Tension vs. harmony: the consequences of breaking the rules

Most of the rules of composition are there to create harmony – to ease viewers into the photograph with grace and mastery.  As I said before, rules are useful, and knowing them is fundamental to creating impactful pictures and stories. So what if you don’t follow the rules? There are in fact only two possible outcomes to ignoring the rules of composition:

1.       The first possible outcome is failure. You’ve broken the rules, but didn’t know you did – because you don’t really know the rules anyway. You picture is unbalanced, lacks cohesion and substance.  The idea has potential, but the execution leaves viewers fairly unimpressed.

2.       The second possible outcome is creativity. You’ve broken the rules, but in doing so willingly, you also created what I call tension in your image. Instead of being easy on the mind, your picture raises questions that will captivate and generate interest.

You’ve heard me well. The consequence of breaking the rules, if done properly, thoughtfully and creatively, is to create tension.  I will explain what I mean by that. Tension exists when the mind cannot see what it expects to see to fully understand the story. The idea of “tension” is anchored into the Gestalt theory – a theory explaining how the mind perceives and interprets relationships between elements in a spatial configuration.

So what happens when you deprive the mind from seeing what’s expected? You force the mind to imagine the untold, the unseen. You request viewers to go beyond the frame in order to get closure. You leave open too many questions that viewers will desperately seek to answer.  In short, you create tension - and that, by itself, is a terrific fate, but one that is hard to achieve.

In practice, how do we create tension? What does it look like?

Just as there are many rules of composition, there are many ways to break them – but there are only a finite number of ways to create tension. I will illustrate this concept through three distinct examples, which is by no means an exhaustive list J


1. Blurring the lines between subject and environment

Traditionally, good composition is meant to direct the eye to the subject. Everything we do is aimed at separating the subject from the foreground AND background in clear, indisputable terms. The idea for applying this rule is to give preeminence to the subject as opposed to the rest of the scene. The subject becomes the point of clear focus, and again, the “owner” of the story being told.

The Stairs

Let’s think about what it means to break that rule: what if my subject cannot be easily distinguished from the environment in the photograph? Then discomfort comes in as the mind cannot properly process what’s going on. It may be that the environment takes precedence, making humans feel small and vulnerable – relegated to a secondary place in the frame. It may be that the original distinction between subject and environment doesn’t really exist – one and the other are interchangeable, part of a bigger scheme. Interpretations can be endless, but one fact remains: it will demand more effort to understand your picture. And in many instances, more effort equals deeper interest.

In The Stairs, the man is quite visible at the bottom of the picture. But as the eyes travel up to the top of the stairs, the difference between ornamental objects and human figures become increasingly blurred. Are these men looking down at us or are these vestiges of the past?


 2. Leaving the story untold and depriving the mind from closure

Blue Dream

The human mind needs closure. There is a need for a beginning and an end to everything. In fact, the human mind cannot easily tolerate gaps, nor can it be sustained with allusive answers. This is why playing on that weakness can be surprisingly successful in photography and art in general. Again, the key is to understand that requesting incremental effort from a viewer will pay off in increased interest for the picture.

In Blue Dream, the woman is facing the frame of the picture, where the eye cannot go. The relationship between the two silhouettes remains allusive: they seem to be at proximity, yet no connection is made between them.  The circumstances and context is totally unknown, leaving much gaps to be filled.



Night Beauty

In Night Beauty, this is the relationship between the young lady and the overwhelming darkness that is most interesting. Combined with her forlorn expression, the viewer is left guessing why she seems to carelessly avoid the shadows, and what lies beyond her pensive eyes.

The two pictures below have something in common: they only tell half of the story, leaving open many questions – thus creating a persistent sense of mystery. Not only does the story remain open to interpretation, but viewers are never fully able to grasp the implications of what they’re seeing – thus engendering this so-called tension that we are looking to achieve.