Photography / Tips and Solutions

Reflections on Photographic Composition: Against the Rules

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“I hope we will never see the day when photo shops sell little schema grills to clamp onto our viewfinders; and that the Golden Rule will never be found etched on our ground glass.—Henri Cartier-Bresson

Above: Apneet Kaur, Rockaways; Photographs © Cory Rice

If the Internet provides any indication of how photography is imagined by its practitioners today, one could be forgiven for thinking a robot capable of churning out flawless pictures. Two characters share the brunt of the blame for the above conclusion: the gear fetishist and the composition guru. The former obsesses over technical specifications, often religiously buys one brand of camera or lens, and toils for hours brand-managing for free in the comment sections of photography websites, praising a lens so fast or ISO so high that you can shoot with the lights out—never minding who forgot to turn the lights on in the first place. The latter superimposes rigorous grids or scrawls elaborate arabesques across iconic photographs to illustrate the latest “school” of composition. With the various roles that the Internet has come to play as info source, soapbox, and echo chamber, this boisterous pair has become increasingly difficult to avoid. Neither personality is new—they are the byproducts of a medium that began as a scientific invention and spent the better part of a century vying for a seat in the fine art pantheon.

Williamsburg Bridge

Advances in technology brought photography into being and continue to shape our idea of what a photograph is and can be. However, most photographers whose top priority is actually making pictures tend to avoid the cacophony of technical banter and squabble online. The greatest risk that the gear fetishist poses is within. Lost in minutiae, it becomes easy to miss the forest for the trees and forget to go out and take photographs.

Composition gurus pose a greater threat to the photography community at large on account of the Messianic persona that they adopt. Their identities hinge upon a self-appointed expertise on how to compose the perfect photograph and they will not rest until taken seriously—by everyone. The problem is not with the application of any particular model of composition but the prioritization of one approach to the exclusion of others. Most experienced photographers consciously or unconsciously make use of a range of strategies when composing an image. Nevertheless, there likely exists at least one picture in every photographer’s archive to which even the most obscure third-party composition system can retroactively be applied.

Lower East Side

In order to understand whence the composition guru arrives, it helps to remember photography’s historical ties to design. After all, the camera obscura was a draughtsman’s tool before anyone thought to put light-sensitive paper inside of it. In 1435, the Italian architect and literal Renaissance man, Leon Battista Alberti, wrote Della Pittura (On Painting). His text formalized a system of perspective that came to shape the way Western artists represented their world for the next five centuries. In brief, Alberti’s program prioritized an “ideal” point of view that tricks viewers into perceiving depth in a flat canvas due to the careful modeling of space on the picture plane. A wedding of human perception and geometric principles, the system sought to create paintings that viewers could experience as though they were looking through windows.

Crown Heights

It was not until the second half of the Nineteenth Century that European painters began, en masse, rejecting the window metaphor, embracing the materiality of their craft, and exploring the possibilities opened up by abstraction. This move away from mimetic painting would eventually lead to Cezanne’s radical experiments with form, Matisse’s scandalous liberation of color, and Kandinsky’s spiritual harnessing of both form and color. That the invention of photography slightly preceded this turn of events is of no small importance. Edgar Allan Poe, about a year after the first appearance of the daguerreotype, famously proclaimed:

“If we examine a work of ordinary art, by means of a powerful microscope, all traces of resemblance to nature will disappear—but the closest scrutiny of the photogenic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented. The variations of shade, and the gradations of both linear and aerial perspective are those of truth itself in the supremeness of its perfection.”

Midtown

It would take until the early decades of the 20th Century for photographers to begin aggressively subverting the points of view that they had inherited from painting. Alexander Rodchenko’s jarring views of Russia, Man Ray’s uncanny renderings of bodies, and Germaine Krull’s abstractions of industrial production offer glimpses at the historical avant-garde’s mobilization of photography during this period. A second revolt directed squarely at the type of pictorial values proselytized by the composition guru occurred in the second half of the century, when artists working with photography turned either to conceptualism or amateurization to escape the vise-grip of formalism. By this point, “fine art”-minded photographers had transformed the once progressive aesthetics of the Pictorialists and Group f/64 photographers into tired clichés. Yet the composition guru trudged along, unfazed. For this reason, the phenomenon must be addressed ahistorically.

