'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...