It is not about following or breaking the rules of composition: It is about learning to interpret them

Most of you must have heard that in order to create strong compositions in your photographs, you should be following the rules of composition. Most of you must also know that strong pictures can also be the result of breaking those very same rules – and that this is especially true in street photography.

My personal opinion about rules is not to understand whether we break or follow them, but how we interpret them.

I will explain: to me, rules are inherent to a good composition - but the mistake that we all make is to apply the rules without understanding the principles behind them, and in particular their impact on how people perceive the components within the image, and thus the story.

One example: It is being said that the photos should follow the rules of third. It is also being said that symmetry in a photo can be a strong composition element. Well, one cannot have both in fact: your picture will be either symmetric and harmonious, or asymmetrical and dynamic.

So how can we follow rules that contradict themselves? Let me answer that for you: it is not about “following” the rules, it is about knowing what effect leads to what emotions, feelings, and how you can manipulate the mind of a viewer. 

Some of you will stop at the word “manipulation”: and think that street photography should not be about manipulation! And there, you would be wrong. Every picture manipulates the viewer into seeing something. It is not a mere representation of the reality. It is a conscious construct of that very reality. Photos with no message, no stories, no conscious meaning are devoid of life and pointless. These are vacation snapshots…or worse…But the truth is: they will leave no impact on you. They will not change you, they will not make you feel anything. Showing the reality as it is, with no composition to frame this reality, is like saying nothing. No one will fight for those pictures; no one will remember them.

Now that we have agreed on the value of composition as a way to frame the reality to give it sense and meaning, we can move forward with our analysis of the rules. What are rules for? They are tools meant to better convey a story. Let’s discuss one major rule that I have broken with this picture, and the impact of breaking this rule.

First rule of composition: make people enter the frame, not exit the frame. In fact, letting people enter the frame conveys more importance to your subject. When applying that rule, the subject is seen as “owning” the story. Let’s think about what it means to break this rule: the subject is given less importance, and the overall feeling is that the subject doesn’t control the scene and the environment. On the mind of the viewer, it can have two potential effects:

The first is a feeling of unbalance: the subject is on the edge, and has almost left. Normally, with people entering the frame, the mind will simply assess the current situation, will review the path to be traveled, and will create a story around this. But when the subject is in fact leaving the frame, where else can the mind goes? It has to return to the beginning of the path – and thus assess the way the person has come, or it goes beyond the frame. In both cases, there is tension – tension in not knowing where the subject is going, tension in only seeing the way it had come (thus the past).

The second effect is to change the story being told. With a subject leaving the frame, the emphasis is put on one of two things: either the way that has already been traveled, either the unknown destination. The story is not anymore about the subject being part of a scene; it is about, for example, the fleeting essence of time and life – the fear of stepping up into the unknown,

If you ever want to use compositions in support of your stories, you need to understand all of it – not the rules for the sake of rules, but for the purpose of telling a story. This is why understanding the principles behind the rules is so important: one cannot shape a story without understanding how the form (the composition) helps create meaning (the story). They go hand in hand together. One cannot exist without the other.


Night dream