Breaking the Rules of Composition to Make Your Images More Interesting

Sometimes technically perfect does not translate to visually appealing. We've been taught since our photographic infancy to follow the "Rule of Thirds" to save yourself from making beginner mistakes. But the photographer from Denmark, James Allen Stewart, has gone against the grain and questioned the "Rule of Thirds."

Stewart has put together a great video illustrating why breaking the rules can actually work to your advantage, here's a summary of what's explained:

Balance Between Light & Dark

As long as there is balance portrayed in the photograph, the rule of thirds does not necessarily apply. He explains that there is a weight of light and dark that needs to balance to avoid "tipping" the image. All darker tones are heavier than light tones. Stewart demonstrates why he added light the left side of the image to add balance, which allows the viewer's eyes to relax on the subject. 

Here's a couple more examples; notice how he isn't perfectly aligned in the rule of thirds line:

Direction & Story

This subject is rarely talked about, but he draws a great point. Most of us read from left to right; shouldn't that play a factor when composing an image to tell a story? Stewart explains that an image should tell a great story, which usually starts out soft, followed by the climax, and ending with a fading out.

He explains why decided to flip this image in post to help portray a more 'story-like' quality to the image.

The light coming from the window starts soft and warming. As you move your eyes left you see the subject which would entail the 'climax' of the image. And finally, the fading out dark tones inside the room to close the image.

Here's another example of a flipped image:

Stewart gives us a very interesting perspective and helping us re-think how we compose our images. You can view more of his work on his website.

Images used with permission of James Allen Stewart and his pug. 

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21 Comments

Seth Lowe's picture

I hate to be Mr Negative here, but I don't see how he "Created new rules" in any capacity. Creating balance between color and value (lightness & darkness) in an image is important to know, but he didn't exactly break new ground with composition here. The first image (cool toned, with a blondish girl in the upper right third) is still an example of the rule of thirds as she is in the upper right third of the image. The man on the dock in the second is in the lower left third. Your image viewers aren't looking at your images with a grid overlay on them, so when you shift the image the slightest bit off the perfect mathematical third you haven't suddenly created a new rule of composition. In both images, your eye is still drawn to the area of the frame that would be considered a "third." In the third image her eye still falls across an upper third horizon line, but now feels out of balance (to me) due to a big dark shadow along the side that serves no purpose. There isn't anything relative to the image in the background, nor does it balance the image in terms of value. I'm not going to pick this thing a part anymore, but hearing someone say they have invented "new rules of composition" totally annoyed me.

James Allen Stewart's picture

You may be right :) And yes, maybe an image that is 2-4% better because of these rules might not make you an amazing photographer alone.
But it gives people new ways of thinking that doesn't involve a grid, which is all I need to stay motivated. And when I can feel that an image isn't perfect even though it follows the traditional rules, then I invent new reasons.
What you call them is individual. But it makes people happy nonetheless, so yes, this does seem a bit weird to pick on :)
But I completely respect your opinion, Seth. Have a great day!

Seth Lowe's picture

Hey, thanks for replying. Wasn't trying to attack you at all, and it's good you are pushing people to approach how they shoot and retouch differently. That said you aren't the first person by any means to do this, so its not really inventing anything. Bending the rules of composition, color, etc.., has been done for hundreds of years across several mediums.

James Allen Stewart's picture

Definitely, everything has been done before :)

With total respect to the video creator and author, I totally agree with Seth here. Nothing brought up here is really new in the realm of art or photography. The rule of thirds is not the only composition rule, and several of these images were basically in the rule of thirds (which, even when following this rule, does not mean your subject is exactly in the crosshairs of the 3rds). Balance of tones, colors, and contrast isn't really new. The main thing I got from this video is: Its really up to the photographer's eye to find what works best to tell your images' story, which is good information to share. Know the rules, then you can break the rules on purpose.

With all that said though, this is some good knowledge to learn for people that didn't take traditional art study or are new to the photography world, or even just a good refresher for those that did know it. Learning balance, contrast, and flow of the images is incredibly helpful for any artist.

Regarding the video quality: Good video overall, but I gotta say, for the love thats all good and pure, please fix your audio clicks before posting. I nearly turned it off several times due to my ears getting irritated and distracted. Some of this can be fixed with declicker in Adobe Audition or other audio software, or just refilming the shots that the guy is on the couch talking. This fix would help you get a ton more views, shares, and follows.

James Allen Stewart's picture

I think declicker was the reason it happened, actually :) It was a post-processing mistake in Audition that just got worse the more I tried to fix it.

James Allen Stewart's picture

But it's annoying me as well, it's the worst audio of my tutorials, I was just in a really busy period so it went a bit fast :) But thanks for your feedback, definitely appreciated!

Ps. you're right about not being taught the traditional ways, I've always just experimented instead of going to art school etc

Seth Lowe's picture

Thanks. I don't comment very often, so just didnt want to be written off as a troll.

Seth Lowe's picture

Ha thanks. I was actually an Fstoppers writer for a while last year... I was traveling a lot at the time and writing was just stressing me out so I stepped down.

I think he is spot on, I totalt agree with him. I mostly light people from left because I want shadow side on the right. Good tips worth some thoughts. He made some good observations.

James Allen Stewart's picture

Thank you Bjarne! :) Take from it what you can use

Photography is like Bowling, there are so many wrong ways to be successful.

