February 19, 2014

The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, immaterial.

2014-2-1 Harbinger No 16cHarbinger No. 16 – 2014


Ansel Adams said: “The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, immaterial.”

And I’ll go one step further and say that in my opinion these rules are actually harmful because they get in the way of developing creativity and Vision.

For years I’ve rebelled against the rules of photography. Why? Because my experience has taught me that they encourage dependency and discourage independent seeing.

I’ve had people criticize my images because they didn’t follow some imaginary rule of composition and I thought: how sad that when they look at this beautiful image, all they can see are the rules. That’s called not being able to see the forest for the trees.

The rules of composition is an attempt to distill the creative process into a series of simple guidelines that if followed, will produce a good image. It reminds me of the old “paint by numbers” painting kit: simply put the proper color into each numbered area, stay within the lines and you’ll have a “real” painting! Yes, but it’s not a very good painting and it’s certainly not an original.

Mona Lisa Paint by Numbers Comparison

Do you remember IBM’s Deep Blue computer?  It was programmed to play chess and it beat the world champion chess player, Garry Kasparov.  Do you think that if we were to program the rules of photography into Deep Blue and take it to Yosemite, that it could beat Ansel Adams?

Of course not, because composition is about seeing and feeling, not about following rules. And the irony of these rules is that they are supposed to help you learn to be creative, when what they actually do is cause dependency.

I love travelling with a GPS because I can plug in an address and it gives me turn-by-turn directions. But I’ve noticed that there’s a negative side effect that comes from relying on my GPS: I’ve become so dependent upon it that I cannot find anything without it, even in cities that I frequently travel. The GPS has made me so myopic that I’ve never developed the big picture of the city.

That’s what I believe happens when you rely on the rules of composition: you become myopic and dependent. You don’t develop the big picture, you don’t see for yourself, you don’t trust your own feelings.

“So Cole, if I shouldn’t follow the rules, how do propose that I learn to compose an image?”

I like the Professor Harold Hill approach, do you remember him? He was the likeable charlatan from The Music Man who rode into River City, Iowa selling band instruments. He taught the boys in town how to play their instruments using the Think System, that’s where you “think the notes and just play the notes.” It sounds silly, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this approach!

When I approach a scene, I simply look and see and feel.  I compose instinctively until the scene feels right, without a single thought about the “rules.”  And if the composition doesn’t feel right, I change it.  I move the camera, I zoom in, I try another angle…but in the end all I care about is that it “feels right.”  Does that sound as silly as Professor Hill’s Think System?

And after I’ve created the image, I don’t ask others what they think and I don’t listen to the “experts” who will tell me how I should have done it. I trust my instincts and remember that I’m learning to express my vision and not theirs. Learning to trust your instincts is one of the first steps in the creative process.

What a simple and empowering concept: to see and feel for yourself rather than following the rules. Creative people already know this secret: that great art comes from within and is not found in a set of rules.

Start by believing in yourself and your own inherent creativity.  Then forget about the rules. Next comes practice, practice, practice and evaluating each image by asking yourself: “what could I have done differently to make this image better?” And most importantly, rely on your own opinion and don’t ask others what they think of your images.

This approach is not an easy shortcut, it’s a long and hard process in which you’ll create thousands of failures. But with each failure you’ll get better and most importantly, you’ll be creating originals and not “paint by number” counterfeits!


P.S.  Here’s a test question: I have friends who ask me “how will I know if I have a good image if I don’t ask other people’s opinion of it?” How would you answer this?


32 thoughts on “The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, immaterial.

  1. I love this article Cole for the simple fact that I follow my own instincts and creative impulses without using a “grid for glasses”. I have also written about what I call the “FEEL Principle” of fine art photography that very much compliments what you have said here in your cogent ways.

    As for your question, I don’t ask. Thanks for the great read, rebel to rebel : ) John

  2. I enjoyed your post Cole. Thank you for sharing. I often write about the same subject, and it is the premise of what I teach in my private workshops. You stated this well. The problem these days, with the ease of digital, is that human nature takes over and we move too quickly, because we want things immediately and in volume. i enjoy large format shooting because a slow tempo that promotes feeling is inherent. In the end, the difference between masterful art and mere snapshots is the feeling and emotion.
    The rules give a good basic starting point, and as our skills are honed so we can work intuitively, we can then progress to images we feel that still work technically. It’s a great journey! Thank you again for sharing. You do a very nice job expressing your points.

  3. “If it’s good enough for you, that is all that matters.”. I told that to a friend that asked my opinion of his photos. I would also suggest revisiting an image until it feels rfinished- I recently did this with an image I took five years ago and have worked up several times. It just didn’t feel right until this last edit.

