Rebellion: Three Successfully Broken Rules of Photographic Composition

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Yesterday, I posted the four rules of composition I can’t live without. Rules are made to be broken, right?

Right. But you can’t break these rules until you can master them. So now that we’ve had a few days to contemplate these rules (or perhaps you’re already a photographer who harnesses the powers of composition with ease) I’d like to pose a few thoughts on the breaking of these rules. The only one I’m going to leave out is the last one I mentioned in that post: Viewpoint. Point of view (POV) isn’t necessarily a rule of composition, but rather an element of it. It’s not really a breakable rule because point of view is whatever you want it to be. So first things first. Rule of Thirds:

Rule of Thirds – It’s so so important that we understand and successfully create imagery which follows this important rule before we can successfully break it. I believe I can tell the difference between an image where the photographer knowingly broke the rule with style and finesse and one who didn’t know the rule in the first place. To the right is one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken of my son. You’ve probably seen it before in another post. For me, it’s a great example of knowingly breaking the rule of thirds for a reason. His face was expressionless. The POV was straight-on. No bull. I wasn’t trying to say anything with the POV and wanted it to be completely neutral. And so I composed him bang in the middle of the photo. I wanted it to be strange, emotionless, not saying anything at all. Just a boy with a pot on his head for no apparent reason.

Rule of Odds – The rule of odds states that images are more visually appealing when there is an odd number of subjects. For example, if you are going to place more than one person in a photograph, don’t use two, use 3 or 5 or 7, etc. There are times where you will have to break this rule. For example with an engagement shoot (two people) or a set of twins. No way around that. But there are definitely clever ways you can do this. I like asking couples to stand with their arms to their sides, side-by-side. And what seems like breaking the rule of thirds isn’t really. Yes, the couple may be in the middle of the shot, but each one is in the left or right third of the photo. And to ease the discomfort a viewer may feel with this even-numbered, symmetrical, rule-breaking image, I make sure they’re smiling 🙂

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Rule of Space – This is perhaps the hardest rule to break. According to the rule of space, this photo of a runner should be the opposite of what it is. He should be running into an open space, not out of it. Photography should always saysomething unless, like my photo of the pot-head-kid, what you’re saying is nothing at all. And the rule of space says so very much to the viewer. What does this photo, which breaks that rule, say? For me, it’s saying he’s leaving us. He’s been there, done that, onto the next stretch of desert.

What’s your favourite rule to break? The hardest?

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Elizabeth Halford is a Hampshire Photographer and keeps a rockin' photography blog where she writes about photography and business in "real.plain.english".

  • Sabe

    I so agree with you Tiff!!!

  • Suzanne McClendon

    Amen!

    One of my favorite photographers had several things to say on this subject:

    “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

    “No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.”

    If that attitude is good enough for Ansel Adams, a master photographer, it is certainly good enough for me!

  • Glenys Wild

    Just came across your post and so pleased that there is someone else in the world who thinks like me. I will continue to take MY photographs.

Some Older Comments

  • Bill Hodge December 23, 2011 07:37 am

    I think the rule of thirds can also be stated with two options, symmetrical vs. non-symmetrical. Images square in the field of view (and not abiding by the rule of thirds) can be beautiful if you're capitalizing on the 'Symmetry' of the subject. This is one of the places you can violate this important rule and get good results.

  • sigfried baterina June 24, 2011 10:32 am

    breaking the rule of the space: my little niece on the way HOME(notice the her height difference with the catcher).

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=31793425&l=9baf415335&id=1088521905

  • sigfried baterina June 24, 2011 10:31 am

    breaking the rule of the space:

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=31793425&l=9baf415335&id=1088521905

  • Chandira October 22, 2010 06:42 am

    My own personal hardest rule to break is exposure. I get anal about photos that are too under or over exposed. Nothing ticks me more than finding my camera has underexposed and left me with a darkened photo, and I have to lighten up the exposure digitally on the computer afterwards.
    And I hate seeing grey photos elsewhere where the photographer hasn't bothered to correct.

    I took a photo of a seagull recently that was overexposed, and it was, in my eyes, magical. The light melted her into the ethereal, and she vanished almost into the spirit-realms in the bright sun.
    I had to work to just leave the image alone, and not try to 'correct' it.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/chandira/4968604420/in/set-72157624436048536/]

  • Ariana Murphy August 16, 2010 03:09 am

    Here's the link. I can never figure out how to post a photo in this kind of venue.

    http://flic.kr/p/84oSxd

  • Ariana Murphy August 16, 2010 03:05 am

    I have a hard time with "centeritis" too, although I am working on beating it. Sometimes it works, though.
    I am very fond of this shot, "Catbird in the Forest Green".

