Breaking the rules of composition

There are some things known as rules of composition. These are guidelines aimed at beginners that often make photos more interesting. An example is the rule of thirds: that is, place the subject one third of the way into the frame rather than the middle. This could be subsumed into a more general rule about balancing different elements of a photograph. In fact, the reason why the rule of thirds actually makes sense is because often it creates a better contrast between subject and background, since there is more contiguous background not broken up by a subject.

Unlike many people, I won’t be so radical and say the rules of composition are trash. In fact, the rule of thirds often works. Moreover, I don’t think it makes photographs boring either. What makes a photography interesting is that last five percent; or the little details like specific colours, the position of objects, the poses of people, and even post-processing that really brings a shot to the next level. Gross-level aspects like whether or not some version of the rule of thirds can be found in a photograph hardly matters. After all, there are only three thirds in a given direction!

Sometimes a rule-of-thirds like photo works fine

However, I do believe it is important to have a continuously-evolving compositional style in photography. Therefore, at some point, composition should become less about rules and more about having an intellectual or and emotional connection with the scene. This does not mean rules vanish, either. In wildlife photography I might just start out with a rough rule-of-thirds when I am shooting and refine the composition later in post-processing.

In landscape photography, it is often recommended to place the horizon line on a third because places emphasis either on the sky or the ground (or water). Actually, I do like placing the horizon line off center, but I actually prefer more extreme versions like having the horizon on the bottom tenth, especially if the sky is very interesting. I find this works very well with tighter lenses like 50mm on my full-frame Nikon Z6.

Today, I want to talk about this photo:

Here, I put the horizon almost completely in the center in-camera, and I did not crop at all in post-processing the Raw file. I thought very briefly about changing the relative position of the horizon but I knew almost immediately that I liked it this way. Why? I enjoy the break of the clouds at the top. The texture there is very satisfying and shows the character of the much darker blue cloud. In short, there was so much going on in the sky that I had to keep everything.

I also love the foreground. The rock on the shore is at the end of the orange reflection and there is just a little bit of ground, which is the only visible solid earth with just a bit of texture. Maybe the slight imbalance of the horizon also does something, because in truth the horizon line isn’t exactly in the center.

I think this composition works, and I think it is a good reminder that you shouldn’t keep the rules of composition that you have learned as hard rules, but as a starting point that can evolve anywhere as you become more experienced in photography.

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