  4. What a great insight about composing a scene instinctively. For years before I ever picked up a camera, I would see things in the world and instinctively feel how they fit together. It’s one of the things that made me want to start photographing in the first place. The idea of composing by rules or any other top-down system always has seemed very foreign to me.

  5. Great post Cole. My answer, ultimately, I don’t need others approval. If I like it, that is ALL THAT MATTERS. That said, it is human nautre to seek approval. It feels good. So it becomes difficult to shed that basic need for most people.

  6. Cole,
    I think the rules are appropriate when an artist is learning about image making. I’ve seen plenty of sunset pictures with the sun dead center and the horizon dead center. This doesn’t make for an enjoyable image to view. Along with that, I’ve seen these same images, posted in multiples of 10, with dozens of accolades by commenters, which still doesn’t make it a good image.
    Once an understanding of image making is achieved I believe it’s up to the artist to decide were the elements of the image belong.

    In answer to the bonus question I think the image needs to stew a while, preferably become a print, and get pinned/taped to the wall and viewed for a period of time, which only that individual can determine the right amount of time.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post

  7. Hi Cole,

    The analogy with the GPS really resonated for me. I have fallen into the same trap with mine. In the old days, I used to stumble around finding restaurants, etc. I got to where I wanted to go, but in the process discovered other unexpected gems along the way. I was so happy when my first GPS ended all the stumbling for me. Whew!

    But over time, I realize that GPS dependency has led to two problems. First, it is not so easy to discover hidden gems when my focus is on the GPS. And second, the GPS is occasionally flat wrong and it doesn’t even take me to the right place.

    Hmmm. Interesting parallels in the discussion of rules and the creative process. Sometimes the unexpected gems are better than your original creative direction and sometimes the rules are just flat wrong. It is surprisingly easy to turn off the GPS. Now, if I could just do the same with that voice in the back of my mind saying, “Follow the rules. Follow the rules…”

    Thanks for a stimulating discussion.

  8. Hi Cole, I’m always looking forward to your writings! I would like to point out the following. Johannes Ittem (Bauhaus School in Germany) in the 20’s said that if one is able to create art by means of his/her innate intuition, then go for it. If not, you need to learn from others.

    Simply put, creative people don’t need to learn rules, just listen to their hearts. If this creative people are going to spend too much time on rules, it is going to harm them.

    I have to say though, that not everybody is so crearive and in the learning process, the knowledge og rules may help them.

  9. My answer to the question “how will I know if I have a good image…?”. There are images of mine that I don’t feel the need to ask. Simply put, I feel very proud of them (I don’t mean they are good/excellent, just that I feel proud of it). Even if I ask, I am not going to change anything of it.

    On the other hand, there are images where I am not sure and then yes, I feel the need to ask. I think this support is also good in my learning process.

  10. Love the “Harold Hill” reference!

    “Ya got Trouble” !

    For me – Its a good image if I like it. If other people like it- well and good. If not- so what! There are a lot of things which other people like – which I can’t appreciate.

  11. Great post, I hate compositional rules!

    For me, if the image expresses what I saw and felt when I was shooting it, it’s a successful image. If others like it too, that’s nice, but that is not a factor that bears any weight in my assessment of the photo.

  12. Cole, you are spot on… and I agree with Mark Matheny… so I say “learn the rules, then forget them”.
    I feel that making images for others’ approval is misguided. It certainly is nice when someone likes an image of mine, but I’ve always been careful not to let that enter the process in any way.
    Also… LOVE Weston’s Daybooks. I have a very old copy that I must now read again! Thanks, Cole.

  13. Hi Cole,

    Personally, I wouldn’t be that dismissive of those naughty rules.

    The early Greeks developed classic visual concepts that just work, like rule of thirds, the golden mean, etc. Like language, they are the syntax, the foundation of expression. I think we need to learn them, just as you have to learn to put a sentence together to avoid talking jibberish.

    Now, armed with that foundation of the classical rules of communication, a true creative will bend or break the rules, like a Picasso, The whole Impressionist movement, Ed Weston’s Pepper, etc etc, or any truly creative artist.

    Photograph not what you see, but what you feel? Absolutely YES to that! Minor White taught “don’t photograph what it is, but what else it is”.

    As for your intriguing pop quiz, initially I said “DUH! I dunno”. But after thinking about it, I’d say a good image will give you INtrinsic gold, whether or not it produces EXtrinsic oohs and ahhhs.

    Finally, just saw your photo “They Walk Among Us” in the April issue of B & W Mag. What’s going on in the world? The Middle East is coming apart, Our Congress is dysfunctional, Cole Thompson is publishing high key images?