  • Alberto August 9, 2010 05:23 pm

    I take a lot of care not braking the rules. For the rule of thirds, I break it when the vanishing point is in the exact center of the picture or s portrait, so I have an exact simetrical scene. For the odds rule its an "eye issue", if I see the pick I shoot. For the space one I have really problems to break it because it is suitable when the object is moving fast, and I'm not so good photographer, sooooo, I do not use to break this rule.
    Great post and great examples. I enjoy a lot learning each day with DPS.

  • BB August 9, 2010 10:19 am

    Hahaha, love the photo of your kid *and* you called him a pothead too! :p

  • Mahesh Garg August 8, 2010 12:13 am

    for rule od odds broken in this pic
    http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=26019&id=100000012162824&saved#!/photo.php?pid=500421&id=100000012162824

  • Mahesh Garg August 8, 2010 12:12 am

    for ur rule of odds to be broken

  • GradyPhilpott August 7, 2010 02:37 am

    The rules of composition are really rules of psychology. Through the centuries artists have learned what people most respond to and have distilled those elements into a list of rules.

    Actually, they aren't rules at all. They're tendencies. People tend to find some things more appealing than others, but there are many ways to capture the imagination.

    I believe that the author has not "broken" the rules, but rather manipulated them to capture the imagination of the viewer and successfully so.

    In the shot of the boy with the pot on his head, I don't see how the rule of thirds could be strictly followed and still have an interesting shot. Actually, if you place a line in the center of the subject, which includes the pot, that line would be pretty close to the left third of the picture.

    So, the overriding rule is to make your picture interesting. The easiest way to do that is to follow the set of rules that tell you what most often pleases the viewer, but those rules aren't written in stone or even hard wired into anyone's brain.

    The strange, mysterious, and the unexpected are also appealing.

  • Karen Brodie August 6, 2010 08:18 pm

    ! wasn't even aware of the "Rule of Space" I'll have to go think about that one lol. Comments on level horizons, is that a rule to break? a level horizon is as natural as the sun in the sky, however I'm really bad at a squinty horizon and I alway correct it. So breaking the rule of something natural?? Its not a rule of Photography, just nature imho.

    Remember it was someone who wrote these rules and set them for themselves and others took them as law, but they are just opinions and guides at the end of the day, beautify is in the eye of the beholder, what image might look great to one, it maybe gastly to another :)))))


  • Jon August 6, 2010 07:21 pm

    The photo of your son may break the rule of thirds however another great composition technique seems to be followed - the lines of the houses in the background, the fence and the bricks to the right all point to and draw your eye towards your sons face, great picture!!

  • Jack Clarfelt August 6, 2010 05:19 pm

    My hardest rule to break is having the horizon level. Even when I want to tilt from the horizontalfor a particular effect, my mind keeps telling me "it's wrong".

  • Mei Teng August 6, 2010 02:28 pm

    Dawn, I think the portrait shot is a good one. I like portraits taken like the way you did.

  • Charlie Young August 6, 2010 12:40 pm

    I suffer from "centeritis"....way too many of my photos fall to this affliction!
    Charlie

  • Edward August 6, 2010 11:30 am

    I really enjoy your site on a daily basis.. however I have to disagree with you on the third shot. You are still using space, you are just changing the story. He's running from something, rather than to something. It's still a story, just the opposite. Breaking the space rule would be a tight shot on his legs with nothing around imho. Keep up the great work.

  • Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead August 6, 2010 07:54 am

    Jean-Paul Belmondo, the famous French actor, was once asked what made a good film.
    'Oh yes, I have quite a bit to say on this matter,' he replied.
    There was an immediate pin-drop silence among the journalists as he went on to explain.
    'The first important thing is that there should be a good story. The second, gentlemen, is there should be a good story; and the third is a good story.'
    I am a DSLR beginner and at 68 I have learnt to learn in such a way so as not to go through the painful process of having to unlearn. So I am sticking to the rules at this stage. BUT I do break them once in a while, so long as they tell a story. My shots will be for a book I am writing.
    Tiberman - Mauritius

  • Boris August 6, 2010 04:12 am

    I'd love to get some comments on my Photos .. I am kind of guy who likes to control the situation, to create atmosphere and etc, yet, here are some of my old photos which couldn't be prepared. I hope to get some feedback.
    Thanks and greetings from Macedonia!