Camélia Raji in the Rockaways

Suppressing the past century and a half of art production, we return to Alberti and perspective-based painting. When discussing photographic composition, it is important to acknowledge the debt that the mechanics of photography owes to perspectival theory and prior graphic forms. It is equally important to look beyond this point. The composition guru rarely does. The intersection of photography and painting becomes a green light to adopt (usually outmoded) strategies from the history of painting to compose photographs. The mathematical basis of Western perspective and its invention of an “ideal” point of view reappear in the form of arcane theorems or natural phenomena hijacked to explain why this or that composition “works.” Whether discussing the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, or one of  the dime-a-dozen theories online, there inevitably comes a moment when the composition guru turns to quasi-mystical universals to justify the priority of the theory being promoted.

The more ridiculous the claim, the more likely it is to cite mathematical or scientific precedence to bolster credibility. A reckless iconoclast, the composition guru will cherry-pick examples from universally admired photographers to demonstrate the validity of the theory of the day, scribbling on photographs like a football announcer analyzing a touchdown pass. In the guru’s exhaustive “proofs,” readers learn that photographers as diverse as Walker Evans and Annie Leibovitz applied the same strategies of composition when creating their masterpieces. The dubious relationship between correlation and causation is never mentioned.

Documentation of Anahit Pogosian’s performance, A Living Image

The desire that a successful photograph can be made in the same manner as a microwave dinner is never far beneath the surface of these theories. If you draw enough lines on a picture, its content will correspond to at least one of those lines. But again, the problem is less with the theories and more with their unbending adherence. The Rule of Thirds can be applied to many outstanding photographs. It can also be applied to many terrible photographs. It comes as no surprise that the most outspoken cheerleaders of a single rule of composition are often the first to fudge that rule to make an unruly but “good” photograph adhere.

When Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work has suffered relentless abuse from composition gurus, expressed his anxiety over having grids attached to camera viewfinders, he was not discrediting the value of compositional awareness. Cartier-Bresson held strong beliefs on the subject: “Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move.” As important as Cartier-Bresson’s suggestion that the Golden Rule becomes a kind of internalized way of seeing, is the relationship between photography and the fourth dimension: time.

Ultimately, the burden of determining whether a photograph succeeds or fails falls upon its audience.

While painters build their compositions from a blank canvas, photographers, in all but the most controlled situations, must select from their environment what is registered by their camera and when. A photograph is simultaneously a conjunction and abstraction of space and time. This point is as important as it is obvious. It allows chance to enter the image. Of course, photographers possess the ability to moderate this variable to some extent by cropping an image. How a photographer chooses to crop, both spatially and temporally, will affect the audience’s reception of a photograph. Does an “ideal” image exist among a series of photographs? At what point does subjectivity take the reins? Leading lines, symmetry, framing, point of view, and the many other devices used for composing a photograph comprise a language to be navigated as a poet, not a stenographer.

Closing Quotes

“When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial clichés.” —Edward Weston

“[T]he artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius; he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of art history.” —Marcel Duchamp

“A picture is what it is and I’ve never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn’t make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them. People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken. It gets really ridiculous. I mean, they’re right there, whatever they are.” —William Eggleston

“There can be no objective rule of taste, no rule of taste that determines by concepts what is beautiful. For any judgment from this source is aesthetic, i.e., the basis determining it is the subject's feeling and not the concept of an object. If we search for a principle of taste that states the universal criterion of the beautiful by means of determinate concepts, then we engage in a fruitless endeavor, because we search for something that is impossible and intrinsically contradictory.” —Immanuel Kant

“Twenty ways to see the world… Twenty ways to start a fight.” —The Strokes

For more information on everything photography, check out B&H’s Learn Photography portal. You’ll find video tutorials, tips, inspirational articles, and gear reviews. B&H is “The Professional’s Source” for learning about photography.

Discussion 31

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First, I think the opening quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson was poor advice for any beginning Photography student.  Beginners should FIRST study the rules of composition in depth, to learn why they are rules...then vere off if he desires.  The risk of success will become emminent when you compete in serious competitions and try to sell your work to the masses. Your success or failure will tell you something about your work. If you have no concern about the popularity of your work, fine.  Then, we will have no articles like this one on  Rules of Composition....most examples in this article have little or  no interest or impact.  I think Rules were established by Artists that found success with them,and they are suggestions ONLY.  Henri did not become successful with crooked horizen lines or repelling subjects.

