Getting Lost in the Rules
Sometimes, it seems the ability to compose good images comes more easily to others — like they must have been born with it. But if you know what you like when you look at a picture, you've already conquered most of the battle.
Despite what most sources will tell you, good composition isn't about rules. Sure, some aspects are inviolable. An image so far underexposed as to be invisible probably isn't a good image. After all, photography is both an art and a science. But most of those "rules" aren't rules. They're just ways people have found helpful to get you in the right ballpark. If we put things in baseball terms, they're like how you hold your bat or how close you should stand to the plate. There are official limitations, but there's also room for personal discretion. Anyone that tells you to do it exactly the way they say is just suggesting potentially helpful advice. It's your choice what guidance you pay attention to and what you ignore.
Here's a story from a different venue. Jimi Hendrix is widely regarded as one of the best guitar players of all time. Even if his music isn't your thing, you have to agree that many people out there love his work. But did you know Jimi played the guitar all wrong, at least according to the rules? Hendrix was left-handed, so he restrung his standard right-handed guitar and played it upside down. What matters is that it worked for him. What mattered was how it sounded, and he made it sound great. Or at least I think he did.
Let's try another comparison. These days, most of us have a GPS in our car. I remember the old days when I used to go on a photography trip with a pile of printed maps on the passenger's seat. Yet sometimes, I'd still get lost and have to pull over to sort things out. There once was a day when you could pick up free maps from any gas station, and I grabbed as many as I could. Each one offered a slightly different perspective, with some details prominent on one map but missing entirely on another. They mostly covered the same roads, but there were differences. Even these days, the ultimate responsibility is still mine, and my GPS isn't always perfect. I notice this most in areas I know well. There are some routes that my GPS invariably doesn't understand as well as I do. I could follow what it says, but I know that I'll avoid several traffic lights or intersections that frequently get backed up if I take a different route. The GPS gets me there when I don't know, or at least gets me close.
The rules of composition aren't the ultimate authority either. They can get you close, but the results you achieve are ultimately up to you. The more familiar and comfortable you are with what you feel, the less you need to stick by the rules. Use the rules as an aid, but not a crutch or an excuse.
Too many aspiring photographers get bogged down in following the rules and discount what their senses tell them. The viewfinder isn't something that gets in your way; it's something that shows you versions of what is possible. If you see what you like, press the button and make a record of it. Become involved in what you see and whether you like it. If you want to double-check, review the results on the LCD camera back. Or tether your camera to a laptop for the big-screen view. Digital makes it possible to evaluate your work based on what you see rather than just what you expect or hope to see.
Like when you look at a good image. Maybe you mostly like it but feel it could be even better. At least you have some place to begin. Perhaps, here's where you consider the rules to see if you're close to a proven technique. With a slight change, you might improve things. But maybe you go on instinct and see how far you can get on your own. The choice is up to you.
Composition only seems wrong when you get lost in the rules. In the end, there's only one rule for making good images that matters, and that's how it feels to you. The more practice you have at this, the more in touch you will become with your work, and the less you need to rely on the "rules."