Rules Will Kill Your Photography Creativity: Part One

Here is a fact: You will not find your creativity by following a rule, regardless of how many people believe it. In this series of articles, I aim to put this right. I’m on a mission to change how photography composition is taught — forever. 

Composition has to be one of the most studied, researched, and worried about aspects of photography. If photography composition was taught so well, why are so many people still struggling with it? If it could all be explained by a few simple rules, then shouldn’t it be the easiest thing in the world to knock out a composition by numbers — nailing it every time, confidently, and without self-doubt?

In this article, which will form a series of tutorials accompanied by complementary YouTube videos, I aim to look at composition from a completely different direction. I believe now is the time for a paradigm, a new day, a new dawn, and a way for us to be creative, expressive, articulate, and more in touch with the world around us.

Being Brilliantly Human

Instead of learning rules, arrangements, compositional templates, and jargon, we just need to allow ourselves to do what we do best: see and feel. Those things come as naturally to us as breathing. We’re hard-wired for it, and we see and feel all day long, every day, for the entirety of our lives. We’re pretty good at it! 

When you hear a piece of music for the first time, you don’t think to yourself: “do I like this?” You feel it, and it either makes you feel good or it doesn’t. The same is true when we walk into a kitchen and smell what’s for dinner. “Yuck, I think I’ll grab takeout” or the mouth-watering anticipation of sitting at the table to enjoy our favorite. 

We do the same when we look at other people’s photographs: we make instant, snap evaluations, without thought. “I like that” or “no, that sucks!” We have no problem confidently deciding what we like or dislike, as long as it’s not something we’ve created ourselves. The psychology of that is best left for another article, but for now, let’s get to the main course of this one.

Rules-Based Composition

Telling me that I need to drive on a particular side of the road when in a country makes sense, that is a rule I can get on board with. Suggesting to me that the horizon of my photographs should be 33.3333% from the top of the frame is nonsense. I would lose all interest in photography if all I had to do was place subjects on key points around a frame to create some societally acceptable aesthetic. 

I have had plenty of discussions with people who teach composition at a college level, and most of them state quite clearly that they believe the rules create a framework, a structure of convention that can be built upon. Rules are there to be broken, but you have to know the rules first. But, I would argue that they do the opposite. We get so good at what we do a lot, even if it’s wrong. Hence, everybody has loads of bad habits. We get conditioned to composing images in a certain way, and believe me when I say it takes a lot of effort to break those habits, especially if everyone is telling you what a wonderful eye you have! Most of the time, all that means is that your photograph complies in some way to the aesthetic that has been indoctrinated into the zeitgeist.

If you are following a rule, regardless of how acceptable, you are not being creative. I’ll write plenty more about the brainwashing harm of rules in future articles, but for now, let’s look at the alternative.

Consequences

That one word is a game-changer. I’ve been making photographs for the last 20 years, and when I started working on this concept about four years ago, it not only changed my photography for the better, but it made me a happier person. How is that possible? Well, I suddenly became me, rather than a clone, a parody, a mocking repetitious machine. I was making photographs in the way I always had, and they were all the same. Templates, predictable and quite utterly soulless. I came quite close to quitting landscape photography, as I was bored with it, and didn’t feel it was delivering me what I got into it for, to be creative and free. This is not about popularity; it is about something far more important: authenticity and self-affirmation.

In the above before and after comparison, there is a consequence of the simple edit. I explain this fully in the accompanying video.

Instead of rules, what we need to appreciate, understand, feel, and learn is that every single thing we do, from how we arrange content within a frame, to the camera settings and subsequent processing, has consequences. Every little thing we do has an impact changes how the image feels, how accessible it is, how logical, how harmonious, how dissonant. In our photographs, we need to understand what it is that is making us point our cameras in the first place and then feel the consequences of every change we make.

This is harder initially than following something like: “Stick the horizon on the third line!” “Why?” “Just because, it’s the rules!” But, I can assure you that very, very quickly, you will build a relationship with your images that allows for growth, resonance, understanding, insight, and joy. 

The Consequences of Graphics

If we strip a photograph down to its absolute basic parts, a single line, or a couple of lines, we create a simple emotional footprint. The image feels a certain way, not because of rules, but because of human perception, understanding, unconscious preference, and us being unique. I may love something that you hate, with complete passion on both sides. I want to be me. I want to feel something when I create. That’s why I do it.

If you have some time, look at the images on this page and try to describe in your mind how they feel. Try, if possible to rise above the basic judgment of like or don’t like. Do they make you feel relaxed, energized, calm, anxious, enthusiastic, inspired, angry? Think emotional words and try to ignore technical language. 

In this series of articles and on the YouTube channel, I hope to build a body of learning that demonstrates the advantages of this method of creativity. In the first video on this page, I look at the consequences of graphics, geometry, and arrangement. Join me next week for more on this subject.

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12 Comments

Michael Breitung's picture

Great article. I usually go by feeling when it comes to composition, at some point it just feels right for me and then I take the photo. Funny enough those photos, in retrospect, often follow the general esthetic. Maybe my subconscious mind automatically applies the rules and in the end it's those rules that tell me what feels right. I guess this is the bane of learning them in the beginning ;-) As you say, once something has become a habit it's hard to let go of it. But it wouldn't say it's bad as long as I like the final result.

