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If you have had any formal art training, you’ll most likely remember being instilled with the classic rules of composition (more on that later.) However, following the rules is not always how great art is made! Truly visionary artists in any medium sealed their place in art history by creating their own path once they got the rules down. Knowing how and when to break them to create your own visual style and propel your photographic art to a new level is what you’ll need to discover for yourself. First, let’s do a brief overview of the basics.

The Classic Rules

Composition rules were founded in classical times and started with painting and drawing but have since jumped over to many different medians including photography. These rules include: 

Leading Lines

This rule entails making sure that the lines within the composition gently lead the eye around the frame. The rhythm helps to draw attention to the subject of the image. They are aesthetically pleasing and typically frame the subject. These lines do not have to be straight or even.

Making & Breaking Photo Composition Rules


Diagonals are similar to the leading lines rule but different in the aspect that they don’t have to frame the subject but will still lead the viewer’s eye to it. They also can help to break up the frame of the overall image. 

Making & Breaking Photo Composition Rules

Filling the Frame

In other words, limit your negative space. Negative space typically leaves viewers uneasy and unbalanced. And, compositionally it is considered more appealing to have a full frame because it makes the piece feel more complete. 

Making & Breaking Photo Composition Rules

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the most common rules in art, and it simply means to break your composition up into thirds. Three invisible rows are envisioned when composing the shot to create a sense of balance. 

Making & Breaking Photo Composition Rules

Avoid Placing Your Subject in the Middle

This is thought to be a “boring” placement of a subject (although once you learn to ‘break’ it you’ll find this can also fall into breaking the rules!).

Making & Breaking Photo Composition Rules

How to Break the Rules Right

While leading lines make a good composition and are easy to shoot, when you intentionally break up these lines you can create even more intriguing compositions. Sometimes simple is best. Breaking up the lines and not filling the frame can add drama and intrigue. Depending on what emotion you want to capture, it can help to create a powerful statement with your image.

Simply shifting the position of your camera or adjusting your focal length can create some interesting perspective and angles. You can even introduce diagonal lines artificially, using the ‘Dutch Tilt’ technique perfected by famous cinematographers such as Orson Welles. Simply give a tilt to the camera as you take the shot. 

The well-balanced, rule of thirds is one that has been recently taught more often to break than to follow. It is more aesthetically pleasing to the eye to have an asymmetrical image. Create a stronger composition by using combinations such as 2/3 subject and 1/3 background or vice versa. Try zooming in and out as you shoot to see what yields the most interesting combination.

Depending on what you are shooting, placing your subject in the middle is not something to always avoid. This rings true especially when taking portraits and trying to really capture the subject’s personality. Placing the subject in the middle of the frame opens up a private conversation between the subject and the viewer instilling an emotional connection. Playing with depth of field is a tool that can be used to direct the viewer to specific aspects of the image. And, blurring the main subject to put another smaller subject in focus can create an interesting shift in focal point.

Bending the Rules

The best way to break the composition rules is to fully understand them first. If you can successfully shoot in the traditional sense, you should challenge yourself to the next step of breaking them. Think of the rules in a new way and bend them a bit each time you take on a new assignment. This will allow you to grow creatively in your photographic work and establish your own unique style.

Cheryl Woods

Cheryl Woods is an accomplished photographer, designer and branding consultant with a career spanning 20+ years. Her photographic work includes editorial, fashion, portraiture and product photography for major companies in the consumer products field including QVC and Hanover Direct. She received a B.F.A. in Photography from the University of the Arts and an M.F.A. in Media Design from Full Sail University. Cheryl's work has been exhibited at the Lowes Museum of Art in Coral Gables, FL, The New York Independent Film Festival and the Rosenwald Wolf Gallery in Philadelphia, PA. Check out her website here!


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