Rules in Photography

I believe that the hardest things in photography is knowing which rules to use, when to use them, how to use them, and when to abandon them. Rules in photography can be a useful tool, but they can also hold your photography back from achieving true greatness.

Many moons ago, when I was an art student in college, the approach my university took to teaching art was to discuss concepts like design, narrative, emotion, etc… but to spend very little time on technique, and hardly any on composition rules. Just enough technique was taught so that we could achieve our goals, and composition was rarely taught as a set of rules, although we did discuss the effectiveness of composition during critique.

During those days, I felt that this approach was not very effective. After all, how can one create stunning works of art if one did not have the technical skill to do so? I took also classes at another art college nearby whose approach was far more technically-based, and where they spent significant time developing hand-eye coordination and teaching composition rules. I felt that my art improved far more at the technical college since I was able to apply the new techniques and composition guidelines to increase the aesthetic appeal of my works by leaps and bounds. In contrast, at the college I attended, improvement came about through a difficult process of experimentation and discovery, if it came at all.

It was only quite a bit later that I understood why my college took the approach they did. First, let me address the issue of technique. Technique is indeed extremely important, and having a great vision is pointless if you do not have the technical mastery to pull it off – you could compose a great symphony but you still need musicians with the ability to perform it or no one will ever hear it. I still believe that my college could have spent more time teaching technique to help us get to the point where we can execute the artistic vision that was in our heads. But on the second issue – composition rules, which is the topic of this blog, I think that they were absolutely correct, and here is why. Composition rules exist because many years ago, great art masters spent countless hours practicing their art, devoting their entire lives in pursuit of creating an aesthetically pleasing image, and talented artists would learn from their life’s work and build upon them, devoting their entire lives advancing the art even more. What we learned from these masters became the rules of composition.

Composition rules are a shorthand for how great images were historically made. Because you are drawing upon the life’s works of generations upon generations of prodigious master artists when you use the rules of composition, your work will often achieve a much higher standard of excellence when following these rules than if you had to go it alone. However, you cannot have composition rules for an artistic vision that has not yet been invented – they are a guide to how things have always been done, not how things could be done. One of our goals as artists is to discover new ways of envisioning and portraying the world, to communicate these new ideas in new ways to an ever-increasingly jaded audience, and to challenge our worldview. You cannot achieve this by following rules – in fact, to do so it is imperative that you break them. Composition rules are a guide to the past, a convenient shorthand of cultural memory, not an arrow to the future. Following rules will rarely result in works of greatness. I am not saying that you should not use composition rules as it is not necessary or desirable to reinvent the wheel each time your create an art piece; in fact, I feel that it would be very wasteful not to learn from the collected knowledge of all the great artists of the past. But in order to truly advance the art, you have to break the rules, not follow them. Hopefully, if you succeed, your ideas will then lead to a new set of rules for future generations to get inspiration from.

Mark Teng