On Composition


This story was originally published in October 2014.

There are so many rules of composition that are there. If I go ahead and try to follow all of them in a photograph, won’t the moment that is happening in front of me get over?
Shyam Desai, Mumbai

Let’s start this answer with a bit of a reality check. It is practically impossible for a photographer to always follow every single rule of composition. After all, there are so many! Let’s assume that you try to follow the Rule of Thirds, then look for a frame to include within the frame, then try and calculate the golden mean and… not only will you get thoroughly confused, as you said, the action that is taking place will get over before you have even pressed the shutter!

But then, composition is still the most important thing that distinguishes your point of view from another photographer’s. The idea is that these aren’t ‘rules’. Consider them guidelines. These are visual patterns and maxims that painters, artists and other judges of aesthetics have deemed pleasing. Following them blindly will not get you a great picture, but it will help you understand why you are framing an image in a particular way.

To practise, start by following anyone rule, at first. Give yourself a month-long exercise such that you will only shoot images using that rule. Then, spend a month practising another rule. Eventually, once your own style develops, a few of these guidelines will become a part of your visual subconscious. It may be just one rule that you eventually choose to follow on a regular basis, but as long as you practise enough, using this rule effectively will become a reflex action.

Of course, you can always bend or break the rules from time to time, but educating yourself about the rules and knowing why you are breaking them, is vital.

Tags: angles, ask the expert, composition tips