The Relationship of Composition Rules to Good Composition
We all try to take the best images we can. As such, it can be worthwhile taking time out to examine the relationship between the rules of good composition and act of creating of good images.
The word "composition" has a number of related meanings that tend to revolve around what something is made of, as well as the act putting those constituent parts together to form the whole. Both are relevant to a discussion of photographic composition, but one is a passive description of the result, while the other describes an active process.
Most books that purport to teach photographic composition strive to convey the subject in terms of what good composition looks like. The "rule of thirds" is a perfect example. The rule states that an image is well composed when its major elements fall on the horizontal and vertical thirds lines that together work to chop the frame up into a tic-tac-toe grid. An image is even better composed when an object sits at the "power point" intersection of two such lines. Plenty of other such rules exist too that can serve as ways of judging whether an image is well composed or not.
But this is a very passive way of talking about composition. It talks about what good composition looks like, not really how to do it.
New photographers typically have a difficult time learning good composition. The rule books describe the results, but rarely the process, of composition, leaving beginners frustrated. How do you take a good, well composed, picture? How do you put various constituent parts together to form the whole that looks good? It's one thing to recognize the results as good, but how does one actively achieve good composition?
In a sense, all those rules can become an impediment to achieving good composition. To the extent that one is paying attention to those rules, they aren't really paying attention to the subject matter in front of them. At best, their attention is split with only part of it focused on the task at hand with the rest preoccupied by checking off rules from a mental or perhaps written list. All those rules can become a barrier that separates you from your work when what you need is to be as intimate with it as possible.
In their heart, everyone interested in visual imagery already knows what good composition is. They recognize it when they see it. They either like what they see or they don't. Liking something exists in the moment. It is an active process not a passive one. No rules are needed to like something.
One of the things that I've found over the years is that when I compose a photograph such that I like it, I later discover that it likely conforms to some rule of good composition without my having consciously attempted to follow that rule. At first I thought this surprising and somewhat fascinating. But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. All those rules were codified as a way to qualify and in some cases even quantify what their inventors found appealing. They found that certain things looked good, so they wrote down a rule to describe what they had found out.
In other words, when all these rules first came about, it was the image that came first, then the rule as a way to describe a common trait that they found likeable. But now that the rule exists, it can be all too easy for all of us to put the rule first and the image second, hoping that by following the rule, a good image will result. Rather than the original order of good image then rule, the process had become rule hoping for good image. We've gotten it backward.
I'm not saying I'm against rules or anything. Heck, I've written extensively about the rules of composition here at Earthbound Light. But it can be easy for aspiring photographers to get lost in those rules and no longer pay full attention to what they're photographing.
How do you approach your own efforts at composition? The rules are all good, but don't let them come between you and your subject. Good photography isn't just an exercise in following the rules. It's a way of expressing yourself in a way that conveys something to the viewer.
The most important rule of all is that your images should convey your feelings about that subject. Photograph what you like and you may just find that the rules follow themselves. Read everything you can about good composition, but leave it behind when you pick up your camera and let your feelings guide you.
The rules of composition are tools, not an end in themselves.