Can You Break the Rules of Composition in Photography?

Most of you will have heard of the rules of composition for photography. Rules like keeping your horizons straight and following the rule of thirds. A common question I get is “What happens if my subject doesn’t reach a third point?”. The short answer is: Nothing! You must know when and how to break the rules in order to be creative. This article will give you some ideas on how to create creative images while ignoring the rules.

Myth No. Myth No. 1: Always place your subject along a third point line in your frame.

This rule is based on a theory that an image will look more balanced if your subject is located at one of the intersecting points lines. If you are looking to add tension to your image, place your subject close to the edge of the frame. Your subject will not be in a common location and it will make your viewer pause and take another look.

My horizon is very low in this photograph. I also placed my subjects in the lower right corner of the photograph. They also exited the frame. It is best to allow your subject some breathing space. The image will be even more tension if they are seen moving out of the frame.

We Are Small

In this shot, my horizon was placed near the top of frame. It was more important to emphasize the patterns of the sand than the sky by placing it there. The viewer is forced to wonder “wait, what’s this?” because the horizon line is so high.

Veins in the Sand

Social media has made it possible to view images at lightning speed. It’s a win if you can slow down your viewers while they scroll through their feed.

Myth No. 2: Never amputate the limbs of your subject!

If you’re creating an image with people you shouldn’t cut their wrists or knees. This is usually a good idea. There are times when your subjects can survive a severe slice and not succumb to hemorhaging all over your photograph. The viewer is forced to think about what is missing when a body part is removed. They must complete the story in their imaginations.

Red Fingernails

These are the three images in which I am removing the subject’s limbs. I even killed one person in one shot! All of these people survived my artistic decision to amputate. This creative decision has given me a sense of mystery that I think added to the images.

Myth No. Myth No. 3: Make sure your Horizon is Level

One of my pet peeves, I have to admit, is images in which the ocean is draining from the sides of the photo. Photographs with the horizon slightly off the right side of the photo don’t look right because our brains know the world is flat. Another way to add tension to an image is to intentionally tilt the world out of line. It gives photos a sense excitement, surprise, and whimsy.

Puppy Kiss

If you’re going to create an image that has an unleveled horizontal, make sure you do so with passion. Your viewer should know that you made the choice and it was not an accident.

Myth No. Myth No. 4: Fill the Frame With Your Subject

Your subject doesn’t have to be in the entire frame. You can create striking images by using large areas of negative space. This approach highlights the importance of your subject, and creates an illusion of scale.

Stormy Water Towers

Myth No. Myth No. 5: Simplify

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a lot of things going on in your frame. Many storytelling images have multiple focal points. These are two examples. Your eye will wander through the frames because there is no primary subject. The viewer will find many vignettes within each image. These vignettes tell the story of the scene.

Evening at the Park

These types of images are often a result of good planning and luck. When creating a complex scene, ensure that the background doesn’t distract from the main story elements. Be ready to respond quickly as the story unfolds.

Myth No. 6: Correctly Expose Your Photograph

Although this myth is not strictly within the realm of composition, it is something I believe important to mention when discussing creativity. Experts often say, “Don’t clip your whites or blacks!” With today’s sophisticated sensor technology, cameras can capture a wider dynamic range. Don’t be afraid to capture dark shadows or blown-out highlights. To deepen my shadows, I like to pull down my blacks. This creates tension and mystery. My goal is to make my viewers wonder “What lurks in the darkness?”

Red Coat and Purple Hair

These are three images in which large parts of the frame were black. These images are created by looking for areas where light and shadow interact. You can underexpose your photo so that the shadows are blocked and the highlights are exposed.

This image was taken using a high-contrast black and white camera. These extremes were further emphasized in post-production. This photo has powerful graphic elements.

Myth No. Myth No. 7: Be Sharp with Your Subject

Henri CartierBresson’s statement, “sharpness a bourgeois idea,” discredits sharpness as an essential characteristic of a good photo. I couldn’t agree with you more. While pixel peepers might disagree, creating beautiful images does not depend on sharpness. Images that have a slight softness can feel airy and ethereal. You can get a feeling of movement and flow from it. Do not get too focused on creating sharp images.

Leap

Conclusion

Photographing often is the best way to improve your skills as a photographer. Don’t let the rules of composition get in your way. Use them as guidelines. Allow yourself to experiment with your photography and not be bound by any “rules”. You will be able to see more creatively if you do this. Last but not least, remember the most important rule of photography. Have fun!

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