Photography is blessed and cursed with both scientific and artistic rules. We always hear that we should keep them or break them, but there’s so much more to it.
One of the big mistakes we make in photography is accepting that rules exist. This concept is old, probably stemming from the rule of thirds. I have a photography book first published by Kodak in 1920 called “How to Take Good Pictures”; mine is the 1948 revision. On page 70 it says:
The horizon line in a landscape should never divide an image into two equal parts. It is best to have it one third up or down.
It does not make sense. Not everything, but it’s the word “never” with which I take issue. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with employing the division of the image into thirds as a technique, but any prescriptive rule that insists on what a composition should or shouldn’t be is ridiculous.
The Pythagorean theorem is a rule because, with a two-dimensional rectilinear triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is always equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. It is a universal truth. The idea that we have to divide an image into thirds is not.
This is the basic difference between science and art. Science is built around theories and rules, while art is entirely subjective. Photography is a unique blend of science and art. Thus, finding the balance between these two opposing components is essential for good photography.
Perhaps we should rename this composition technique as the Third Party Tool, a device in our composition toolbox that we can call upon and use when needed. We can add this to the golden ratio tool, armature tool, visual weight tool, depth of field tool, etc.
It’s an equally silly notion suggesting that we need to use one of these compositional tools in our photography. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t use them. For example, balancing a large object on one side of the frame with many smaller objects with less individual visual weight on the right works, but there are times when we might want to have an imbalance in a photo. Or we could ignore Cartier-Bresson’s watershed moment or Adams’ tonal device, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use them if we want to.
Is there a single idea in photography that cannot be used or ignored? Finding your unique style often results from discovering ways to photograph a subject that are different from how others do it. Whether that means abandoning certain conventions or still using them is up to you.
There is an important distinction between rejecting a composition tool and being ignorant of it. If you don’t know any of the tools, you can’t choose to use them or ignore them, and your images will only get worse.
How we choose to use or ignore tools depends a lot on the purpose of our photography. The greatest number of images are taken for mass appeal, usually on social media. Therefore, it is assumed that most photographers shoot for this purpose. Unfortunately, most of the photographer’s audience is unsophisticated when it comes to understanding the finer nuances of composition. They want a pretty image without challenge and not much more than that. As a result, many photographers will shoot for pretty, unchallenged images.
This carries over to a lot of professional photography. The photographs are commissioned with a broad audience in mind. Therefore, skilled professional photographers stick to producing images that their clients want. They are invariably photos with mass appeal because they are easy to like. This inevitably involves the use of design tools. The camera lends itself well to this because it produces pragmatic art; most commercially shot footage tells a straightforward story with little room for ambiguity or artistic expression.
For example, when I photograph a wedding, the couple expects the images to adhere to a set of standards that most wedding photographers will adhere to, which means using compositing tools. Whereas by wearing my creative photographer hat and taking pictures just for me, I can push the standards and the boundaries. I could slip some of these creatively styled images into the bridal photo collection, and they usually express fun with them, but I wouldn’t shoot the whole wedding like that. One of the reasons I shy away from doing so much wedding photography is that overdoing it can feel like a sausage machine. A handful of weddings a year helps me stay excited about them and enjoy the work.
Photographic artists have more freedom over what they produce when they are not working on a brief. In addition to what my friend describes as “arty-farty” photos, I also take technically accurate images. These are for my enjoyment only. They fall within the bounds of what is generally accepted as “good” photography.
There is no right or wrong here. If you prefer images that correspond to diagonal compositions, divide the image into thirds or have main lines that correspond to the golden section, then that’s great. Whether you prefer silky seas resulting from long exposures, water shot with a fast shutter with every droplet clearly defined, or somewhere in between, it’s your choice, and no one has the right to condemn you for it. . Decide what you like and work on acquiring the tools to achieve those results. If you decide you like something else after a few months, that’s perfectly fine too.
There is one rule that I think should be prescriptive and invariably ignored by too many photographers; think about the appearance of our photographs. It’s not just about choosing a particular subject or genre, but about finding and putting our own characters in the picture. This is a difficult thing for a beginner to achieve at first. Only after taking around 100,000 photos, analyzing them and determining what we like and dislike about what we do is it possible to develop our styles and recognize them in the pictures of others. Then applying or ignoring these tools will come naturally and be like riding a bike. You won’t even think of them.