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A Fresh Look at Learning Photographic Composition

Popular teaching about photographic composition says to learn the rules and then break them. I prefer to encourage the people who join our photography workshops to learn the rules, understand them well and put them into practice so frequently they become second nature.

If you can apply the rules without even consciously thinking about them you will create more dynamic, interesting photographs which convey more feeling.

Why do we have rules?

Rules are important as they are the underlying structure of composition. Much like scales are to musicians. Much like grammar is to language.

Successful musicians have typically spent long hours going over and over the same scales until they know them so well they do not need to think about them. When we learned our first language, our “mother tongue”, we never consulted the textbooks to study the grammatical structure of the language, we just absorbed it, (most frequently from our mothers.)

Some people will have more difficulty learning the rules of composition and applying them effectively than others. Very much like some people can learn to play musical instruments or learn new languages easier.

I think it is because we are all creatively gifted in different ways. If you are gifted with a visual creativity you may find it easier to compose photographs than say someone who is gifted with a musical creativity and finds it easy to play the guitar or trumpet for example.

Know them at a subconscious level

Knowing the rules is important as they will help guide our creative thinking, but applying these rules rigidly will generally lead towards making rather static and lifeless photographs. As you learn the rules and know them so well you can incorporate them into your photographs intuitively you will find your images may take on a whole new dynamic. Very much like walking and talking, it’s good to be subconsciously aware of the rules and laws as they are there for good reason.

Practice constantly

Reading about and studying the rules of composition will help you gain a good understanding of them. Practicing them frequently is the most effective means of consistently integrating them into your photographs. Practice them even when you don’t have your camera with you.

Begin to see in the rule of thirds, discover leading lines and strong diagonals, look for frames and how you can use symmetry. One side effect of seeing like this will likely be that you start taking your camera everywhere with you.

Fill the frame

When I first started working in the photography department of a newspaper it was impressed upon me to “fill the frame”. This encouragement has stuck with me and I am aware, consciously or subconsciously, of wanting to effectively achieve this with every photograph I make. This was important in the newspaper in order to convey the story effectively, (and so sub-editors had less flexibility to horribly crop your photos).

If empty space is relevant and adds to your composition, use it well. If cropping in so tight that part of your subject is cut off makes a stronger image, then crop tight.

However you decide to compose your image, be happy with it. Don’t get hung up on the rules. But do have a solid understanding of them and explore how you like to incorporate them into the creative photographs you are making. And, if you so come up with any new rules, please do let me know!