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
Graystar
By Graystar (Nov 12, 2012)

Since Matthew Miller and others seem unable to operate Photoshop properly, I've done it for you. Here's an edit showing the grid and 8/5 location. See it here...
http://www.dpreview.com/galleries/1994984005/photos/2310876/thomas-park-still-life-14-sushi-with-grid-showing-8-5-location

1 upvote
Samuel Dilworth
By Samuel Dilworth (Nov 12, 2012)

We understand, Graystar. We just also understand that there’s nothing magic about your illuminated square. It shows three suckers and the gap between two teeth, as Matthew explained. So what?

Put another way, do you really imagine this photo wouldn’t have won the awards it won if the composition had been half an inch to the right? That the reason it won the awards was that everyone appreciated that two teeth and three suckers fell in a magic box?

The truth is this photo is primarily interesting for its subject matter, colour, and lighting. Its composition is actually a little unpleasant (or unsatisfying), but then so is eating a live octopus. It’s bold, dramatic, and visceral, not deeply aesthetically pleasing.

Photography is about more than simple composition, though a lifetime could be spent perfecting that aspect of it.

2 upvotes
Graystar
By Graystar (Nov 12, 2012)

"We just also understand that there’s nothing magic about your illuminated square."

If that's what you think then you understand nothing.

"Put another way, do you really imagine this photo wouldn’t have won the awards it won if the composition had been half an inch to the right?"

That's very possible, as it changes the image. The impact of the content is still there, but the additional impact of good composition would be gone, which might be enough to tip the scale toward some other compelling photo. Remember, the reason I'm pointing it out in the first place is because the photographer said that there were no discernable compositional rules, which is clearly incorrect. The face is centered on the 5th column, the arm also runs along and crosses the 5th row and the intersection is at a Golden Mean intersection...so there is a strong, discernable compositional element to the photograph. Maybe you should try cropping it differently to see if it has the same impact.

1 upvote
Matthew Miller
By Matthew Miller (Nov 12, 2012)

"Centered on the fifth column" is not the normal expression of the golden ratio.This is exactly an example of the magical thinking to which I am referring. You have a preconceived idea that you _really want_ to fit, and don't mind bending it until it does. And then it's trotted out as proof.

1 upvote
InTheMist
By InTheMist (Nov 11, 2012)

Great article! I use learned rules as en entry point to a scene and as training for the eye.
Two thumbs up!

3 upvotes
robonrome
By robonrome (Nov 11, 2012)

Excellent and inspiring piece, thank you very much. I need to read and absorb more such views and more importantly get out there and shoot instead of obsessing about gear. The quote about a fender not turning one into a Hendrix pretty much sums I up.

6 upvotes
smallcams
By smallcams (Nov 11, 2012)

Don't read anything. In fact, run for the hills. Photography sites like this, and studying other peoples photography, are sure to dumb down any creativity you might possess. Once you start caring about photography you're sure to start sucking eggs.

1 upvote
Ionian
By Ionian (Nov 11, 2012)

Lol...Keep telling yourself that.

0 upvotes
inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Nov 11, 2012)

@smallcams .. talking abou dumbing down he ? ;)

0 upvotes
IrishhAndy
By IrishhAndy (Nov 11, 2012)

If it looks right it is right.

6 upvotes
inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Nov 11, 2012)

yes and if you start comparing all the photos that "look right" to you, and start analysing WHY they look right, you will be pleasantly surprized. ;)

5 upvotes
Total comments: 142
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