The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, immaterial.
Ansel Adams said: “The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, immaterial.”
And I’ll go one step further and say that in my opinion these rules are actually harmful because they get in the way of developing creativity and Vision.
For years I’ve rebelled against the rules of photography. Why? Because my experience has taught me that they encourage dependency and discourage independent seeing.
I’ve had people criticize my images because they didn’t follow some imaginary rule of composition and I thought: how sad that when they look at this beautiful image, all they can see are the rules. That’s called not being able to see the forest for the trees.
The rules of composition is an attempt to distill the creative process into a series of simple guidelines that if followed, will produce a good image. It reminds me of the old “paint by numbers” painting kit: simply put the proper color into each numbered area, stay within the lines and you’ll have a “real” painting! Yes, but it’s not a very good painting and it’s certainly not an original.
Do you remember IBM’s Deep Blue computer? It was programmed to play chess and it beat the world champion chess player, Garry Kasparov. Do you think that if we were to program the rules of photography into Deep Blue and take it to Yosemite, that it could beat Ansel Adams?
Of course not, because composition is about seeing and feeling, not about following rules. And the irony of these rules is that they are supposed to help you learn to be creative, when what they actually do is cause dependency.
I love travelling with a GPS because I can plug in an address and it gives me turn-by-turn directions. But I’ve noticed that there’s a negative side effect that comes from relying on my GPS: I’ve become so dependent upon it that I cannot find anything without it, even in cities that I frequently travel. The GPS has made me so myopic that I’ve never developed the big picture of the city.
That’s what I believe happens when you rely on the rules of composition: you become myopic and dependent. You don’t develop the big picture, you don’t see for yourself, you don’t trust your own feelings.
“So Cole, if I shouldn’t follow the rules, how do propose that I learn to compose an image?”
I like the Professor Harold Hill approach, do you remember him? He was the likeable charlatan from The Music Man who rode into River City, Iowa selling band instruments. He taught the boys in town how to play their instruments using the Think System, that’s where you “think the notes and just play the notes.” It sounds silly, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this approach!
When I approach a scene, I simply look and see and feel. I compose instinctively until the scene feels right, without a single thought about the “rules.” And if the composition doesn’t feel right, I change it. I move the camera, I zoom in, I try another angle…but in the end all I care about is that it “feels right.” Does that sound as silly as Professor Hill’s Think System?
And after I’ve created the image, I don’t ask others what they think and I don’t listen to the “experts” who will tell me how I should have done it. I trust my instincts and remember that I’m learning to express my vision and not theirs. Learning to trust your instincts is one of the first steps in the creative process.
What a simple and empowering concept: to see and feel for yourself rather than following the rules. Creative people already know this secret: that great art comes from within and is not found in a set of rules.
Start by believing in yourself and your own inherent creativity. Then forget about the rules. Next comes practice, practice, practice and evaluating each image by asking yourself: “what could I have done differently to make this image better?” And most importantly, rely on your own opinion and don’t ask others what they think of your images.
This approach is not an easy shortcut, it’s a long and hard process in which you’ll create thousands of failures. But with each failure you’ll get better and most importantly, you’ll be creating originals and not “paint by number” counterfeits!
P.S. Here’s a test question: I have friends who ask me “how will I know if I have a good image if I don’t ask other people’s opinion of it?” How would you answer this?