Photograph above, Splashes of Hope, taken in Frederick, MD with a Leica M240
Learning the Rules of Composition and Then Breaking Them
What would life be like if you woke up one day and couldn't read? The everyday things that you take for granted would become unbearable. You couldn't read the ingredients on a cereal box label, the morning newspaper, your email, road signs, billboards, your iPhone, a lunch menu, or a magazine at the grocery store. You would be completely lost.
Not understanding design as an artist is like not having the ability to read. You wouldn't be able to interpret (read) the design structure in paintings by Edgar Degas, Peter Paul Rubens, Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, or any other master artist. In other words, you might have the satisfaction of viewing their work, but you won't have the ability to learn from it.
I read a lot of books and articles about composition and most of them sound the same. Learn the rules of composition and then break them. Or worse yet, some artists and photographers will recommend not following any rules at all or claim that there are no rules in art. To reinforce my point, below are several quotes from famous photographers about rules in art and composition.
“Rules are foolish, arbitrary, mindless things that raise you quickly to a level of acceptable mediocrity, then prevent you from progressing further.” —Bruce Barnbaum
“There are no rules for good photographs, only good photographs.” —Ansel Adams
“Photography has no rules, it is not a sport. It is the result which counts, no matter how it is achieved.” —Bill Brandt
“The photographer has almost as much control over his subject matter as a painter. He can control light and shade, form and space, pattern and texture, motion and mood, everything except composition.” —Andreas Feininger
As interesting and "artsy" as these quotes sound, they aren't based on logic or common sense. If there are no rules for good photographs, how can a photograph be good? How do you distinguish a crappy photograph from a good photograph if there is no way to measure either? If rules are foolish, arbitrary, and mindless, why is it that so many master artists of the past followed stringent rules when it came to designing their art? Should we call Leonardo da Vinci foolish, mindless, and refer to his art as mediocre because he used the golden section? Why can a photographer control light and shade, form and space, pattern and texture, motion and mood, and yet, they can't control composition?
As Juliette Aristides states in her book Classical Painting Atelier, "Design rules must be actively sought out, learned, and applied. There are rules for drawing, there are rules for color, and there are rules for composition. In fact, the rules or limits of any discipline help define it and give the participant in that subject freedom to create and express himself. Jacques Villion (the brother of Marcel Duchamp) put it well when he said, “In the artistic chaos of these last years, when the absolute liberation of the individual instinct has brought it to the point of frenzy, an attempt to identify the harmonic disciplines that have, secretly, in every period, served as foundations for painting may well seem folly. Yet the framework of art is its most secret and its deepest poetry.” The time has come for the modern master painter to begin to reconstruct the skills and unearth the lost traditions of this secret framework."
Becoming a great photographer doesn't come naturally, and none of us are born artists. Learning a set of foundational skills is necessary, and design is not intuitive. As humans, we do possess an innate sense of balance, but that’s not the same as mastering the art of composition. To compose great photographs, you need a solid understanding of design rules and guidelines. And despite the modern-day myth that great art comes from self-expression, intuition, and creativity, all of the great artists of the past composed in a structured and well thought out design system. Did it kill their creativity? Of course not. It actually allowed them to be more creative!