Break The Rules For Creative Compositions

This Article Features Photo Zoom

There are some unbreakable rules of photography: always use the correct exposure, never allow blur to ruin your shots, and adhere to the rule of thirds to ensure you create crowd-pleasing compositions. Of course, the best part about all of these rules is breaking them—especially the aesthetic ones.

Rules, particularly as they relate to how to compose an interesting shot, are there to help beginners learn how to create generally pleasing images that appeal to a wide variety of eyes. Of course, if every image adhered to these rules they’d quickly become boring and it would cease to be a commonly accepted rule. The point is this: know the rules, and know how to break them for even better photographs.

The rule of thirds says that an image is divided into nine equal parts by horizontal and vertical lines—two of each set. Think of a tic-tac-toe board centered over an image. Where the lines intersect—one third of the way from each side, top and bottom—are the ideal placement for subjects in a scene. It’s always true. Except when it’s not…

Symmetry is very effective in photographs too—as much as the rule of thirds. This is particularly effective when the compositions are simple and minimal. The rule of thirds is a convention that helps make sense of a cluttered world around us, to see it in a more palatable way. If the scene is already clean and palatable, however, it’s bound to lend itself to the breaking of the rule of thirds.

Symmetry is also aesthetically pleasing, so don’t be afraid to center a subject in the proverbial bull’s-eye at the center of the frame. This is particularly effective with portraits or other simple subjects that have one precise focal point and are devoid of much other important information. Additional empty space around the subject makes a centered subject even more isolated, and the symmetrical composition even more interesting. For images that are truly equally balanced (whether horizontally or vertically) a centered image that breaks the rule of thirds can actually be more aesthetically pleasing than one that follows the rules.

Aside from centering a subject, consider centering a horizon line too. The reasons are much the same, and if done poorly can create a stale and stagnant image. But a beautiful landscape full of open sky and interesting earth is ripe for bisecting and breaking the rule of thirds. Without a center of interest, the cleanly bisected frame becomes its own graphically interesting image.

The rule of thirds also applies to the concept of leading room—the space in front of a moving object or in the direction a person is looking. This space provides “breathing room” for the viewer, and makes for a comfortable viewing experience. The rule applies for a conventionally acceptable photograph, but what if you want to create tension? A person almost completely out of frame with very little or no lead room creates a very tense feeling—as if they’re literally fleeing the scene or pushing the boundaries of the frame.

Even if you don’t break the rule of thirds successfully—say you prefer pictures that adhere to that rule much more than the ones that break it—that’s fine too. The point is that you’re actively seeing, and considering all of the compositional choices you have every time you put your camera to your eye. That awareness alone is bound to make you a better photographer.