Why you should break the rules of composition in photography from time-to-time

First published:
October 26, 2020
February 8, 2024

Why you should break the rules of composition in photography from time-to-time

First published:
October 26, 2020
February 8, 2024

Cover image by Jonathan Reid

As you continue to develop your photographic style, there will always be times when diverting from the traditional rules of composition will produce better images

Photographers are always on a mission to improve their work.

Part of this process means exposing your work to others and asking for feedback. This can take many formats; photography clubs, internet forums, photography apps and so on, but regardless of the format, your work will usually be critiqued based on how it stands up against the 'rules of photography'.

This feedback loop can lead to images that are safe and predictable. Whilst this is a useful attribute to have for consistently meeting a client’s expectations, as an artist and someone developing a unique style, there will be times when breaking the rules will make for better photography.

What are the rules of photography composition?

Before making it your mission to break all the rules, it is useful to understand where they came from and where they can be useful.

Most, if not all, of the rules guiding our photography today originated from painting. Painting is a slow process and supplies are expensive. And in order to maximise the chances of success of a painting, artists found patterns that would appeal to the majority of people observing the painting. These patterns became guidelines or rules. And these rules are based on what the majority of people will find appealing.

An example of this is the golden ratio. From the golden ratio, we get the rule of thirds. It was observed that people whose faces conformed to the golden ratio were perceived as attractive. This was tested and proven by observing how babies responded to women with “golden ratio” faces vs non-golden ratio faces. It is safe to assume that in most cases, an image that conforms to the golden ratio will be more visually appealing to the majority of people than one that does not.

Photography originated with similar constraints to painting. There was a small amount of opportunity for exposures in the form of film, it was expensive and also time-consuming. Due to these constraints, photographers needed to maximise the changes of success of every exposure. The rules from painting transferred seamlessly over to the rules of photography and due to the limitations of film, we got a bunch of new rules dealing with exposure. 

In 2020, we are no longer constrained by time or expense. It costs virtually nothing to make an exposure and feedback is instantaneous. You would think this would free us from the rules that have shackled photographers for so long. However, the rules are still useful and still help photographers make more appealing images.

But there are times to break the rules...

When to Break the Rules

There are many examples listed on when the rules can be successfully broken. One example is that when photographing a church, it is ok to centre the composition. To me, this just sounds like another rule - Addendum 2.4 to the Rule of Thirds.

A centred composition of a church in Helsinki, Finland.
A centred composition of a church has become just another rule...

Instead of listing a bunch of examples where it is permissible to break the rules, I like to suggest a different approach to composition and exposure - one that is based on free exposures and instant feedback.

I developed this approach as a travel photographer where I was expected to deliver 15-30 different views of the same subject. If I stuck to the rules, I would only manage around 5 unique views.

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1 Start with the 'Rule of Thirds' and then step back...

When starting your shoots, alway begin with the compositional rules like the rule of thirds to guide your initial compositions. Then walk around and try different angles, heights and perspectives, and don't worry if the images don't conform any sort rules (you've got those in the bag)... that's the whole point!

Using the instant feedback from the LCD display of the camera, take note of what is working and what could be improved. The only limit you have is the time allocated to the subject.

For example, if I was photographing a cathedral, I might allocate two hours - plenty of time for a few exterior and interior images. I would then continue to work on and refine my compositions until I had used up the time.

A screenshot of a folder of images from a church, as seen in Lightroom.
The above is a folder of images from a church I had been asked to photograph

Note: I walked in and got the expected image straight away. I then tried variations of that same composition and then started picking out details. I then started looking for opportunities to mix in details and architecture. In total, I ended up with over 60 unique views in this church.

2 Don't be afraid to experiment - even if it means a cull in editing later

Spending time on a subject opens up all sorts of opportunities for experimentation, for example, I would underexpose to see what a silhouette would look like, or over expose for that bright, airy feel. I would try unexpected lenses, often finding that the cathedral would look better from 500 meters away with a 200mm lens than up close with a wide-angle lens.

This approach creates a lot of redundancy and requires plenty of culling later, but also leads to creativity and pleasant surprises. It is an approach I chose to use on every shoot as a travel photographer.

The Rynek in Krakow, Poland.
For some reason, travel photographers like to shoot at times to deliberately avoid crowds. Without the crowds, this image would be an architectural record. The crowds add life and atmosphere.

Once I became a full-time architectural photographer, I put my portfolio of work together after an 8-year career as a full time travel photographer. When I went through the images, I had plenty of safe, correct images to choose from. Those images never made the cut because they didn’t move me.

Here's an example:

Seascape composition with a castle in the background
My initial landscape compositions all look like this – a subject on the top third in the background and a rock, or something equally as uninteresting in the foreground.

Looking at this composition today, I wish I had worked something with the castle reflection and avoided the rock. 

The images that I connected with were the out of the ordinary viewpoints, situations and compositions. It is these images that I’m most proud of and what I chose to share with the world.

Most of these images would not exist if I was sticking to the 'rules'...

A lone tree in lifeless volcanic scenery
This image breaks all sorts of exposure and composition rules, but there was something compelling about surrounding this tree trying to cling on to life with the lifeless, volcanic scenery. 
The Kelpies, Scotland, on an overcast day, long exposure.
A constant travel photography rule that I would break was “only shoot on good weather days”. Certain subjects become more impressive under dramatic, dark skies. 
Seascape with rocks and a snow-capped mountan in the background
On the day of creating this image, there was so much haze in the scene that I could barely make out the mountain. Fortunately, I continued to shoot and created one of my favourite images of the snow-capped mountain appearing to float above the sea.

The best way to see when you should break the composition rules is to go out and break them yourself...

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