There Are No Principles of Composition

Posted on: January 29th, 2013 0

Group Think on Photographic Composition

I’ve been laboring under the illusion for some time now, that there are certain principles by which you can improve your photographs. These principles are commonly known as the Rules of Composition. They include the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Layering, etc. I have tried to create images that are influenced by these rules, and since I teach a few classes on photography, I too have tried to explain these principles and their use. Here is a list of some of the more well-known compositional principles:

  • The Rule of Thirds
  • Leading Lines
  • Foreground, Middle Ground, Background
  • Repetition
  • Rule of Three
  • Vanishing Point
  • Layering
  • Color Contrast
  • On and On…

If you go to art school, you will learn about composition, and you will learn about the principles of composition. The you too will become one of the millions of artists who talk about them, think about them, and maybe even adhere to them….at the expense of creativity! You become one of the herd.

Personally, I seldom consciously think about any sort of “rules” when I’m composing an image. So in a way I feel like a hypocrite for even mentioning them in my classes. Consequently, I’ve developed a theory about the whole business. It can be summed up as follows:

There Are No Rules of Composition

Why All the Books on Photographic Composition?

There are probably hundreds of photography books written about composition. This isn’t surprising, given that what you put in your frame is….well…..really important! The demand for such books is there, because who doesn’t want to improve their photography? Not me, and I’m almost certain not your either. So why am I bashing an entire way of thinking? Well, admittedly to get your attention, but also to get you to think about the issues.

Composition In A Nutshell

The so-called Rules of Composition are very helpful. I can attest to that. Once I began to shoot with them in mind, my shots got better….I won’t lie. And by-the-way, there are MANY more “rules” than the ones listed above. The thing is, as I already mentioned I really don’t consciously THINK about that stuff when I’m shooting… least not that often.

I’m no genius. That much is clear. I do work pretty hard at photography, because it is something I want to get better at. Therefor, upon discovering that composition is really the ultimate goal of any shooter, it only made sense to begin to examine it. So after all is said and done, my conclusion is as I stated at the top….there ARE no rules of composition. There is only composing, and if you do that in real-time, consistently, you will not be think about any rules….you’ll be thinking about capturing a scene at some angle, with some light source and angle that makes the scene look cool, at some focal length that also looks cool, and then you’ll take the shot. If you spent some time studying the so-called rules of composition, you just might discover that even though you were too busy being in the moment to worry about any “rules”, your compositions do appear to adhere to at least one, and probably several of them! In short, As you slowly forget about these “rules” intellectually, you begin to assimilate them intuitively.

I will leave you with 2 books that I recommend, because ….duh….I read them, and I did find them useful, if slightly tedious to read. You can click on the title to go to Amazon:

I like Barnbaum’s book because he makes a point of saying you should be shooting the kind of images that interest YOU! Notice that the word “art” is in the title. that implies self-expression. He has some good insight into finding the kind of photography you want to shoot. He also has great insight into composition.

So to, I like Freeman’s book because of HIS insight into the subject of composition.

Both books were useful to me, and there are of course many more that I’m sure are equally useful. However, and you know what I’m gonna say if you know me at all, you won’t get good at composing compelling images by reading a book. You will get good by going out and trying to create compelling images!

So go shoot! 🙂

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