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=2537582&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=2537582&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album#!/photo.php?pid=2537585&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album&fbid=66305985195

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=2537582&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album#!/photo.php?pid=2537587&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album&fbid=66305995195

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=2537582&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album#!/photo.php?pid=2537588&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album&fbid=66306000195

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=2537582&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album#!/photo.php?pid=2537589&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album&fbid=66306005195

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=2537582&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album#!/photo.php?pid=2537591&id=727595195&ref=fbx_album&fbid=66306015195

    And many others in some of my many albums there :)

  • sillyxone August 6, 2010 03:47 am

    well, there is "The bird scene" as a reminder: if you didn't know the rules, skip them altogether. Especially if you are an HSP, trust your instinct/intuition instead.

    http://justjaredjr.buzznet.com/2010/04/08/victoria-justice-the-bird-scene-struggle/

  • Dawn Camp August 6, 2010 12:01 am

    I know that you should check your highlight warnings to make sure you're not overexposing and blowing out parts of the image, but I find that some of my favorite shots have that look.

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/dawnmhsh/4787643336/' title='100626_ChristianBackgroundTest_005' url='http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4120/4787643336_c8f03d0f26.jpg']

  • Karen Stuebing August 5, 2010 10:59 pm

    Ms Halford has mastered breaking the rules of composition. Nice photos. Love the pot head boy. :)

    I find the rule of thirds the hardest to break. I'm not sure why. It just never seems to work for me.

    It was a Daily Shoot assignment and I did it but didn't find the result to be very compelling. I cropped it to be exactly centered. I didn't shoot it that way. I was close but I can't seem to ever center anything. :)

    Dogwood

    I have occasional success with asymmetrical balance although that one has to really grab my attention. I never set out to do it.

    Old Springs Holler

  • Gary August 5, 2010 08:26 pm

    What I find interesting is that the photos are meant to illustrate examples of breaking the "rules" when , in fact, they confirm how they can be employed less obtrusively. For example, the boys eyes are smack on the line of the top third of the frame. The couple are standing close together, gazing into each others eyes, to form a single unit within the image to conform to the "Rule of Odds" and the last example, being the runner, (also placed on the third) has the relevant space behind him to show where is coming from which still adds to the story being told. Does the fact we cannot see the runner's face and eyes give credence to this apparent reversal of the "Rule of Space"? Would these photos be as strong if the placement of the subjects did not follow the "Rules"?

  • Lisa August 5, 2010 05:01 pm

    Thanks for both articles on the rules and how to break them. The writer in me has been amazed how the rules for photography mirror those for writing. My objection to the comments about your son's picture (which is a great moment to capture) is not about the composition, but that he has no expression or that the picture says nothing. I see stories everywhere and his expression speaks volumes. The inspiration sparked by that photo is boundless. Bravo!

  • Ste_95 August 5, 2010 04:26 pm

    My favourite is Thirds, while the hardest is space rule.

  • Garry August 5, 2010 04:25 pm

    I agree with Andy on the Rule of Space shot. When I first looked at it my eyes went from the runners legs straight back up the track to see where he came from. Its a great shot and example.

  • Steve L August 5, 2010 12:50 pm

    With all due respect (who am I to tell you what to do?) the composition of the photo of your son doesn't work for me.

    The proportions feel wrong, and I feel it would have been a better photo if you HAD adhered to the rule of thirds.

    If you had moved a little to your left, and raised your viewpoint slightly, you would have removed the distracting car from the left background, and caused the lines of the fence and the wall to converge behind your son's head, leading the eye into the photo.

    Anyway that's just IMHO.

  • bmc August 5, 2010 12:50 pm

    I think a good thing to remember is how and why these rules or guidlines came about. Using the "Rule of Thirds" as an example: It's been shown that the eye naturally goes to one of the intersection of 'third' lines and not the center of an image or photo. By placing our subject or point of interest into one of these areas, it becomes pleasing or interesting to the eye...and that's what it's all about. It isn't about laying a grid down and measuring within millimetres to see if an image follows this rule or not. Keeping that in mind, don't bend or break a rule/guideline for the sake of bending or breaking it. It's about what works, what's pleasing or interesting to the eye. The same rule-breaking composition might work for one subject or scene , yet not work at all for another. It's what works, what's interesting, what pleases the eye. Experiment. Then, experiment some more!

  • Scott August 5, 2010 12:19 pm

    My favorite rule to break is the rule of space, very often what's behind is more interesting than what's ahead.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4760669466/

    The hardest is the rule of thirds, as fortunato uno pointed earlier, we often use that rule without even realizing it.

  • Shaun Martin August 5, 2010 11:26 am

    Just adding my voice to the others, the pot-head-kid picture follows the rule of thirds. Where the pot meets the head is on the left vertical and his eyes are on the top horizontal...

  • Mei Teng August 5, 2010 10:30 am

    I like the photo of your son. Great composition.