     I have but one Ironclad Rule for photography, one that long precedes photography itself:  "De gustibus non est disputandum."  Translated: "Tastes brook no argument."  If you are an amateur photographer, you need only please yourself (and the spouse, who otherwise won't let you hang your photos in the house);  what anyone else says does not matter so long as you enjoy looking at the image.  If you are a professional photographer, the client's tastes are the deciding factor rather than the photographer's, but the rule still applies.  All the rest of the compositional "rules" (Rule of Thirds, Golden Ratio, Rembrandt Lighting, etc, etc) arise from the empirical knowledge (discovered by many photographers shooting a lot of images over a very long time) that most people prefer images with certain attributes.  If your goal is to please as large a number of people as possible, rather than the personal satisfaction of viewing the image yourself, then they can come into play. Taking photos at a family reunion is an example; trying to please Great Aunt Minnie and young cousin Fred (not to mention yourself :-) at the same time will be...difficult, and falling back on "tried and true" methods will probably help.  The great exception to the Ironclad Rule is documentary work where accuracy of the reproduction is the paramount concern, and that objective criterion overrides any subjective criteria.

Love this article, it touches one of the most difficult aspect of the art of photography. Thanks a lot.

Remember renoir's garden...also a  photo has many faces

Excellent article, and beautiful photographs by Cory Rice. Especially like the visual analogy pair of the eye lash and Empire State building in the "Midtown" photos.

I am going to hang this next to my monitor so the next time I am editing a batch of photos I will be reminded not to simply put the point of interest where the grid intersects. I admit I get lazy sometimes and don’t think of each click as unique, thanks for the reminder and a very nice piece of writing.

Thank you for sharing this! I agree with much of what it says, especially the Eggleston quotes.

Very good article.  I especially like the image of the bridge.

Thanks!

The biggest problem I see with the "Rule" of Thirds is the use of the term "Rule". When this concept was first bounced around many, many years ago, it was not really presented as "this is the way is MUST be done", but rather ... "it has been observed, and then documented, that this applied concept is visually and aesthetically pleasing to most Human Beings". I believe any photographer that has done extensive experimentation might come to the same conclusion that I have over the years ... it is a tool that CAN be used to enhance images when possible and appropriate, but is definitely NOT a determining factor in whether or not an image is "good" or "bad" (or "artistic" or "not")!

 Personally, as I suspect many photographers do, I am always more or less sub-conciously aware of this "Rule" (in todays world, more so in the "cropping" stage than in the "shooting" stage) and will "semi-automatically" use it without really thinking that much about it. BUT ... occaisionally some of my favorite images just don't follow the rule and I really don't spend much time trying to make them "fit" the rule.

However ... I am afraid that this article would lead a lot of readers to dismiss the "Rule" altogether (not saying that this was the intent of the article, just that a lot of readers might "read between the lines"!)

Bottom line; I don't forsee a change in the future where I will intentionally NOT follow "the Rule" for artistic purposes ... BUT ... I will NEVER dismiss an image that doesn't comply!

Rules are for the obedience of fools, and the guidance of wisemen.

Thank you Corey for this artistically argued article.  If it has been said before, I have not read it.  It is about time someone said it.  Photography is about art, not math.  Kudos for such an articulately argued wake-up call.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."    Self Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wonderful article. It brings photography back to an intuitive visual art rather than an art from a "cookie recipe box". Perhaps clubs, photography groups  et al. will pay more attention to the manner the subject was captured, the feeling, the fun, the spirit of the photograph rather than the rule of thirds.

Well Done!

Slavish adherence to any principal has the potential to stifle expression. Composition guidelines as absolute can do this, but to dismiss them as the article seems to is problematic. 

There are great works that obvious flout traditional composition and horrid ones that adhere. But this is not a proper judgement on the value of composition. One would need to shoot the same scenes and vary the composition to arrive at any real conclusion. If indeed one can be reached. 

Guidelines are just that: guides. To dismiss them without any regard is as wrong as adhering to them without variation. Creativity can flower inside or outside the "rules".  

Art is a paradox: Creativity cannot be constrained by established rules. At the same time, if anything is art, then nothing is.