  14. If I like it I’m happy, I see an image through my eyes and want to capture it for me, if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus, if they don’t, I think every one is entitled to their opinion, sometimes we have to accept that.

  15. I think we start off on the wrong foot by calling them “rules” when they are really just generalizations. In general, for example, a centered object will seem less dynamic than one placed at an intersection of lines dividing the image in thirds. Like most generalizations, it has some utility, but when applied inflexibly, as a rule, is misused. These generalizations provide a starting point for a composition that may or may not work. Try it, but don’t stop there, explore alternatives.

    Some of my favorite quotes on the misuse of rules:

      There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs
    — Ansel Adams

    I am not interested in rules or conventions. Photography is not a sport.
    — Bill Brandt

    “There are no rules and regulations for perfect composition. If there were we would be able to put all the information into a computer and would come out with a masterpiece. We know that’s impossible. You have to compose by the seat of your pants.” 
    – – Arnold Newman
    The enemy of photography is the convention, the fixed rules of ‘how to do’. The salvation of photography comes from the experiment.
    — Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

    Composition is made of visual forces that once understood, will empower you, not rules that if blindly adhered to will weaken you. – David du Chemin

    Of these, I like the last the best.

  16. Thank you once again for sharing your thoughtful and helpful insights.

    To further validate your point, when Kasparov squared off with Deep Blue in 1996 he lost the first match but won the series – mainly because his abilities were superior to the how Deep Blue was programed. After suffering much embarrassment, IBM greatly improved the program for Deep Blue the following year and once again challenged Kasparov. Interestingly, Kasparov was able to defeat Deep Blue in the first match – why? – because he didn’t follow the rules and advanced opening moves that proved “illogical” to the mathematics behind Deep Blue. While he lost the series, I doubt he asked anyone to comment on the quality of his play.

  17. Rules in photography are there really any rules? Growing up in the UK I regularly read Amateur Photographer magazine and a real bugbear of mine is when a hobby photographer sends in an image that the editor absolutely pans and rips to pieces most magazines are guilty of this. Turn over the page to a article by a pro who breaks the same rules and the editor says wow fantastic .

    how do I when I have a great image because I get a warm fuzzy feeling

  18. Great article!
    My photography hobby evolved from my long time hobby of building scale models with vintage aircraft as my main focus. I try to build accurate representations of a particular subject without adhering to “rivet counter” rules and my models can stand up to the work of the best modelers in the world. That comes from experience ,practice, and a eagerness to explore/experiment.
    My photography is much the same idea.
    While I do consider the “rules” as a guide, I let my eye and mind do the composing. I’ve often had a scene catch my eye, but when I put the viewfinder to my eye and compose by the “rules”, I don’t see the image that originally caught my attention.
    It’s often about what looks right and what doesn’t regardless of any rules.

  19. William Shakespeare provides the following guidance regarding the “goodness” of an image in Love’s Labours Lost, 1588:
    Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
    Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
    Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
    Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues.

  20. Regarding the rules- I’ve had contrasting ideas on this where: we should be thankful for those that have come before us and done the work that will enable us to build on where they left off (thinking here of all kinds of tricks and lessons in the world and not necessarily on just photography) but sometimes I wonder what a creative would make just given a camera and told and shown nothing, a virgin potential like- part of me would hope for a breakthrough of visual understanding. However, realistically that virgin photographer unhindered by rules would probably be schizophrenic seeming to our more refined minds, which may be interesting and good to some. Mainstream definitely sucks. There’s always the artist statement generator that spews incoherent adjectives and disjointed concepts that may please those that need to hear something? Good question in the end, but one that we all need to kind of be ready to answer unfortunately.

  21. I’m also a cameraman and rarely think about the rules. It goes naturally. Why? Maybe because I was 8 years old when I knew I wanted to be a cameraman. Maybe only a child of 8 years (or 14!) that want to be a photographer shoot good pictures without having heard of the rules(because the brain seem to have a naturally feel for what we call a ‘good composition’). Your interesting article is based on your own ability, but is not necessarily true for most (amateur) photographers, I think.
    Charles (Holland)

  22. “If you do not have a clue that something is impossible, you are able to do it” – my grandmother used to say.
    I really like your thought that the shot you need to “feel good”, because I believe that excessive excavation of topics related to technical issues is strongly not recommended. However, in order to break the rules you need to know them first. I call it “dragging a rope” – rope must always be tense, but once is a little on the right side, and once a little bit of the left side. Kind of balance.
    Photographer layman-passionate uncontaminated too contrived academic knowledge is able to create a true masterpiece. Moreover, this applies not only photography.

    P.S. Great web side. Great images.

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