James Allen Stewart's picture

And so many right ways to not be :P

August Miller's picture

After watching this video and reading the accompany story. I have just three things to say. Visual narrative is often the most important factor in an image. All the other aspects are simply tools to help us enhance this visual narrative in a way that tells the story in the most powerful way possible. Two, rarely if ever flop a photo of a person. Everyone's face is unique with different size eyes, parting of the hair and they will always know the image has been flopped. As an editor of many years at various publications. I can't tell you how many inexperienced photographers flopped photos and when it was pointed out to them that they had the wedding ring on the wrong hand, or that famous mole was on the wrong side of the face, or that a scar was in the wrong place, they weren't even aware, and would often say, but I like it this way. Bottom line, know your audience, if it's for a "photo Illustration" in advertising and it's not a well known subject, yeah, it's probably OK, but in every other instance. Just don't do it. And third, but not last. Seth Lowe, hit the nail right on the head. He hasn't created any new rules, One only needs to spend an afternoon looking at images of Henri Cartier Bresson, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz or Frank Ockenfels III to truly educate yourself about the power of visual narrative and how they used all the other tools at their disposal to enhance their images in such a powerful way that they stand the test of time.

James Allen Stewart's picture

You're using a word "never" while assuming I do weddings, editorials or any kind of journalistic coverage that would imply that I am copying real life :)
I don't.
I make art :) If it looks better flopped, I flop it.
But thanks for your message! Definitely gave me some food for thought :) And I should have mentioned that you shouldn't do this if you have clients that don't want it.

August Miller's picture

What I said is "rarely if ever" and be aware of your audience. My comments (which I might add, rarely if ever happen on fstoppers) were meant more as informational rather than critical. Those doing art have been expressing themselves in unique ways for as long as art has been around. Breaking rules is our mantra. But i believe that we always need to be aware of our audience and what we are trying to say with our art. If we don't have a point of view, then it becomes art for art's sake and loses it power. :)

James Allen Stewart's picture

Unless the art is focusing on not having a point of view, like the blended goldfish or the can of poop :D But the art of debating art is too artsy even for me ;)
And I get your point, for sure :) Thanks again for giving your voice!

Tomash Masojc's picture

But still, it was interesting to watch :)

Brian Morris's picture

Im thinking someone missed the ball on Rule of thirds for composition layout and design...You did no such thing in breaking the rules you didnt understand in the first place.

Ill just place this here..

http://petapixel.com/2016/01/30/10-myths-about-the-rule-of-thirds/

david squire's picture

Kirk Hammett is one of my favorite guitar players. Although most people agree that he's both good and technically proficient at what he does, some of those same people that agree on those points don't care for his style, or what he has to say, or what he contributes to music. The reasons are many, I mean a lot, but the underlying dislike to me seems to be his "god like" status among his biggest fans and his persona as an elitist guitarist that he's somehow doing the impossible. He's been known to say some "out there" comments that rub folks the wrong way (musicians or not). He's also been known to struggle with certain musical patterns that others seem to get almost naturally. None of which takes away from his ability as a premier guitarist.

The video does seem a bit Kirk-ish, and in the small way of things put in perspective, the comments even seem similar to those anti Kirk one's,... People will be annoyed with ideas like, "Created new rules" when there doesn't seem to be anything particularly new created. When band mates have to say things like, "... what Kirk meant was, blah blah blah..." it isn't unlike the video's author needing to clarify, defend, or elaborate on his ideas that some folks didn't get (for whatever reason), were a little miffed by, or wanted to call out as not necessarily the case. I mean, when Kirk says he's the only person, then the only musician making new pedals, you just know how that's going to be received.

As an amateur photographer and someone with ADD, I found it hard to watch the video, I was constantly waiting for the "broken rules" to be rediscovered as new. I also found myself thinking about other compositional elements (negative space for one), that were introduced when the rules were getting "broken", that never got discussed. It wasn't a bad video necessarily, but not as informative or inspiring as I thought going into it initially, and that's not a bad thing, just not my bag... Even as green as I am, I feel like I'm bending rules all the time, and if not doing that, I'm simply ignoring them; therefore, just about everybody is at some point, but it's probably not new...

It seems like the spirit of the video is most likely aimed at amateurs like myself. Professional photographers and/or just plain good and experienced photographers will understandably be somewhat taken aback by the tone of the video that skirts the line of self awesomeness and helpful/educational. Moreover, the helpful tip how to flip an image, in the editorial section, further solidifies my belief the target audience is probably amateur.

Having said that, I always try to help photographers who know less than me (yes, they exist...) or are less experienced, so when I see someone like Mr. Stewart creating content that [at least attempts] to help educate those with less experience, I support that.

As for Kirk, here's a doozie, "Because of things like iTunes and streaming and social networking, it's destroyed music." Oh Kirk, you're so cray cray, but you sure can play guitar good, "and for that, we thank you."

James Allen Stewart's picture

Thank you for taking the time to write so many of your thoughts here, I agree on many of them :) I have only been shooting for 2½ years, so I'm sure I missed a lot of things that 10+ years photographers have their own solid thoughts about already.

The comments here on Fstoppers and on Petapixel where it was also published yesterday are mainly negative, which I completely understand. Even though I may seem like I'm defending stuff, I am fully aware of both sides of this case.
I do however still 100% support that this way of thinking gives people new hopes, new eyes on old stuff, and in general provides a fresh breath of air to an art form that might seem never-ending or never-starting. I have received tons of private messages that are all positive, which is funny how the feedback has been split between nay-sayers and yay-sayers, one being personal and the other being shouted from afar :) The thousands of shares shows that some people really got something from it.
I'm still not defending it, as I might as well have been one of the nay-sayers if this hadn't been my own article, but I just don't quite understand why people are so upset :)

On a different note, Kirk sounds great. I play a lot of guitar as well, and I'm sure I would like this guy ;)