    I try to keep in mind the rules of composition but at the same time try not to be restricted by them. I believe I break the rules of composition all the time. If what I see seemed pleasing and works well, I will just go ahead and shoot. And many times, it has worked.

  • ttekcah August 5, 2010 09:26 am

    The photo lovingly dubbed pot-head-kid is an excellent example of compensation for rules excluded. While it does break the rule of thirds, the creases in the denim, the uneven collars, the un-even lines of the openings in fleece and the jean jacket, the bricks to the right adding a tremendous amount of depth while still moving the eye back to the face, the vertical lines of the fence to the left, the smooth roofline of the car in the background, and the (seemingly) eternally curving line of the pot's rim - they all add a tremendous number of points of interest, and movement to "make up" for the lack of the rule of thirds. The expression on his face is also amazing (I also bet a few funny faces were made when you put that put on his head).

    Excellent photo, and excellent post.

  • johnp August 5, 2010 08:48 am

    I think the photo of your son also works because of another old fashion composition trick, it is roughly pyramid in shape with lines (the pot handle) leading into the face. I also think the shot of the couple is helped by them being contained by the arch, that stops the eye searching for the elusive third person.

  • fortunato_uno August 5, 2010 08:24 am

    I like this article for the attempt to show people to shoot outside the box. I how ever have to say Mrs Halford has actually not broken any of the stated rules. Please understand I'm not as much argueing the point, as I'm pointing out the rules that she actually followed.
    1) Rule of thirds. if you notice the point of the pot on the head (really more the point of viewer focus then the eyes) is the head. and thats pretty much in the top third of the image.
    2) odds. the stairs behind the couple are three destinctive lines.
    3) rule of space. this one is easy, away. it shows the runners legs on the far right. in Mrs Halfords other post she said that you needed space for some thing (actually I think she said someone) to go. well i'd have to say away is still somewhere to go.
    As I said in the beginning, I didn't write this response to argue or say she's wrong (i read her articles on here with reverance for her professionalizm) , I think her point is sound and functional, just not really well exampled.

  • atFault August 5, 2010 07:49 am

    I think Eileen has a point. Plus almost every line pulls the eye towards his face. Even the pot handle has that effect. I don't think that it is as much a successful breaking of the rules of thirds as the application of other techniques that make it work well.

  • Alex August 5, 2010 07:37 am

    Great contrasting post, I love the examples and the explanations. Well done!

  • Andy August 5, 2010 07:24 am

    My first look at the runner photo, before I read any of the text on the page, was that we don't care where he's going, we only care where he's been, the trail he's left behind. Similar to your explanation. A lot of times with action shots like that, I find that this is much more intriguing than showing where the subject is going. After taking in where they've been and what they did to get there, the mystery that sticks with the viewer is where they are going after all that. Of course, this requires there to actually be something behind the subject.

  • Eileen August 5, 2010 07:23 am

    Actually, I think the photo of your son does follow the rule of thirds. They are just vertical.

  • paige whitley August 5, 2010 07:23 am

    I think the pot-head moniker works, he's expressionless, he's not going anywhere or doing anything, that matches perfectly with a wasteoid pothead!

  • Mark Pashia August 5, 2010 06:31 am

    You might have chosen another moniker for your son. The pot-head-kid brings to mind a teen with too much marijuana!!! I know it was innocent, but it is what it is. Maybe even worth an edit now!

  • noĆ« August 5, 2010 06:20 am

    For me, some photos just beg to be symmetrical, and I (knowingly) break the rule of thirds. Here's my favorite example. [eimg url='http://impressions.nzlee.com/2010/03/cherry-tree-condos/' title='cherry-tree-condos']

  • tim August 5, 2010 06:03 am

    I think i successfully broke the Rule of Thirds on this photos

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/47167603@N08/4590077148/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/47167603@N08/4599190200/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/47167603@N08/4768983752/

    Or am i wrong?

  • Shafraz Thawfeek August 5, 2010 05:55 am

    Nice. Know the rules, then break it for the better. Need to get it into the natural thinking, so you know when you break it. I'm gonna give it a try. Thanks for the article.

    ------------
    Follow me on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/shafrazthawfeek
    Add me on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shaf81/

    Don't forget to checkout my latest pix on Flickr - My first attempt at Wildlife Photography :)

  • Adam August 5, 2010 05:43 am

    Some great advice and solid examples to show how to break the rules.

  • fotographx August 5, 2010 05:40 am

    The photo of your son may have broken the rule of thirds but you have sort of used a rule of convergent lines on either side of his head drawing the viewer's eye to the center of the photo, sort of ties it all together. It is a good photo.

  • Vladimir August 5, 2010 05:34 am

    Cool,
    Thanks! Yeah, only after mastering the rules...

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