And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules
–Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Today I’m going to take a brief digression from specific compositional topics, back up, and talk about compositional “rules”.  I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating.

They’re not rules.

Lithodendron Wash Abstract
Lithodendron Wash Abstract. I didn't shoot this based on "rules", I shot it based on intuition. (Image created as part of the National Park Service Artist-in-Residence Program at Petrified Forest NP.)

By this point in the Tuesday Composition series I’ve written about almost thirty ideas, each of which could be thought of as one (or perhaps a couple of) rules. But using them as rules will, in the end, limit your creative reach as a photographer. I urge you, in fact, I beg you not to use them as rules, either when you create your own images or, just as importantly, you look at an image of another photographer.

Let’s talk about that. It’s easier to begin this discussion by thinking not only about our own work but someone else’s. When I see a new image from a book, an advertisement, whatever, the first thing I do is to look at it, to see it. I do not drag out my list of rules and walk through it adding up a score. Instead, I look, and feel what I feel, notice what I feel. I don’t start with an analytical process, I start with an intuitive, visual process.

Once it’s made an impression, I’ll then try and figure out why. Why does this image seem particularly powerful? Why does this image seem random and uninteresting to me? More often than not (but hardly always!) I’ll be able to put words to at least some of those feelings. I’ll say, “Gee, this feels a little static, I wonder why, oh, it’s a little centered without a reason.” But the feelings come first, the guidelines come second, when I look at images.

At this point, you may be wondering: “Why am I reading this column, then?” How do guidelines help?

Guidelines serve two important purposes.

First, they’re a useful starting point for ideas when you’re strugging to improve an image that just isn’t working. Imagine that you’re working a broad landscape, you look through the viewfinder and go “Gee, that isn’t quite working, I wonder why?” If you’ve spent some time reading about compositional ideas, you might not only be able to figure out what isn’t working (say, a centered horizon), and as a result figure out what to do about it (tilt the camera up and down, see what looks good.)

These guidelines can help you brainstorm ideas for improving your images on-the-fly.

The second reason to read about compositional guidelines is even more important, it builds your intuition. Reading this column is far from the only way to do that, I’d also suggest that you go out and look at lots of photographs. Look at images in books, in magazines, in galleries, on web sites. Look for images that you really love, and try and figure out why you really love them. The guidelines will often help.

This process of looking at images (yours or someone else’s) and putting words and ideas to them helps build your intuiton. It’s a little easier to start with other people’s images. After all, you already know what you were trying to do with an image. Only another viewer will be able to tell you if you’ve successfully communicated with your image to someone else. This is why it’s so helpful to get feedback on your own images from other photographers, workshop leaders, anyone whose photographic “eye” you really respect.

Building intuition is part of building and refining your photographic vision. When your intuition can guide your camera in the right direction, you’ll be able to see and react in the field without a lot of distracting left-brain overthinking, and your images will be stronger and more creative as a result. It may be ironic that this path to intution involves a lot of left-brain thinking and reading, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

No rules, just guidelines, ideas and intuition.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Very nice post. You articulated this process very well. Photography does require the left brain and right brain to work together – to use intuition, but also analize what works and doesn’t, and why, and use those ideas to make better compositions.

  2. Thanks, Michael! By the way, your new book just arrived in the mail, I’m very much looking forward to reading it!

  3. (For clarification/disclosure: I had it on pre-order from Amazon, not a freebie.)

  4. This post is beyond awesome. I am always wondering what to do and what not to do so I will follow some of these tips.

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