As myriad photographers struggle to be recognized in a field already packed with talented folks, there is initially a difficulty in presenting work that does not fit within the confines of some preconceived sense of following a set of rules to show the photographer is capable of creating the established notion of a “good” photograph. Once a photographer has garnered some sort of notoriety, then the rules go out the window and the more avant-garde the better (for their career). Yet in my classes I also refer to the ubiquitous “Rule of Thirds” as the “Option of Thirds” since at times it works and at other times is does not. The bottom line is if a photograph is really good, if it tells a story and grabs you're attention, as Cory Rice points out, who cares if it follows a rule. So well said!

Enjoyable. Engaging photos, B&W of course, emphasizing composition. Most bodacious. And most telling quotations to end on. I liked in particular the Kant. Thank you very much!

As it's been said many times - strip the colour (switch to monochrome) and composition becomes all too important. Imagine some of the images from this article in colour...And I agree, too much fluff in the article, not necessarily a bad thing but becomes more of an essay.

I agree with Anton. To much babbling blather, my eyes glazed over half way through the article.

The "rule" in post-modern photography is: there are no rules. The statement about the intuitive nature of successful photographers includes a blending of art forms only recently available as a result of new technologies. Composing an image through software manipulation has infinite outcomes depending on the creative inspiration of the photographer.

The onslaught of vertical, phone-camera images has almost rendered the horizontal photograph obsolete. So pervasive has this trend become, despite most phones' ability to take horizontal images by simply holding the phone horizontally (!!), I've had to update both my website and my blog so they contain mostly vertical images. However, when it comes time for me to sell a photo album to the newlyweds, they're always amazed at how good the horizontal images look. Why is that? I think it's because our own field of view is roughly equivalent to a horizontal image, shot on a 35mm camera with a 50mm lens, and, therefore, when a couple sees their wedding as a series of horizontal images, it jibes more with how they remembered the day in the first place.

there's way too much "fluff" in this article. it would be easier to digest if it were boiled down to one or two simple paragraphs with a couple of bullet points.

A breath of fresh air with some stimulating images. Intriguing because I've just put down a volume of Irving Penn's beautifullly composed images with the general sense of  having eaten a stylish chocolate because they didn't tell me anything in the way that Walker Evans pictures do. 

With the advent of phone cameras spontanirty seems to matter more than composition. It's subject, subject, subject matter... done subjectively of course. (<;

Compositional rules and techniques along with technical and mechanical considerations may be good to consider and discuss, but in my work none of those rule what images I produce. The scene that appears to my eye is what dominates. Even the most contrived image has its own story and that is what matters.

I remember a piece in an art show that was purported to be Art. IIt was titled "Dead Cat on a Book". It was, in fact, a real dead cat on a real book. It should never have been give spacein an Art show at all. It told no story and exhibited no beauty. Photographers could do better than that.

I also see these "rules" applied to things like furniture building. Some designers insist, for example, that a chest of drawers or a table rigidly applies one or the other of a mathematical expression. Furniture can be beautiful and practical with application of numbers.

So photography may be designed with a nod to technical ideas, but an image that is specifically demonstrating  a RULE seems to me to be boring rather than beautiful or inspiring. Leading lines, the Golden Ratio, the rule of thirds and all the others can be utilized if they improve the photo, but they shouldn't dominate our practice.

Technical specs are important for the new photographer until he/she can see past the camera settings to visualize the shot and react instinctively to capture the scene as they see it in their mind.  In a way, it's like learning to type.  When you first learn, you are hunting for the keys, and looking down at the keyboard.  But, the experienced typist, just thinks of what he wants to write, and it just appears on the screen.  They don't think of where the 'shift' key and the 'I' key are or even spelling of words.  Photography is much more complicated than the learning the layout of a keyboard.  It can take a new photographer months or even years to move past the technical side of photography into the artistic side. 

Great read! 

Awesome, well written article. Photos are fabulous too!

Great article. love the quotes and the photos are amazing, but I don't think that semicolon belongs in the last sentence.

Thanks for your comment, Angelina. You may be seeing dots, though--there is no semi-colon in the last sentence.  : )

~Howard Gotfryd, Copy Editor, B&H explora

Thanks for correcting that!

Awe yes, a smileycolon not a semicolon!

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