The 'Rules of Composition', Part I

Perhaps the most important thing to realize about the so-called 'rules of composition' is that they are in many cases a way of restating a negative -- 'this doesn't usually work' -- in terms of a positive, or 'this usually does work'. Unfortunately it is easier to say what doesn't work than to say what does.

The second thing to understand is that none of these 'rules' is unbreakable. Often, you can see exactly how the various elements in a picture should go together, without any further thought. If the composition breaks the 'rules', but is still successful, fine.


tilley lamp


Tilley lamp

Roger photographed this with a borrowed, early 90/2 Summicron on a Visoflex III, mounted on a Leica M8 digital (where it equates to a 120mm lens on 35mm). He shot wide open for the slight softness the lens delivers, with the ISO equivalent at 320.

Third -- and this is important too -- the 'rules' often work best when they are used as a starting point. If you can't see any other way to compose a pic-ture, then compose it using one or more of the 'rules' to begin with. The chances are that your composition will then evolve to a greater or lesser extent. You may make a slight change, bending the rules as it were; you may drop any or all rules entirely because you no longer need it or them; or you may even deliberately break them.

There are many ways to describe or define the 'rules', but the topics covered here are the Rule of Thirds, Balance, Symmetry, and Repetition. Two related modules that you may find useful are The Focal Point and Portrait and Landscape.

Rule of Thirds

This is merely a short way of saying that the principal subject (or the focal point, itself the subject of a paid module) rarely looks best if it is slap in the middle of the picture, or too close to one edge. It often looks best, in fact, if it is about one third of the way from either side, or from the top or bottom.


tilley lamp 200



The easiest way to illustrate the 'rule of thirds' is with a noughts-and-crosses (tic-tac-toe) board superimposed on the image. In this picture, the Tilley lamp would be regarded as being pretty much 'on the thirds' from a compositional point of view, even though the superimposed grid shows it as being rather nearer the centre.



devil's bridge


River Ariège at Devil's Bridge

The eye is first drawn to the reflection of the sun, which is dangerously close to the edge of the picture, but then, it more or less automatically 'reads' the reflection of the tree around it, which definitely qualifies (by the lax standards of compositional definition as 'on the thirds'. It's not an outstanding picture (Roger shot it with the Leica M8) but it does illustrate quite well how the eye chooses the thirds. Actually, it's just a snapshot: the real subject is the tiny dot in the middle, a champagne cork...


spa & bucket



Abandoned spa



Many spas in France -- quite probably the majority -- are now closed. The main reason for this is that the French National Health Service no longer pays for treatments on the scale that once it did, so there is no longer adequate funding for these pretentious and substantially useless pseudo-medical establishments. In most cases, the water is not warm enough or plentiful enough to form the basis of a spa where people might go to enjoy themselves, though there are noble exceptions such as St. Thomas and Llo. The spas of Hungary are much more fun, though there are others too such as Arsen in the Netherlands, Ptuj (honestly!) in Slovenia, some in Germany, and so forth.

The point here, though, is simple. The abandoned bin and brush are what make the picture. There is a general air of rubbish and decay, but without the bin and brush, it's just another empty, dirty corridor. And where it Roger choose to place them? 'On the thirds'...

This is yet another Leica M8 shot, with the 21/2.8 Kobalux on the front. We'd just got the M8 and were seeing what it could do. It would have been a better picture with the camera carefully levelled on a tripod, because the beams are slightly 'drunk', but we don't think it matters too much.

As well as 'the thirds', this shot also uses the trick of broken repetition (see below)


Well head

Even where the subject appears to be foursquare in the middle of the picture, there may well be an 'internal third' such as the bucket in this picture. Roger used the M8 (yet again) with his 135/2.8 Tele-Elmarit-M, subsequently increasing the saturation and contrast in Adobe Photoshop.







