May 31, 2007

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

Problems with composition …
Most or all beginners tend to ‘shoot’ pictures – the camera is aimed at the subject and then the shutter is fired. The result is one of most common errors in photographic composition – the feet of the person being photographed are cut off and lots of empty sky or dead branches or irrelevant whatever in the top half of the picture.

Also, focusing screens of manual focus SLRs have the split-image prism or micro-prisms in the center. Most auto-focus cameras also focus on whatever subject is placed in the middle, although the current generation of top-end auto-focus cameras have multi-zone focusing.

Inevitably most camera users photograph their subjects that way – looking at the main subject, dead center of the frame – with disappointing results.

But help is on the way …
In order to help photographers break out of this instinctive way of taking photographs and to ‘force’ the photographer to actually look at what is presented, the Rule Of Thirds has been presented as a mechanical aid to better composition.

The Rule Of Thirds was devised by traditional painters as a guide to improve the balance of a picture. When the main or dominant points of interest lie on lines that intersect the picture in ‘thirds’, the picture is supposed to attain a dynamic equilibrium.

The straight jacket of the Rule Of Thirds …
This rule was meant to be a guideline – and it does dramatically improve composition over aiming dead-center – but it has somehow become a near-inflexible formula for traditional and conservative photographers. To them it is a hard-and-fast absolute. And here is the problem ..

Rigidly applying The Rule Of Thirds has made composition an intellectual decision instead of an emotional reaction.

Here is the danger in being influenced by the so-called Rules of Composition – the composition of a subject is immediately questioned or discarded if the main subject is placed anywhere else in the frame, eg. at the edges, or even at the center of the picture, regardless of the initial emotional impact.

Now if you remember only this one thing …

Frame. Don’t just aim

That is the only guideline to good composition that I can think of that encourages the photographer to be creative.

Take your time to look at what is actually presented in the viewfinder.
Scan the whole frame; look at the sides and corners.
Is everything that you see, everything that you want?
Is this the best way that the subject can be represented?
Do you need to re-frame or move to another position?

It is this simple and it is this complex …
This idea of course does not present any definitive guidelines but relies on the nebulous supposition that the photographer will recognize when the picture presented in the viewfinder ‘looks good’ – when the best composition and framing is achieved – the intuitive feeling that this picture ‘looks good’. But therein already lies much greater freedom in composing your photograph.

It is up to the thinking photographer to decide when the picture is best presented. And this should not by necessity follow what the chapters on Composition in the photography handbooks have to say. To blindly follow the idea that specific rules will achieve the best result, the photographer is really restricting him/herself. Interesting and creative photography will NOT be achieved by following a set of fixed composition rules slavishly.

Photographic Composition should be your deliberate choice.


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{ 5 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Paul Ellison January 30, 2008 at 11:32 am

Hello – you are wonderful. I love the information you are posting. I stumbled across this site and I am so glad I did. I hope you are publishing a book soon. I am reading every word and finding it so well thought out. I will be checking back for updates. Happy shooting. Paul Calgary Alberta Canada


2 Irena Leite April 23, 2008 at 12:00 pm


I just came up with your site looking for the info on bokeh.. :) I do agree with a previous comment about your site.. you are doing a really great job here.. at the moment I am doing a random browsing, but I am sure, i?l come back more than once.. ;)

Thanks for sharing!

My best regards,

PS. I am a Latvian in Italy, obsessed with a photography for at latest 5 years.. :)


3 Richard September 1, 2008 at 8:26 pm

I believe like you do that being inflexible with the rule of thirds is not a good thing. However, for the newcomer it would be better to stick to the rule instead of centering all the subjects with the resulting lack of appeal from those images. I also believe that a rigid approach at the outset will help the initial steps and that eventually the photographer will see that is possible to ignore rules and regulations and become the artist that lives in all of us.
Thank you for your writings, they help us a lot.


4 Neil September 1, 2008 at 10:22 pm

Richard ..

What I am kicking against is a formulaic approach that turns us into technicians instead of artists.

Neil vN


5 Dismayed September 3, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Love your site. Lots of great info.


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