6 ways to break the rules of composition

Composition rules are great but at times you need to break them. Read on for some practical suggestions on how you can do this.

Introduction

Breaking the rules of composition can, when done well, lead to amazing eye captivating results. In that regard, rather than calling them rules it would probably make more sense to call them guidelines, but that’s by the by. Composition rules are tried and tested so for beginners in composition it makes sense just to follow them to the letter. Once you’ve mastered them you’re then ready to work out how you can break them to express yourself and your vision more fully.

1. Breaking the rule of thirds

One of the first rules you will learn in any art form that centers around images is the rule of thirds. This rule states that you should place your key objects and focal points along the lines of a 3 x 3 grid overlaid onto your image. This rule helps to keep your image balanced, and provides a pleasing composition for viewers. There are times where your scene doesn’t lend itself to following this rule as well as times when for creative expression reasons you want to place your subject and focal point in a different place. Striking images for example can be created when you place your subject right in the centre of your image. This is further emphasized when you also introduce symmetry into the rest of the frame.

Putting your focal point right in the centre of your composition can cause your subject to command attention and draw the viewer into the image © Nathan Anderson

2.  Breaking the rule of odds

The rule of odds states that the objects within your scene should be odd in quantity. This is especially the case if they are the main objects and focal points in the picture. It is generally true that an odd number of items is more pleasing to look at but it is by no means always the case. Sometimes having even numbers can create equally appealing compositions. Breaking this rule can help if you make sure you implement the rule of thirds for example. This will help keep your image balanced.

Here we see an even number of objects which are kept balanced using the rule of thirds and a variety of scale © Tom Crew

3.  Breaking the horizontal horizon rule

When composing our shots we are generally encouraged to keep the horizon bang on horizontal. The viewer will be expecting the horizon to be like this because for the most part of every day the horizon in our worlds is viewed perfectly horizontally. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be broken though. A simple or more drastic tilt of your camera can introduce a real dynamic energy into your image that wasn’t there previously. This can also be a quick and easy solution if your image is lacking that punch, but you haven’t got the time to make any wholesale changes.

Tilting your camera can quickly and easily add a new dynamism into your images © Ferdinand Stohr

4.  Breaking the rule of simplification

This rules states that keeping things simple will help to maintain the viewer’s eye on your focal point. This is often true because your viewer has less to look at but it doesn’t always create the most interesting pictures. This is therefore a great rule to break if you know why you’re breaking it. Breaking this rule doesn’t mean introducing unnecessary complexity, but some scenes are just quite busy. At those times just embrace it and find other ways to make your focal point stand out. You could do this with lighting, contrast, color, or introducing a shallow depth of field.

This image is incredibly busy and yet because of the blurred background your eye is constantly drawn back to the main subject in the image © Christie Kim

Another way to make good use of negative space is to make your subject small in the frame. If your subject is positioned alongside something much grander than your viewer will be attracted to the small scale of your focal point

5.  Breaking the rule of space for motion

Composition rules state that you want to leave space in the frame right in front of your moving subject. This could be a person or an object that is moving throughout your scene. This is satisfying for a viewer because they can see the space that the object is moving into, and they can therefore make sense of what is happening. By breaking this rule and putting your object in a position where they are moving out of the frame will create a different type of tension. It will make the viewer feel slightly uneasy as well as make them think about where the object has come from and what they have left behind.

Placing your subject so that they’re walking out of shot will make your viewer consider where they’ve come from © Clem Onojeghuo

6. Breaking the rule of filling your frame

Sometimes filling your frame is sensible and for beginners this is probably a good rule to follow. But once you’ve begun to get a greater handle on your tools this is a great rule to break. You can do this by introducing negative space into your images. This simplifies the overall composition of your image and also immediately directs the eye to the subject of your image. Negative space can also create a sense of isolation or loneliness. This can be furthered by using color or contrast. Another way to make good use of negative space is to make your subject small in the frame. If your subject is positioned alongside something much grander than your viewer will be attracted to the small scale of your focal point.

Using negative space can really accentuate the subject of your image © Justin Campbell

Be careful about breaking things

The important thing to remember is to only break a rule if you know why you’re breaking it. You’ve got to have a reason, a motivation, otherwise your composition will just look clunky and unthought through. And don’t break the rules just for the sake of it, do it instead for the purpose of improving your images. If you want to do this, then plan it in early on in your project so that you can set up your scene in a way that is going to make it possible and workable.