There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs - Ansel Adams
In a previous article, I discussed several so-called 'rules of composition'. Compositional rules, however, can be polarizing and divisive. Is this because as artists, we prize independence and don't like to, 'color in between the lines'? Or is it because we've all experienced disappointment when slavish application of the Golden Ratio still produces drab and lifeless images? Certainly, great works of art have been produced throughout history that paid no heed to pre-determined compositional rules. You may ask then, if compelling art is not created by simply following rules, what's the point of learning the rules in the first place? That's a great question.
Now this is not going to be an article suggesting that all compositional rules are 'bad' or 'wrong'. Instead, what follows is a look at the rationale behind some established compositional rules. 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. Let's begin with an example from another visual medium: drawing.
A story about eyes
Many years ago, my great-uncle - an accomplished painter and sculptor - was teaching me how to draw portraits. He suggested placing the eyes at the vertical midway point of the head. This 'rule' won't be surprising for anyone with a drawing background, but for many people, the idea that the eyes are halfway down the face is unintuitive - it seems too low! I recently had a conversation with a friend who received the same advice from his father, despite the fact that he and I grew up in different countries. The fact that two artists from opposite sides of the planet were taught the same 'rule of eyes' points to one source of artistic rules: observations about the natural world. In reality, are everybody's eyes exactly halfway down their face? No, but it's a good starting point that is visually pleasing and conforms to our expectations of illustrated portraits. In fact, a distinguishing feature of children's drawings of people is that the eyes are placed 'too high up' on the face. This is a simple rule that helps us to draw a more realistic portrait. Just as importantly, however, understanding this rule allows us to make deliberate choices. We can draw a face with the eyes in the middle of the face for a natural look. We can instead place the eyes above the midway mark to give the drawing a more child-like quality. Or we can place the eyes below the midway mark to make the drawing look furtive or comical.