Photographic Composition: Rules Versus Elements

In the dictionary, some of  the  words that  are  used  to define  rules are:

  • Regulations.
  • Law.
  • What  is possible or allowable.
  • Discipline.
  • Control or dominion.
  • Normal or customary.

In the dictionary, some of  the  words that  are  used  to define  elements are:

  • The primary or  fundamental parts of  something.

To me, the words used to describe rules are  restrictive, limited and will lead  to pictures that are  ordinary while the words used to describe elements are free, unlimited and will lead to pictures as unique as the person creating the photograph.

Rules have limits and restrictions. Elements can be combined to create limitless and unrestricted variations.

Would you rather use rules of composition to make your picture or combine elements of composition to create your photographs?

Study And Practice Photography With Sam.

2 thoughts on “Photographic Composition: Rules Versus Elements”

  1. The way it was explained to me is that when you first start out, you should follow the rules of composition until you know enough not to follow them.

    1. Hi Saul,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I don’t know who explained that to you, but I strongly and respectfully disagree.

      Why spend time learning to follow something that you’re eventually not going to follow?

      I think a photographer who is first starting out is better served by learning to work their camera in manual mode, learning the basics of photography, and learning to view that every choice that they make (aperture, shutter, speed, exposure, ISO, focal length of lens, type of camera, white balance setting, characteristics of light that they see, etc.) has a visual outcome. Each of those choices can be viewed as an element of composition to be combined in limitless ways for effective visual communication and/or to express yourself.

      Here are some of my favorite quotes regarding rules and photography:

      —–And in not learning the rules, I was free. I always say, you’re either defined by the medium or you redefine the medium in terms of your needs. – Duane Michals

      ——Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk. – Edward Weston

      ——-I am not interested in rules or conventions. Photography is not a sport. – Bill Brandt

      ——-There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs. – Ansel Adams

      —–When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial cliches. – Edward Weston

      —–The best part of us is not what we see, it’s what we feel. We are what we feel. We are not what we look at. We’re not our eyeballs, we’re our mind. People believe their eyeballs and they’re totally wrong. That’s why I consider most photographs extremely boring–just like Muzak, inoffensive, charming, another waterfall, another sunset. This time, colors have been added to protect the innocent. It’s just boring. But that whole arena of one’s experience–grief, loneliness–how do you photograph lust? I mean, how do you deal with these things? This is what you are, not what you see. It’s all sitting up here. I could do all my work sitting in my room. I don’t have to go anywhere. – Duane Michals

      ——-Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even it is clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work. – William Klein

      ——I came from the outside, the rules of photography didn’t interest me… there were things you could do with a camera that you couldn’t do with any other medium… grain, contrast, blur, cock-eyed framing, eliminating or exaggerating grey tones and so on. I thought it would be good to show what’s possible, to say that this is as valid of a way of using the camera as conventional approaches. – William Klein

      —-I used to think that photographs were “composed.” This made photography sound very unexuberant, as if it was primarily a deliberate act. Such a notion suggests that a photographer stands in front of an inviting landscape, arranges a composition, and then takes the picture. And it’s true that many photographers work that way. Of course, if photographs can be composed, then there must be rules of composition, such as: the subject should never be dead center. But why not? I used to think you could learn how to be a photographer by learning the rules of composition and how to use a camera. Now I think just the opposite: if you have to learn rules, then it’s already too late. The elements of a design can make a photograph bearable and inoffensive, but they will not make a photograph compelling. We are compelled by photographs which, within the limits of an objectively appropriate form, manage to offer us something that touches on authentic concerns – our happiness or unhappiness, our fidelities, our modern war with perplexity. The balance between design and content must be there because design by itself is not interesting and pure content is merely assertive. – John Rosenthal – “Design as Meaning: An Artist’s View of His World and His Art.” NCArts

      ——-Somehow ‘purists’ have confused photography with some sort of a bizarre competition that comes with an undefined set of rules that mandates that photographs be produced by a photographer looking through the lens and tripping the shutter, when in fact intellect, logic and service to viewers demands that ultimately the only thing that matters is producing the image you want to represent your vision. – Bill Frakes

      —-There are no rules and regulations for perfect composition. If there were we would be able to put all the information into a computer and would come out with a masterpiece. We know that’s impossible. You have to compose by the seat of your pants. – Arnold Newman, Interviews With Master Photographers : Minor White, Imogen Cunningham, Cornell Capa, Elliott Erwitt, Yousuf Karsh, Arnold Newman, Lord Snowdon, Brett Weston by James Danziger

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