The Rules of Composition, The Rules of Art.

April 05, 2015  •  1 Comment

StepStep The 'Rules of Composition' are a bad theory (a theory is a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based); 'bad' because they are contradictory and unrelated and, most of all, because they don't deal with the real issues. 'Bad' also because there is a commonly accepted and verbalized aphorism that one 'should follow the Rules until one is knowledgeable enough to break them.' A complete theory accounts for all of the facts that are known and relates them; clearly the 'Rules' don't do that.

The Rules are an attempt to explain, in very simple terms, a very ambiguous and variable behavior – how an individual sees and understands a photograph. I am not talking about the deeper content within subjects but only the surface, the primary decisions of what it important and what one should look at. For example, bright colored things are important, important things are not in the center exactly and not way over on the edge usually, things in the center sort of imply a symmetry. What we know is the horizon should be level, what we know is a vertical in real life should be vertical. We like balance, it feels good, we are attracted to things that are 'in focus'.

Trying to learn photography by learning any 'Rule' or set of them is inefficient and bound to fail, much like becoming fluent in a language doesn't come easily if one starts with rules of grammar. Since the 'Rules' of composition describe only incompletely how people perceive something as it is shown to them; Rules are to composition as a pile of wood is to a structure.

Noam Chomsky, the controversial linguist, etc, proposed that if human beings are brought up under relatively normal conditions, then they will always develop language with certain properties. I think that people have a similar, if less developed, 'vision engine' that allows them, even without any formal training, to understand the hints and clues in pictures they look at. When someone looks at a picture, somewhere in their mind that little vision engine tries to parse out what all the things are in each picture, what their relative importance is and what is the meaning of the picture being shown to them.

In the Western world, at least, we seem to inherent some little set of ways in which we parse meanings by size, by color, by brightness, by position- even an untutored person can appreciate some pictures. (Hence 'I don't know anything about art but I know what I like').

This 'vision engine' becomes more complex as people look at more pictures and are educated more even just by experience; they then form their own set of likes and dislikes, but usually based on a fairly common underlying set of built-in ideas about how to see art.

The role of the photographer is not to follow any set of 'Rules' but to present an image that is structured in such a way that the viewer, through their vision engine, can absorb or appreciate it. The more the photographer is aware of how people see, parse and understand pictures, the better the photographer can construct pictures.

Photographers can use these preconceptions either by using them to reinforce the photographer's intention or by violating them purposefully, surprising the viewer and giving that extra fillip of interest. When the photographer is not aware of how the viewer 'sees' a picture and the picture is constructed with contradicting 'hints' then the resultant picture becomes less comfortable.

These ideas and presets that seem to be built into most people are sort of described, awkwardly and, worst of all, incompletely by the 'Rules'. So, in giving someone feedback on their work, if the critic uses shortcuts by quoting only a 'Rule' is depriving the recipient of any real insight into their work. An image is successful because it appeals to people and lets them understand what is important and what

So critiques are most helpful, not if you tell the maker they have violated any specific 'Rule(s)', but why this 'defect' does diminish the effect. That helps people to understand what to do and why to do it. Giving them only a 'Rule' to follow doesn't allow them to go far.

When the appeal of an image overcomes any defects or distractions, no one cares about whether 'Rules' are broken or not.

The gap between the certainty of 'Rules' and the ambiguous understanding of how pictures are perceived is wide and not easily crossed. Like learning any language, each of us is different in our ability to absorb the complex language of composition. Too often, people who are new or insecure about their own artistic sense fall back on Rules because following and quoting 'Rules' is comfortable and sounds authoritative.

Many people will never get fluent in that language; perhaps that is what drives the emphasis on technical perfection in so many photographers, why they persist in ever sharper lenses, ever more pixels, always searching for a magic something that will fill the place of understanding.






I would suggest that "rules" take up such a prominent role in these types of discussions, because they are relatively easy to state, whereas the deeper discussions (which you allude to) are more difficult to verbalize. Many people rely on "rules" the same way many builders rely on "standards" - it essentially absolves them of having to do the intellectual heavy lifting to truly figure things out. Even if we regard "rules" as guidelines, they still allow us to reduce the effort at studying and recognizing the image and its contents.

On the other hand, our society is very concerned about labels and classifications, and rules fall fairly neatly into that, being a convenient summary of a set of attributes that may in actual fact be quite involved. Rules or labels allow us to process and categorize a lot of information very quickly, at the expense of having a deeper and more thorough understanding of something. For many, having a superficial awareness is more attractive than having a deep insight - one is quick and easy, the other requires some work and quite possibly personal reflection.

Perhaps this discussion can go further if we spend time looking at why certain "rules" get quoted a lot, and whether the assumptions that underlie them stand up to scrutiny. For instance, there's the "rule" that the horizon should never be at the center, "because it creates a static image". And yet, we know that statement is true in some circumstances, and false in others. So the discussion will be more productive if we examine WHY or HOW the positioning affects the perception.
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