thomas park - dunes thirds

New articles: Composition

I’ve a new pair of articles on composition featured on DPReview.com: Compositional Rules, and Breaking the Rules.

Compositional Rules, the first article, covers a few fairly well-known so-called “rules of composition”, such as the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio.  My relationship with artistic rules is purely pragmatic, however – while I like spending my day drawing grids on images as much as the next guy (e.g., not very much), I think that rules can be good teaching aids; they can – somewhat paradoxically, being “rules” – help us to explore new techniques and styles, and they can certainly be a good starting point for artistic expression.

However, as I write in the beginning of Breaking the Rules, “compositional rules are polarising and divisive”.  Much like politics, discussing “rules” in art tends to draw out the extremes.  At the end of the day, though, it’s important to realise that these rules are just guidelines, not gospel.  Correlation is not causation. Just because one great image follows a given compositional rule (correlation) does not mean that a work of art is successful because it follows that rule (causation).

Despite its title, the second article is not quite a refutation of the first.  In the second article, I dig a little deeper into ways that we can approach compositional rules with a bit of cheeky skepticism – using the concepts that underpin a few of our popular rules in order to benefit from them, without being overly formulaic.

Composition is a deep topic.  It would be impossible to cover fully in twenty 2,000-word articles, let alone two of them.  One reader of the first article suggested a book by Michael Freeman, The Photographer’s Eye, which I picked up after writing these articles.  If you’re interested in a very methodical and much longer text covering this type of material, it’s worth reading, along with its followup, The Photographer’s Mind.

Another thing I encourage people to do when studying composition is to develop an artistic vocabulary.  The flowery prose that artists and art critics are often mocked for when describing works of art is not without value; developing a stylistic vocabulary to describe what we like about an image and why a particular image appeals to us is an integral part in recognising and refining our own visual style.  It can help us to extract the core elements that resonate with us from our own work, or the work of others.

I hope you enjoy the articles!

For further reading, by Michael Freeman: