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Can You Break the Rules of Composition in Photography?

I’m sure that most of you have heard about the rules of composition in photography. You know, rules such as keep your horizons level and follow the rule of thirds. Well, a question I sometimes hear is, “What will happen if my subject isn’t at a third point?” The short answer is nothing! To be truly creative, you should know how and when to break the rules. In this short article, I want to give you a few ideas for producing creative images, while throwing the rule book out of the window.

Myth No. 1: Always Place your Subject Along a Third Point Line in Your Frame.

The theory behind this rule is based on the idea that your image will be more balanced by locating your subject at one of the intersecting third point lines in your composition. However, if you want to add tension to an image, try placing your subject near the edge of the frame. Because your subject is not in a typical location, it will force your viewer to pause and take a second look.

In this image, not only is my horizon very low, but I place my subjects in the bottom right corner of the photograph. In addition, I also caught them exiting the frame. Typically it is advisable to give your subject breathing room. Having them walking out of the frame added even more tension to the image.

We Are Small
X-T3 + XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR @ 50mm, ISO 160, 1/300, f/16.0

In this shot, I opted to place my horizon near the top of the frame. Putting it here emphasized the patterns in the sand, rather than the sky. Because the horizon line is so high, it forces the viewer to ask “wait, what am I looking at here?”

Veins in the Sand
NIKON D800 + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1/100, f/16.0

In today’s world of social media, viewing images at lightning speed is the norm. Any chance you get to slow your viewers down, while they are swiping through their feed, is a victory.

Myth No. 2: Never Amputate your Subject’s Limbs!

When you are composing an image with people, you should never cut them through a joint, such as their wrist, knee or neck. OK, most of the time this is a good idea. However, there are instances where your subjects will survive aggressive slices, and will not hemorrhage all over your photograph! When you cut off a body part, it forces the viewer to ponder what is missing. They have to complete the story in their imaginations.

Here are three images where I have cut off the subject’s limbs. In one shot I even beheaded a person! I can confirm that all these people survived my creative choice to amputate. By making this creative decision, I believe I have added a bit of mystery to the images that would not have been there had the entire subject been shown.

Red Fingernails
X-T2 + XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS @ 42.5mm, ISO 1600, 1/250, f/7.1
Levitation
X-T2 + XF23mmF2 R WR @ 23mm, ISO 200, 1/4700, f/2.0
Red
X-T2 + XF50mmF2 R WR @ 50mm, ISO 1250, 1/7500, f/2.8

Myth No. 3: Make Sure Your Horizon is Level

I must admit that one of my pet peeves is seeing images where the ocean is draining out of the side of the photo. Because our brains are wired to know that the world is flat, photographs where the horizon is slightly off don’t look quite right. However, intentionally tipping the world off-kilter can be another effective way of adding tension to an image. With a wildly skewed horizon, it gives photographs a sense of excitement, whimsy, and surprise.

Just make sure if you are going to create an image with an unleveled horizon, that you do it with gusto. You want to make it clear to your viewer that your choice was intentional and not accidental!

Puppy Kiss
X-T2 + XF10-24mmF4 R OIS @ 10mm, ISO 1600, 1/220, f/10.0
Flying A
X100F @ 23mm, ISO 200, 1/1700, f/7.1

Myth No. 4: Fill the Frame with your Subject

You don’t need to fill your entire frame with your subject. Using large areas of negative space creates striking images. This type of approach emphasizes the importance of your subject and creates a sense of scale.

Stormy Water Towers
X-T2 + XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR @ 32.1mm, ISO 200, 1/220, f/9.0
Sunset Tern
NIKON D7000 + 200-400mm f/4 @ 280mm, ISO 1600, 1/3000, f/8.0

Myth No. 5: Simplify

Having a lot going on in your frame isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Good storytelling images often have more than one focus. Consider these two images below. Because there is not a primary subject, your eye wanders through the frames. In doing so, the viewer finds several vignettes in each image. These vignettes combine to tell the story about the scene.

Hanging Around Coney Island
X-T2 + XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR @ 16.5mm, ISO 200, 1/450, f/5.6
Evening at the Park
X-T2 + XF56mmF1.2 R @ 56mm, ISO 200, 1/3200, f/4.0

Often the success of these types of images relies on a bit of luck, and good planning. With such a complicated scene, make sure that your background is uncluttered so that it doesn’t compete with the elements of the story. And, be ready to react quickly as your story unfolds.

Myth No. 6: Make Sure You Correctly Expose Your Photo.

This myth may fall slightly outside of the rules of “composition”; however, I feel it is an important point to bring up when we are talking about creativity. I often hear experts say “Make sure you don’t clip your blacks or whites.” With today’s advanced sensor technology, cameras are getting better and better at capturing a larger dynamic range. However, don’t be afraid of dark shadows and blown out highlights. I often pull down my blacks to deepen my shadows. This creates a feeling of mystery and tension. I like to leave my viewer asking “what is lurking in the darkness?”

Here are three images where large portions of the frame are black. To create images like these, look for areas where light and shadow play together. Underexpose your photograph, so the shadows become blocked up, leaving the highlights exposed correctly.

Red Coat and Purple Hair
X100F @ 23mm, ISO 200, 1/350, f/8.0
Daisy
X-T3 + XF50mmF2 R WR @ 50mm, ISO 160, 1/1250, f/2.8
Walk in the Wind
X100F @ 23mm, ISO 200, 1/550, f/8.0

In this image, I set my camera up to capture a high contrast black and white image. In post-production, I accentuated these extremes even more. The result is a photo with powerful graphic elements.

Chair Study No 1
X-T2 + XF50mmF2 R WR @ 50mm, ISO 200, 1/850, f/8.0

Myth No. 7: Make Sure Your Subject is Sharp

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s quote, “sharpness is a bourgeois concept,” dismisses sharpness as a critical characteristic of a good photograph. I couldn’t agree more! Pixel peepers may disagree, but crafting a beautiful image does not hinge on sharpness. A slight softness produces an airy, ethereal feeling to images. It can also provide a sense of movement and flow. Don’t get hung up on creating tack-sharp images.

Leap
NIKON D500 + 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 30mm, ISO 200, 1/25, f/4.5
Tango in Paris
X100F @ 23mm, ISO 5000, 1/15, f/5.6
On the Move
X-T2 + XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS @ 24.3mm, ISO 200, 1/5, f/8.0

Conclusion

The best way to grow as a photographer is to shoot often. And while doing so, don’t get bogged down by the “rules” of composition. Instead, use them as guidelines. Experiment with your photography, and allow yourself the freedom to break those “rules” sometimes. If you do this, you will inevitably learn to see more creatively. And one last thing, don’t forget the most important rule in photography. That is, to have fun!

News Reporter

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