Composition Beyond Composition
So, you've read every book out there on composition. What now?
Many cameras today don't come with a printed manual anymore, at best including a PDF electronic version, or perhaps just a link where you can go online and download a copy yourself. It's pretty certain that learning to operate the controls fully on a new camera will force you to consult a copy at some point, wherever you get it. Or perhaps you prefer the work of one of the aftermarket authors who write about so many of the new models as they're released by the likes of Nikon and Canon, and increasingly other manufacturers as well. Modern cameras are sophisticated tools, and their controls are built to be operated in a particular way. You have to follow the directions.
At some point along the way, you'll get the hang of basic camera operations down well enough to begin to look more at taking better pictures rather than merely getting the shot at all. It's at this point that the reading matter for the aspiring photographer shifts to the subject of composition. It's natural to consider this an extension of what it took to get their photo skills to get to where they are. And there are plenty of books out there that will tell you they can teach you what they think you are lacking. And up to a point, some of them can indeed be quite helpful. But there are limits.
With camera operation, it's things like aperture versus shutter priority, options for focusing and flash compensation to learn. And then there's raw versus jpeg, uploading and editing to deal with. With composition, there there's the famous rule of thirds, contrasting colors, geometric shapes and leading lines to consider. The natural thing to do is to follow the advice and instructions helpfully offered by those in the know.
And yet at some point, it's you that has to press the shutter release. It's you that is responsible for composing that shot. Or it's you that is responsible for skipping things all together and letting things fall where they may. They're your pictures, after all. And as useful as they are, all those instructions and advice can only take you so far.
Lots of things are like this.
I was recently thinking about how I used to have a huge collection of printed road maps that were necessary for navigating around on my travels. Even limiting my point to here in the Pacific Northwest, there are plenty of roads that even now I don't know, at least not in any detail. I need some help. It's just that today, many of those maps have been supplanted by various implementations of GPS technology for that assistance. Technology has made it much easier to find my way around today than some years ago. And yet those maps of GPS screens can only go so far in getting me to my destination.
Road maps and GPS receivers get you in the right neighborhood. Perhaps you could get there eventually without them, but they make it easier by letting you rely on the expertise and instructions of others who know what you don't. But if your GPS says to turn, you're still going to make sure you don't run into a curb. If it says to go straight, you're not going to follow its advice if the reality in front of you includes road construction or an accident making a detour necessary. As a tool, a map or a GPS helps by getting you close, but that's as far as they can go. The responsibility for how things turn out remains with you.
Cooking dinner is like this. You follow the recipe, but ultimately, it's your responsibility as cook to ensure successful outcome. Playing a musical instrument is like this. The score can only convey so much, and the rest is up to you. Yes, lots of things are like this.
You follow the rules because they help, even if in the end, they're unavoidably self-limiting. Rules can only take you so far, and the answer isn't that we just need to add more rules to our toolkit to exceed those limits. Given applicable situations, more rules may indeed help, but they're ultimately no more definitive than earlier rules. The responsibility remains yours, and at some point, it can't be about rules. You have to jump off and go beyond the rules. Do your best. Do what seems to makes sense right there and then. It's up to you.
The rules of composition get you in the right neighborhood. Like that road map or GPS. But none of these can substitute for your own judgement in the moment. That's how these things work.
Could you get the same shot without all those rules? Perhaps, but it would almost certainly be a lot harder. Search for a shot long enough, and you'll end up in that neighborhood eventually I suppose. It just seems that starting with a rule-based composition likely to yield good results has got to be a more reliable and no doubt easier approach. Sure, you just might be able to find a really cool shot by throwing out all the rules completely and finding it eventually. But beginning from within the vicinity of a composition that experience has shown to have potential seems more promising.
Use all those composition rules for what they are: roadmaps and guidelines to get you in the right neighborhood. And once you're in the zone, go for it, and find your own way.