I have never taken a conventional approach to learning or teaching composition. Breaking the rules of photography composition can, in fact, lead to creative results, if done properly.
The rules of photography and photographic composition are not very strict. There are no penalties for doing it ‘wrong’.
Technical purists might tell you otherwise. I am more inclined to teach creative expression rather than technical perfection. Getting too technical often produces photographs with little depth of feeling.
You Need to Know the Rules to Break Them
This almost goes without saying. Learn the rules. Learn them so well you apply them without conscious thought.
Composition means ‘putting together’. The way you arrange what you see in your camera’s viewfinder determines whether you have a well organised composition. If the elements of your photo are not put together well, your photos will not be nice to look at.
As with many aspects of photography, it’s very subjective. What you like, someone else may find hideous.
Portraits are not normally made looking down at the subject. I wanted to photograph from a high angle. Positioning the model carefully so she looked good was my main priority.
I was not thinking about specific rules of composition when I made this photo. I was more intent on seeing her foot, (without it in view she looked like she was floating,) and having her arms positioned well. She was also quite self conscious about being photographed so I was concentrating on helping her relax too.
What Are the Most Common Composition Rules
The famous American photographer, Edward Weston, expressed his views on applying photography composition rules well. He said, “Now to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.”
Photography composition has a number of popular photography rules:
- The rule of thirds
- Frame within your frame
- Leading lines
- Strong diagonals
- Negative space
- Rule of odds
- Dynamic tension
- Symmetry/ balance photography
- The golden ratio
- Foreground element creating depth
These are a few examples. There are many more and variations on all of them.
Being casual about what you include in your photos will not produce the best pictures. If you are paying more attention to your exposure and getting your focus right your compositions will be lacking. You need to be deliberate in what you include and exclude in your frame.
Look carefully at everything you want to photograph. Choose the best rules of composition to apply when you are preparing to take your photo.
When you see a natural frame within your frame that will enhance your subject, chose your position and point of view well. If there are strong leading lines, work with them to draw attention to your subject. Don’t create a photo using the rule of thirds when it clearly won’t work.
How to Get Better at Photography Composition
Next time you are out with your camera try only composing using a strong element in the foreground of every photo to create depth. You might choose to photograph compositions where you can apply the rule of odds.
Sticking to one composition rule for your whole photo session will deepen your understanding of it in a practical way.
Make yourself a list of composition rules. You could use the one above. Then set yourself a goal to make ten photos employing each of the composition rules you have written down. Create separate folders in your computer to store the photos, one for each rule.
Comparing the different photos using the same rules will help you learn the rule and see how your photography is improving.
It’s like anything you need to learn, the more you practice, the better you become.
How to Break the Rules for Creative Results
You do not always need to apply composition rules rigidly. Stay flexible, and be ready to bend or break them if they’re not working for your photograph.
Turning my camera upwards at this temple, I was able to avoid seeing the crowds of tourists there. The shapes make a strong design and the bold gold and blue make the picture really pop.
Had I been more conventional in my approach, the image would have been very cluttered and not nearly as interesting.
You might line up a photo with the rule of thirds in mind but then can’t find balance with your subject right on a third line in your composition. In that case, experiment.
Move your camera so your subject is nearer an edge. Does it look better? Try with your subject closer to the centre. Does that improve your composition? Does it feel better? If so, do it.
If you are photographing a scene with great lines running across your frame or into it, try to use them well. Maybe they will work as strong diagonals. If not, don’t sweat it. Experiment. Explore other possibilities.
With this photo of the boat I was thinking about the rule of thirds. I also tried to use the strong lines to lead to the bamboo huts. But I could not make a composition I liked.
Nothing is really on a third. The lines are not really leading to anything relevant, (the huts are a minor element in the composition.) There are diagonals, but they are not very strong.
So I broke the rules. The photo I took in the end is better than if I had held fast to any of the rules and tried to make them work.
Change Your Point of View
Never settle for the first angle you thing of. Search for a better one. If you only ever take photos from the first perspective you think of you’ll be missing some of the best photos. Everyone takes a photo from that first position. Be different. Get more creative.
The first, most obvious angle might produce a good picture. Other people will inevitably do the same and take a similar photo. Push your imagination and discover a few more interesting points of view to take pictures from.
Go beyond your second choice. Find three or four angles to push your compositions to more creative photography.
With this photo of the three Hmong hill tribe girls I stood to one side. They were posing for photos and I made one while standing with other photographers. It’s a nice picture because they look great, but not such a compelling composition.
So I moved around to the side of the group and composed this photo.
How to Experiment With Different Angles
Standing and taking photos will produce images with a similar feel to them. Crouch down. Lie down. Climb on a chair or up a tree. Move to your left and right. Explore each angle. Don’t just stand and look. If you physically move around, your perspective of your subject will change and you will see it differently.
If your knees are bad or you can’t get up high enough, use the flip out monitor on your camera, if it has one. Popping out the monitor and using live view will allow you to hold your camera at a much lower or higher angle.
You can’t always manage seeing like this when looking through the viewfinder. Using a flip out monitor can open up amazing composition possibilities. You may not be able to achieve or may not have thought of them with your eye against the viewfinder.
Don’t be shy of tilting your camera. Make lamp posts lean. Have your horizon on a diagonal. But only if it works. Your motivation should be to make a better picture.
Don’t turn your camera at an angle just because you can’t create an interesting photo. But, when you do, make it pronounced otherwise it might look like it’s not deliberate.
In my photograph of the bicycle on the street I have tilted my camera significantly. With my camera horizontal or vertical I was not satisfied with the framing. There were too many distractions in the background.
By angling my camera the way I did I was able to avoid seeing the elements in the composition which did not enhance it.
Fill Your Frame
I think the best advice about creative photography composition I received as a young photographer was to ‘fill the frame’. Make sure that whatever is in your frame is relevant to the photograph you are making. If there are elements that do not add to the visual story you are telling, re-compose.
Be aware of whatever is within your field of view. Think about it carefully. Ask yourself “does it work or would my picture be better without something I can see?” If it’s not working change your lens, zoom, change your point of view. Do whatever it takes to alter your composition so your frame is filled.
Blossoms in the street, covered in dust and grime, caught my attention. The flowers on their own were beautiful, but I struggled to compose them well. I did not want to come in too close and could not find an angle where I could fill the frame just with flowers.
I used the reflection of light off a passing car to help fill the frame and balance the photo.
Fill your frame with nothing, if it’s relevant. Filling the frame does not mean you must cram it with busy-ness. Often empty space it not so empty, it just appears that way to your eye. If the empty space holds relevance to the photo you are making, then use it.
Empty space in a composition can lead the viewer’s eye. It can create a sense of an expanse and vastness, even though your photograph has four edges. A single person framed in a barren composition will have a sense of loneliness, for example.
Everywhere, all the time, look at what you are seeing and image how you would compose a photo of it. As I wrote earlier, learn the rules of composition so well you apply them without even having to think about them. And then purposefully break them for more creative photos.