Composition - "They're not so much rules, they're
more like guidelines."
"There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs."
- Ansel Adams
Or, as my Dad would say, "If it looks right, it is right."
Any student, and I mean 'student' in the loosest possible way, of landscape photography will be able to recite the 'Rule of thirds' in the same way a Marine can disassemble and reassemble his personal weapon while blindfolded. We all know the mantra. 'Don't put the subject in the middle. Don't put the horizon in the centre.' At the risk of sounding like a petulant 7 year old, "But whhyyyy?"
"Because." As my Dad would say.
And off we would go into the wild blue yonder. Secure in the knowledge that we could tame nature in all her glory and she would surely tremble at our expert use of the 'Golden Mean', gasp at our application, without the aid of a safety net, of the 'Rule of thirds' and swoon at our cavalier use of 'lead in lines'. We would then return from the field with our guaranteed masterpieces and scratch our collective heads when they turned out to be rubbish.
Now I know what you're thinking…did he fire six shots or was it only five? Sorry! Couldn't help myself. I suspect what you're really thinking is 'Any minute now he's going to trot out the tired old 'Rules are meant to be broken' line.' And you'd be right. And wrong. Allow me to explain.
I'm a big 'Pirates of the Caribbean' fan, as you may have picked up from some of my other articles, and Geoffrey Rush, as the gloriously clichéd Capt Barbosa, makes my point superlatively when explaining the 'Pirates Code' to the sulky Ms Knightley. "They're not so much rules," he informs her "they're more like guidelines." Genius.
To my mind photography is art. Just because a photograph isn't a painting or a sculpture or a creation of some other accepted artistic medium, doesn't make it any less worthy. A photograph is an individual interpretation of a scene or idea. Now if you think of it that way then surely all bets are off and no rules apply? Slavishly following a set of externally imposed 'rules' removes all notion of individual creativeness so yes, rules should be broken.
But, and it's a big but, there is no denying that certain compositional structures, when applied to certain subject matters, do result in images that sit more comfortably on the eye. There is no denying that if I want to highlight a dramatic sky or suggest an expansive view then putting the horizon in the lower half of the frame creates a more effective image. The human brain has a tendency to scan images from left to right so placing a key element of a scene in the right half of the frame allows the brain to take in an image and stops you from just flying out the right hand side. Oh look, I have effectively just put a tree two thirds of the way across an image on a horizon about a third of the way up the frame. Now how did that happen?
What we have, I would suggest, is a classic case of chicken and egg. Before someone created the 'Rule of thirds' did we not produce pleasing pictures? Or is it the case that after examining a number of images some bright spark realised that there were common compositional factors and just wrote them down? I am inclined to believe it is the latter.
Some things are just common sense. Try not to take a portrait where the subject has a tree or a lamppost sprouting from the top of their head. Try and make sure your horizon is level, especially with seascapes. The brain knows it should be flat and it will jar if it isn't. These are not rules by the way, they are suggestions. Most importantly be clear in your own mind what are you actually photographing and why. This, I suspect is why we, ok, 'I', used to fail so often even though I was following 'the rules'. Partly because I didn't understand why they were important, and partly because I was too busy trying to make the image fit the rules rather than capture what had made me stop and look at the scene in the first place.
And this is my point. If we understand what makes a good picture 'good', then we can reproduce that in other images and create more good pictures. So in that respect I would recommend anybody new to the hobby takes an afternoon to read up on the basics. But then I implore you to spend the rest of your life just enjoying your photography. Experiment. Find out what works for you and what doesn't. Develop your own style. But above all try and capture the essence of the scene. Try to share with others what it was that stopped you in your tracks. For me a good landscape photograph generates two responses. 'I wish I was there.' and 'I wish I had taken that!' It doesn't matter if it conforms to any particular school of compositional thought. A good photograph just works. Remember, "If it looks right, it is right."
About the author: David Stanley is a freelance photographer concentrating on landscape and travel images. He has a growing portfolio of royalty free images with istockphoto. For more articles, along with a selection of his work available as prints, please visit his website at www.davidstanleyphotography.com.
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