Rules. Love them or hate them they are there. Some of them for good reason. Others not so good. The rules of composition aren’t like regular rules though. You see the rules of composition are more like guidelines. Yes, they are called ‘rules’ but they’re like a pirate’s code. Great if you can stick to them. Also great if you don’t stick to them. Read on.
Rules Of Composition
I'm about to tell you how to break the rules of composition. But if you absolutely can't handle the rebellion then check out this photo fiction article. It's got a great example of how following several rules of composition can make for a dynamic and compelling picture.
1. Avoid Placing The Main Subject Centrally
It’s true that having your main subject in the center of the frame can be boring. The reason is that it doesn’t make use of negative space and lead the viewer’s eye through the picture. If I told you a joke but started with the punch line it wouldn’t be very funny, would it? The same thing happens visually when you place the subject bang smack in the middle of the picture. There’s nothing building you up to the main event. But I’m sure you’ve seen great photos where the subject is dead center. In fact, some of my favorite photos have the model in this very position. Here’s how it works.
There’s beauty and strength in symmetry. When something is placed centrally there’s no mistaking what is most important. When I got married I had my wife’s engagement and wedding rings designed by a jeweler. I wanted something unique and special. The two rings were designed to interlock to appear as a single ring. Individually they were beautiful but together they were exquisite. Elegant, unified and strong – symbolic of our relationship. And guess where I set the biggest rock? That’s right, in the middle. But there’s a trick to it.
When breaking this rule it needs to be done very intentionally. There should be no hesitation or doubt that the main subject is indeed in the center of the frame. If you’re a little off then it just looks like a mistake.
2. Place Important Elements On The Intersecting Lines Of The Rule Of Thirds
This is a tough one. After all, the ‘rule of thirds’ has the word rule in it. It’s also one of the most well established rules of composition. Even my non-photographer friends have heard of it. It you aren’t familiar with the rule of thirds let me enlighten you.
Simply put, you draw a tic-tac-toe grid over the frame so that it is divided into nine equal rectangles. The four points where lines cross over are natural focal points. So things that have most importance in your photo should be placed at these points. For example, if you’re taking a picture of someone then the rule of thirds suggests placing their eyes or face at the intersection. If only it were that simple. But it isn’t. Let me tell you why.
Sometimes when following this rule you can inadvertently crop a person’s body at an awkward position. I’ve made this mistake plenty of times. I was being a good boy scout and following the rules to the tee. However, by placing people’s faces at the point of intersection I ended up cropping them at the knees or ankles. Seeing someone with no feet is jarring to the human mind. The lesson is – don’t be a good boy scout!
3. Place The Horizon On A Horizontal Line Of The Rule Of Thirds
There’s just no getting away from the rule of thirds. This rule of composition does have some weight to it. After all, the horizon is a very powerful graphical element. In fact, us humans use it instinctively to tell us which way is up. You definitely want to avoid placing the horizon across the center of the frame. A dividing line through the middle of the picture creates confusion. Am I supposed to be looking above the horizon or below? So this rule suggests that you place it along one of the horizontal lines from the rule of thirds. Right, problem solved then. Hang on, we may have just created another problem.
If you were being a good boy scout and followed rule #2 then your model’s eyes are also in line with one of the horizontal rule of third lines. And there’s the problem. Because the horizon is so strong it can distract from the main subject – the person. It’s subtle, but it’s there. And distractions are definitely something you want to avoid.
4. Shoot At The Subject's Eye Level
Boring! That’s one word that comes to mind when everything is shot at the photographer’s eye level. We already see the world at our own eye level. So seeing pictures like this is normal…and boring. The rules of composition say we should take photos at the subject’s eye level. This certainly makes for a much more engaging portrait. It brings the viewer into the subject’s world. But the world is filled with endless points of view. I’ll demonstrate.
My daughter has me wrapped around her little finger. And she knows it. The truth is - I love it. She can also be a little dramatic. Once she had little red dots on her knees. The more I ignored it the more pain it seemed to cause. And she lets me know about it. Her sad face looked like it came right out of a text book – turned down eyes, pouty cheeks and trembling lip. Being a photographer I was thinking about capturing the moment then tending to the red dots that I couldn’t even see. But how do I capture all the emotion and drama that my little girl was displaying? Here’s how.
By taking the photo from above and looking down at her I was able to emphasize her fragility and vulnerability. If I had followed the rules of composition and shot at my daughter’s eye level this picture wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic.
By the way, I did end up tending to the red dots on her knees. Everything can be fixed with a band-aid and a kiss.
5. Only Have One Point Of Interest
Clarity. It’s something all good portraits provide. By only having one main subject to focus on the viewer isn’t confused about what they should be looking at. But what if you could compose a better photo by having two points of interest? Sounds contradictory. Well it is. And here’s why you should do it anyway.
There’s often a story attached to the person in a photo. When I was on holiday in Darwin we went to the Territory Wildlife Park. Darwin still has a very ‘outback’ vibe to it. One of the keeper talks they put on is about birds of prey native to the region. There’s a special bond between keepers and their birds that is immediately obvious. To be able to capture this relationship I wanted to have both the keeper and the bird as prominent focal points. I’d just broken rule #5. But the portrait was so much better for it.
6. Give A Person Space To Move
I’m a tall guy. And I like to stretch my legs. The same concept applies to people in your photos. They need space to move into. A picture can feel cut off if the next step a person takes sends them out of the frame. When the subject’s attention moves out of the scene so too does the viewers. And sometimes that’s OK. Let me explain.
In this photo the little girl is already moving out to the edge of the frame. The reason it works is because of context. By showing her in the lead I’m telling a story of a race between her and her sister who is way off in the background. Had I composed the shot and given her space to move into the story would have been lost.
Rebel With A Cause – To Break The Rules Of Composition
I love breaking rules. It explains why I was the bane of my teachers’ existence. But, as we’ve discussed, these rules of composition aren’t rules as such. More like guidelines. I’d encourage you to take a chance and break the rules of composition every now and then.
Using composition creatively with camera settings makes for some very powerful pictures. Find out how you can use depth of focus to take eye popping portraits.
I’ll leave you with one last thought:
Which rules of composition are your favorites to break? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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Viva la revolución,
Dad, husband, photographer & all-round nice guy