I would like to start with a disclaimer that i have nothing against the rules, the books and the ones who follow it religiously. Trust me, I strongly believe in the philosophy “First learn all the rules, then learn to break them”. I do not intend to use this blog to write off all rules of composition and/or call them ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ . Instead, what follows is a look at the rationale behind some established rules of composition. I’d argue that by understanding the intent behind a rule, we can subvert or break the rule to create drama or focus the viewer’s attention in creative and novel ways.
About Microsoft Bing #ReachNewHeights
Microsoft organized a photography competition titled “Reach New Heights” to celebrate 50 years of National Park Service. With this competition Microsoft was looking for fresh/new perspective(s) on the world as seen from above, like from a drone, plane, or mountain top. I had a few photographs in my archive that met the contest prerequisites, a couple of which I was very confident about, but ironically, the ones that I’d expected to make it to the finals were shown the exit door in qualifying round, while the ones I overlooked, came out as winners. Life is full of surprises isn’t it? I can only assume that this happened because my hopes were riding high on the pictures that followed the rules of photography religiously, had nothing new to offer and probably looked repetitive. On the other hand, the picture that won the contest, broke many of those traditional rules, offering a fresh perspective.
A few days after i was declared the winner of the contest, Digital Camera Magazine, a leading photography based magazine based in UK sent me a questionnaire in line with a story that they were doing on me and my work for their next publication. The question at the top of that list was “What elements do you think are key to making this shot so impactful?“. As i wrote down my response/answer to the question, I thought of sharing this story with you all about how breaking a rule produces just as good a picture (or possibly better).
Analyzing the Runner Up : Following the Rules
To begin with, lets take a look at the following photograph first
“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” True to that infamous quote from the movie Forest Gump, I was extremely excited that not just one but two of my photographs were selected by the judges for final round. Yes unbelievable it may sound, but 2 of the Top 10, were my photographs. The photograph shared above happens to be the first runner up and before I talk about the winning image, I feel it is important for me to discuss this image first. Before I talk about breaking the rules, I must mention that I learned the text book rules and traditional compositional techniques first, before breaking them. So, if you have just begun your journey in photography, I strongly recommend going through the learning curve and learning all the nuances of photography. Very important!
Contrary to the winning photograph, this image incorporates the following two key rules of photography very effectively.
- Rule of Thirds: Subject of the image (Point of Rocks railway station building) is placed at the intersection of the 2 top left quadrants
- Leading Lines: Railway tracks work as the point of entry, starting from the lower right corner of the frame and guide the viewer’s eyes to the subject
So why would I possibly be talking about implementation of rules when title of the blog is “Rules are meant to be Broken”. The answer is simple, you cant mould something into anything new unless you know how it was created in the first place or you always risk of breaking it. Learn the rules of photography—then break them. While the conventional guidelines provide an important framework, personal expression and creativity knows no bounds once you have learned the basics.
Analyzing the Winning Image : Breaking the stereotype
This brings us to the image in the spotlight and I am going to do the next section in a Q&A style.
Where was the photograph taken?
It was an early foggy morning, somewhere in West Virginia. I was driving up west with almost zero visibility and I drove over this bridge that I captured, that was totally engulfed by dense fog. As a rule of thumb, I always carry my gear in my car because you never know what you’d get when you are out. So, I pulled over into the next overlook, set up everything with my drone and went for the shot.
What was my thought process behind the photo?
Fog is one of those natural phenomenon that is both mesmerizing and mysterious.
The thought process was to capture both these elements in a single frame in a unique way, probably in a way that was not done before.
Did I have an idea of how i wanted it to look before taking it? Had i planned any part of it?
Yes. Checking weather.com is an important part of the preparation when you are a nature/landscape photographer and with foggy conditions forecasted for the day, I had an idea about the photo that I wanted. As a photographer, it is important that you compose the image in your head, before you click it. I looked up Bing Maps to find the nearest bridge and then drove over to it to click the photo.
Do you think the central, symmetrical composition is important? Why?
Central placement of the subject is not usually recommended. Rule of thirds is the benchmark when we talk about composition techniques. But this is where the rebel in me takes over. I believe powerful images can also be created by placing your subject in the center, especially when there is symmetry and a strong point of reference. I also believe that you can create different and unique things if you dare to break the stereotype. Symmetry is the key behind the central placement of the subject. In this photograph, if I had the road stretching diagonally from lower left corner to upper right corner of the frame, it wouldn’t lend the required depth to the picture. My goal was to create an element of mystery and somehow diagonal placement didn’t help. Central placement gave the frame a more realistic feel and created that sense of mystery I wanted.
How did you expose the image? OR How did you edit the image?
With the sun rising from behind the mountains in the top right corner, I decided to go with higher shutter speed to both cut the amount of light hitting the camera sensor and get a sharper image. I went with lowest ISO to reduce the noise. I did not want anything below the bridge to reflect in the picture which, otherwise would have created/added distraction. Hence, In post production, I increased the shadows in the bottom half and reduced it in the upper half. Similar I added a bit of highlights and exposure to the upper half while I kept the lower portion a little darker so that viewer’s eyes could follow the road from darkness to brightness along the road. I added a little warmth to the entire scene as fog and overcast conditions render a colder look to the raw image.
What elements do you think are key to making this shot so impactful?
- Leading line concept rendered by the road.
Image with a darker lower half and brighter upper half : Viewer’s eyes follow the road from darkness to brightness thereby passing a positive feeling.
Fog/Mist : The natural phenomenon that creates a mystery but adds beauty to the entire frame too. When viewer’s eyes travel along the road and they see it disappearing into the mist, its invokes curiosity.
In my composition here, I broke the Rule of Thirds, bent the Theory of Leading Lines and edited the photo in an unconventional way leaving Negative Space. A great benefit to having rules lies in gaining the ability to break them for a more creative result. It’s important to realize that any compositional rule is nothing more than a guideline. The guideline exists to communicate an abstract concept in a practical, concrete manner. So, one way to break a rule is to modify its concept. A deliberate tweak to an existing rule can help lead to creative results that are based on the same concept. I made a similar attempt with the image below and got great results. I hope the articles helps one and all. Go out there, break the rule only if you need to, and create great pictures. I would love to hear back from you, please use the Contact Form and share your views/feedback/story with me.