Also, trying to be creative outside a fence of rules can sometimes be quite overwhelming and create even a block. I think one has to find the right balance and I don't think the one or the other are ultimately better. But it would be interesting to see, how my photos would look today, if I hadn't started by practicing photography based on compositional rules. It certainly made things easier in the beginning.

Alister Benn's picture

Thanks for your insight. I agree, that many of our favourite photographs may comply to some rule or another, but the way I prefer to look on it is this. What came first, the rules or the art? The art of course. All the rules ever were, was an analysis of common themes and recurring aesthetics. I agree that learning them up from may be a faster way to make "acceptable" photographs. However, I think unfortunately, that we end up relying way too much on them and it sniffles numerous other avenues of creative output.

The world is getting smaller, we are becoming more alike. I'm striking to find ways to allow creators to be creative without having to template the world around us with societal expectation.

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

This happens to me all the time. I spent so many years shooting with the Rule of Thirds in mind that now I subconsciously gravitate towards placing things on thirds lines. I've conditioned myself to feel "good" when things line up on the grid. For me now, when I come home and find a bunch of photos on the memory card that follow the rule of thirds, it's a sure sign I was shooting on autopilot instead of shooting to try and communicate something. That's not to say I don't have any portfolio photos that happen to align with the rule of thirds, but the ones I really like are ones where that was a more conscious decision and the reasoning behind it went beyond "it's the rule."

Alister Benn's picture

Thanks for your input, it's very much appreciated. When I started making images I liked them more when I didn't know, or care about rules. I then bowed to peer pressure and embarked on a decade of intense study. My images became sterile and I then had to unlearn the whole lot! Now, I make images that reflect my mood, good, bad, or indifferent. You cannot do that with a template of sociatally acceptable aesthetics. Thanks again, lots more coming on this subject.

Barbara Livieri's picture

Love the article Alister. I've been enjoying your YouTube videos since I heard about you on Adam Gibbs' channel. I love the way you both approach photography. It's how you feel, not so much how you "know", that makes a good image.

I recently went back into some of my first photos to see if I would process my images differently (I picked up some Photoshop tutorials in the past month). I wanted to see if had improved from when I first started in Lr. It's funny how many images were still compositionally pleasing to me, even though I didn't know any "rules" of composition at that time.

Being in a camera club, we discuss the "rules of composition" at length. But knowing the rules and consciously thinking of them while shooting are two different things. I still only think about those rules after the fact, or when I get the images into Lr. I point at what looks good to my eye, and deal with the consequences later. Sometimes I crop, sometimes I leave it as is. Sometimes I curse myself for not shooting something in a different way. But I learn from that.

So that's the question, do some people have "an eye" for composition, or is it strictly a learned process? When my ex and I would go to a new place, we both had our little point and shoot cameras, but after a while he left his at home. He said I had "the eye" and that my photos were better than his, so why should he bother to take photos too. Obviously now, many years after the point n shoot I use a DSLR, but I still pick my compositions by feeling, not thinking. Do we improve with experience? Maybe? And with that experience, are we just seeing more things, observing more details that we might not have seen previously? Something to think about.

I love how you bring the psychology of art into these conversations. Thanks!

Alister Benn's picture

Thanks Barbara for your excellent comment. You've raised some excellent points and questions. If you don't mind, I'd like to answer your questions with an article that will be posted next week. I think there are some very profound things to be addressed and I feel I can write a 1000+ words on that! :-)

Thank you for the inspiration.

Barbara Livieri's picture

Of course! You've inspired me to get outside of my own head and think (and shoot) more creatively. Happy to return the favor. I can't wait to read it!

Alister Benn's picture

Excellent, thanks, that sounds like a deal...

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

As always, spot on. You've done an awesome job in both your article and video articulating what I was trying to get at in a post I put up on my own blog a little over a week ago - rules might elevate a brand new photographer from "point and click" to at least thinking about composition a bit, but so often they never get beyond that. Bruce Barnbaum described composition as learning a visual language that communicates different feelings to the viewer, and not everyone speaks or understands the same dialect. I believe this is the same thing you're showing here. In both analogies or descriptions, the key is knowing WHY you are composing a certain way, not just following rules.

https://www.kopeckphotography.com/blog/2020/2/21/composition-and-psychology

Alister Benn's picture

Thanks for your comment, appreciated as always. The road I am going down with consequences actually avoids having to learn rules at all. I'll be writing and vlogging about this a lot while in lockdown. Thanks for reading and watching.

Michelle Maani's picture

A lot of new photographers only follow the splat in the middle composition. Learning rules makes them more thoughtful about how they take photos. Studying the work of others shows them how the rules are applied. Once they get a sense of good composition, then they can just stop thinking about the rules. Always following the rules is too mechanical.

Alister Benn's picture

Thanks for you input, it's really appreciated. I'm not convinced. I still believe that too many rules become like a run to safe point in moments of stress. I think there is a lot to be learned from pushing boundaries and exploring our own ideas of aesthetics.