by Ken TanakaThe "rules" so often cited regarding composition derive entirely from painting and drawing instruction, not from photography. They are also far from stone tablet engravings, having been amended, rescinded, and invented largely in response to changing tastes (and aping others' unruly successes) many times in the past several hundred years. That is, they are not "rules" at all, merely suggestions for the un-anchored artist, points of departure. During the course of my studies as a youngster I spend countless hours in art classes, mainly drawing and painting. I cannot remember ever having these guidelines presented as rules.
While knowledge of compositional formulae can be helpful there's nothing more powerful in photography than a talented keen eye unencumbered by obedience of rules. I submit, as an example, the work the late Harry Callahan. He had no formal photographic (or art) training yet he managed to record some of the 20th century's most significant photographic works and to become one of the worlds most celebrated photographers. Better still, he proceeded to teach photography at the venerable Institute of Design as well as at the Rhode Island School of Design for decades. He was a man of relatively few words but I've seen/heard a few interviews with him in which he repeatedly states, "I don't know what a good photograph is or what makes a good photograph." and, "I don't think you can teach people to be creative. It has to come from within." (Paraphrasing.)
Every time I hear or read that "learn the rules before you break them" mantra I want to scream. It's such an empty, reflexive remark. Learn to use your camera and its medium. Look critically at as much photography as possible to determine what clicks with you and your eye. Learn to visually reverse-engineer lighting and to dissect the elements of images you like. But don't, don't, do not start confining your creative ambitions with "RULES." They do not exist. Take the pictures that you like to take and let your own frustration be your guide to developing your own set of best practices. You may, indeed, find that, say, the "rule of thirds" works for your own eyes, or not!
Posted by: KEN TANAKA
Follow-Up by Ken: Tom Dills said:"I've had a number of images reviewed by well-known and knowledgeable photographers whose only comment was something like 'I really like the image but the horizon is too close to the center' or 'the subject needs to be on a third' or 'I prefer to run my subject diagonally from corner to corner.' "
Ya see, that's the nasty, insidious aspect of compositional rule acceptance; it leads to brain-lock. Rather like the station i.d. "bugs" that can eventually burn themselves into the corners of plasma televisions, rule-of-thirds templates eventually burn themselves into peoples' minds. Any image that doesn't align to these templates becomes unsettling to the "trained" viewer.
Nevertheless, it's unquestionable that attention to some compositional guidelines, even inadvertently, can sometimes produce more interesting images. To me, most of the compositional formulae really come down to motivation and reward. For example, the motivation for placing a bush on a vertical 1/3 line with a vast expanse of desert and sky in the background might be to convey an edge-of-nowhere feeling. Placing the same bush in the same frame location with a forest in the background might offer no such visual reward to the viewer. For me, the motivation for leaning on compositional formulas must be to (a) lead the viewer's eye in the first second or two and (b) to create a stronger lasting impression of the image.
One of the most powerful compositional guides I've ever learned came from (I believe) the late painter Josef Albers, although he may very well have been repeating what he learned from someone else. Put simply, he said, "Shape trumps color." That is, faced with any composition the viewer will first look for strong patterns of shape before they take much note to tonality or color. The (healthy) human brain cannot help itself from such a reflex. We look for shape patterns constantly. We find "man on the moon," religious iconography in rust stains, etc. Flash an image showing the silhouette of an open hand in front of a row of houses to viewers for 2 seconds and ask them what they saw. I guarantee that six out of ten will say, "a hand." We're hard-wired to identify patterns first.
So the most powerful and constructive "rule"—actually a psycho-recognizance principle—I've learned and keep in mind is that shape trumps color. To me, drawing, painting, and photography are all personal experiments rooted in this foundation. Where you put all this stuff in a frame is really a matter of motivation and rewarding the viewer for being manipulated.
I'm actually a pretty simple fellow.
As a postscript, If you think still photography's "rules" seem staid and overbearing you should take a look at some of the rules for filmmaking.
Mike Sheepishly Adds: I have to admit I have a prejudice against the "rule of thirds." Pictures which follow it too closely have an extra hurdle to cross to please me. Sigh.