Two Cardinal Rules

March 07, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Photographers are well-acquainted with compositional rules. There are a great many, including the rule of thirds; the rule of odds; the golden ratio; avoid centering the main subject; avoid too much negative space; use symmetrical balance; fill the frame; include a foreground element. 

Beyond that there are guidelines which, while not rules per se, can easily feel like them - and are too often conveyed as such. This is also a long list and includes things like what time of day you should and shouldn't shoot and how you should process your images. Actually, though, most are simply opinions.  

All these rules and guidelines can be overwhelming. They might seem restrictive. Constraining. Some are perhaps confusing. 

This leads me to the first cardinal rule, which is that none of this is binding. Don't wear compositional rules around your neck like an albatross. Frequently they'll help you create successful images, because they're effective. Use them to your advantage. Other times, though, you'll make a better photo by ignoring them. 

Almost every compositional rule can be broken if you have a good reason to do so. 

That said, before you break the rules, it's advisable to learn them. Be cognizant of the various compositional techniques. Know the "why" behind each principal. Understand how these approaches can help you arrange and organize visual elements so that each one has a purpose and contributes something to what you're trying to say.

Once you've got these techniques under your belt, you might very well look at a scene and opt to break from convention in order to create a photograph with more impact - but you'll be making a conscious decision and understand why you're doing it. 

As for the many guidelines which are really points of view, over time and with experience it will become clear that, rather than edicts engraved in stone, these are just various ways of looking at things. Your perspective may differ and your opinion is no less valid.

Take the golden hour, for example. One school of thought is that the only "good" light is that which you'll find during the golden hour. Many adhere to this as if it's a rule, but is it really true that good light can only be found during two finite slots each day? What about all the other hours?

What is good light? 

It's not just this one viewpoint about the golden hour; there are a lot of strong opinions about light and/or the conditions. For example, avoid shooting in the middle of the day, avoid bluebird skies, avoid precipitation, avoid shooting when it's flat and overcast. 

Nature and landscape photography is a collaborative effort between the photographer and Mother Nature. We don't control the weather. There's no denying the exceptional quality of light during the golden hour - and maybe there's nothing you love more than a colorful sunrise or sunset. But what about all those times when it's completely overcast or there's not a cloud in the sky?

As for hard light, is the landscape completely devoid of interesting subject matter on a sunny mid-day? Can nothing creative be achieved then?

Try to rigidly adhere to these restrictions about when you should and shouldn't shoot and your camera will spend a lot of time in the bag while you're twiddling your thumbs waiting for perfection. You may be missing all sorts of opportunities, not just in terms of subject matter but also the latitude to develop your own style.

Worse, you might begin to second-guess yourself. 

My second cardinal rule, then, is to listen to your creative instincts. Learn to trust yourself. There is often no right or wrong. 

Bottom line, you're in charge. 

Learn and understand compositional fundamentals. Listen to and learn from the philosophies of other photographers and how they approach their work - but recognize opinions as just that: one way of doing things, but not the only way.

Give yourself the freedom to develop your creative aesthetic.

Following are a few examples of breaking the rules and/or going against conventional opinion:

Avoid Centering the Subject in the Frame

"Positioning the subject off-center creates more interest."
But not always.

KALEIDOSCOPICKALEIDOSCOPICThe best way to appreciate Grand Prismatic Spring is from the air, where both its otherworldy appearance and immense size are apparent. Note the man on the walkway - though only a speck from the sky, he casts a long shadow.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Avoid Shooting at Mid-Day

"Midday lighting creates harsh light, excessive contrast, blown out highlights, washed out colors..."

You can use some of these very conditions to your advantage. Excessive contrast can lend itself beautifully to black and white. The light can create excellent shadows; you can also try using it to backlight your subject. Depending where you're working, you might also be able to create open shade. You can get great reflections with strong light.

Best of all, you just bought yourself a LOT of additional time during which to work.

IMPOSINGIMPOSINGSpectacular badlands at Desolation Canyon

Death Valley National Park, California

Position the Sky in the Top Third of the Frame

Here the sky takes up more than two thirds of the frame. Technically I suppose that means I broke two rules. If you add the aggressive off-center placement of the lighthouse that's three. However, it's easy to see why I composed this image the way I did.

Morning GloryMORNING GLORYIn autumn and winter, the spot where the sun first appears in the morning shifts significantly further south - creating opportunities to compose images featuring Nubble Light and colorful skies at daybreak much differently than during the longest days of summer.

Cape Neddick, Maine
The Rule of Odds

"An odd number of subjects will produce a more visually pleasing photograph."

Here, there are clearly only two main subjects, though they're linked and form a single outline. I guess that means I broke the rule but at the same time perhaps I didn't.  

The photograph is entitled "The Shape of Things" so you can see what the thinking was behind this composition.

Morning Stillness White Mountains New HampshireTHE SHAPE OF THINGSThough "leaf peepers" crowd the area in early October, the landscape is quiet, peaceful and mostly deserted in the hour before sunrise.

White Mountains, New Hampshire
These photos illustrate broken rules, but there were specific reasons for doing so. The compositions worked for me and for what I was trying to convey - but that doesn't mean there wouldn't have been another way to arrange the elements. 

Nothing is binding. Listen to your instincts. 


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