Breaking the rules

The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.

Captain Barbarossa, Pirates of the Carribean.

The ‘rules of composition’ are many and varied and occasionally useful. OK, that’s probably a bit snarky, but I get a bit that way because of the number of times they get trotted out as the path to ‘perfect’ pictures.

Or you get the in-depth photo criticism that goes “Ah, well, you see, what you’ve done wrong there is to forget the rule of thirds. If you’d moved the subject a bit to the right, you’d have had a great picture.”


The rules of composition will help to get well-composed pictures – if, by ‘well-composed’, you mean ‘classically composed’. Yes, you should know what the ‘rules’ are. Yes, you should know why each exists and what it’s doing to the final image that you’re composing. But, if you slavishly adhere to the ‘rules of composition’, you will end up with lots of ‘nice’, ‘safe’ pictures. If that’s what you want, then go for it. Nothing wrong with enjoying a nice landscape or sunset picture, and if that floats your boat, then all power to your elbow – enjoy.

But my wish, when I put a photo up for public view, is to try to put over something of myself, of my reaction to the scene in front of me. I don’t want to give you a faithful representation of a scene that you can then admire as a proxy for being there; I want you to get a hint of how that scene made me feel, of what struck me about it. I’ll give an example a bit further down.

That slavish adherence to the rules, so beloved of camera clubs up and down the country, gets in the way of you expressing yourself through imagery. It is a road to blandness and uniformity. Know when to do something different.

That’s not to say, of course, that you should discard everything you’ve learned, but rather selectively choose to disregard a rule, according to what you want the picture to say.

I need some examples, don’t I?

Here’s one taken according to the rules: horizon a third of the way down, foreground interest, leading lines, blah, blah, blah.

Harlech beach
The beach at Harlech, looking toward Criccieth.


Now, consider leading lines and diagonals. You use them to lead the viewer’s eye around the picture (so it’s said). Is it me, or does that sound a tad patronising?

One thing that strikes me about the seaside (and this one in particular) is how horizontal it is. The horizon, the shoreline – these give a strong sense of flatness. So, let’s deliberately ignore leading lines and diagonals.

Harlech beach
Harlech beach, looking west

I’ve retained a bit of foreground interest with the branch (it’s about 6 feet long, for reference), and the horizon still obeys the rule of thirds. But notice that your eye does not have any problem wandering around the image, despite it not having the lines to lead you.

I think this image says more about that ‘horizontality’ that I referred to than does the previous picture. It takes the idea and makes you notice it; in the horizon, the shoreline, the branch and in the absence of non-horizontal elements. In other words, this image conveys an essence of how I saw that beach – the previous picture is just a picture of the beach, no more. And that’s what I was talking about above – that wish to put over something more than just a record of a scene.

Take this idea one step further, and remove the foreground interest.

Harlech beach
Harlech Beach, looking west

Still using rule of thirds, but now the picture is about open expanses, infinity, emptiness. It becomes almost an abstract image, a thing of horizontal blocks of colour, divorced from the original reality it portrays.

And this next one takes it a bit further with lots of horizontal lines, rather than a few blocks of colour.

Abermaw (Barmouth) beach

And now let’s play with the rule of thirds.

Harlech beach
Harlech beach, looking across the Lleyn peninsula

The land/sky division is in the middle, and the striped pole is way too far to the right. But it works, I think. The deliberate compromising of classical balance imparts a little tension that keeps the interest long enough to look a bit deeper and maybe spot the reveal. From the place I was standing, that pole was a dominant feature. By putting it in this unbalanced location in the frame, it makes you keep looking back at it, echoing the way it appeared to me at the time.

By contrast, if I take a more classical composition of the same thing, then it becomes merely a picture element, not the dominant one.

Harlech beach
Harlech beach

To my eye, that’s a less interesting picture. It’s safe. It’s Nice.

And, finally, one that doesn’t deliberately flout the rules, but nor have I attempted to include everything.

Beach and bottle
Abermaw (Barmouth) beach

I positioned the bottle and the far shoreline according to the rule of thirds, but left everything else to sort itself out. Notice, though, how this is not a picture of a beach; it’s a picture of a thoughtless person, even though that person is not visible.

I hope this has given you something to think about when you’re next out with a camera, because that’s the way to make good pictures: think before you press the shutter.

The most scathing comment about a photograph that one of my tutors would make was to refer to it as ‘nice’. He meant that it was technically good and obeyed the ‘rules’, but that was all. It was one of the crowd, nothing exceptional, just another nice picture.