Ruined house and stand of trees (below)

We have mixed feelings about this picture. The ruined house is pretty much 'on the thirds' but the real subject, surely, is the stand of trees. Or is it the contrast between the sunlit and fairly welcoming upper right of the picture, and the cold, dark lower left? Whether it works as a picture or not, it is quite a convincing illustration of the truth that blindly following the Rule of Thirds is by no means a formula for success -- especially if you are not entirely sure of the identity of your focal point or principal subject. Of course it's a good idea, when you are in doubt, to take a picture rather than not taking it; but sometimes, it's a better idea to take thought afterwards and see if there's a better way of doing it. Here, the 'better way' would almost certainly have been a longer lens than 21mm (a 28mm equivalent on the Leica M8); the cropped version further below gives some idea of how a 50mm might have worked.


well close-up



stand of trees


stand of trees crop

Ruined house, etc., continued

So why didn't Roger take this picture, which is much stronger, though rather more 'chocolate-boxy'? It would have course have been of far better quality than this crop, if only he had used the 50/2 Summicron that he had with him. The answer is simple: hardening of the categories. He was trying to draw the contrast between the river and the hillside, and did not realize until well after he was home that he could as easily have taken a better, but completely different, picture. The composition here also illustrates our next point, which is balance.


We have just mentioned balance, in the caption above, and it can be achieved either in terms of picture elements or in terms of tonal masses.

In the picture above, both are used. The house and the trees are both picture elements -- subjects that 'mean' something in their own right -- and tonal masses: a tonal mass is nothing more or less than a predominantly light area or a predominantly dark area within the picture.

mdina reservoir




The classical theory was that a large or distinct tonal mass to one side of the picture should be balanced by a smaller or less distinct one on the other, and this is a pretty fair assessment.

Strangely enough, it does not always seem to matter very much whether the tonal masses in question are both light, or both dark, or one light and one dark, as long as they both stand out adequately against their respective backgrounds.


Reservoir, Malta

The balance here is almost completely tonal, as there is no 'principal subject', though the trees (which form a single tonal mass, pretty much 'on the thirds') do well enough for a focal point. The dark sky above is balanced by the dark water below, and the light clouds in the upper right are balanced by the light foliage in the lower left. We believe that this picture is quite successful, but we are not convinced that any analysis can give more than a very partial explanation of why it 'works'. As we said before, it's much easier to explain why a picture fails than to explain why it succeeds...

Roger shot this on Maco 820 IR film with a visually all but opaque IR filter from B+W on his 35/1.4 Summilux and Leica M4-P.


Artie Schultz



Artie is holding the Colt National Match pistol which he bought in the early 1960s; he was a superb pistol shot. The balance in this picture is one of picture elements -- both a face and a gun tend to draw the eye very strongly -- but the composition further illustrates the way in which a dark tonal mass and a light tonal mass can balance one another. There is also a certain amount of balance (tonally) between his hand and the back of the chair: without it, the whole pose is much more slumped.

It might seem that there is too much background above his head, but when we tried cropping it, the mood of the picture changed very significantly. Suddenly, he filled too much of the picture, and became much more threatening. Here, he is just an old man -- in his 80s -- sitting on the porch with a possession he has prized for a very long time.

He could of course be holding almost anything, but whatever he was holding would automatically be taken as a significant 'prop': something which helped to describe him. Cover the gun with your fingers and imagine something else.

Frances shot her father's picture with a Contax SLR (either an Aria or an RX) and a 100/2.8 Makro Planar. The film was Ilford XP2 Super; she printed this on Ilford Multigrade IV FB and then hand-coloured it with Marshall's Transparent Photo Oils.


artie, gun



Another way of phrasing both the 'rule of thirds' and the use of balance is that while asymmetry normally looks better than symmetry, there's rarely much sense in trying to push asymmetry too far. In any case, if your subject just cries out for symmetry, you'd be a fool to try to force it into the straitjacket of the 'rule of thirds'.

panhard dyna

Panhard Dyna

Roger shot this on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 using his Leica MP and (if he recalls aright) the 21/4 Voigtländer Skopar. The fisheye effect is the shape of the car... The top left hand corner was heavily burned in Adobe Photoshop to help create more symmetry of tones on either side of the car.



water tower


Dolmen (above)

The part of France where we live has been inhabited since remote prehistory and there are reminders of the past everywhere. This dolmen, the remains of a prehistoric burial mound, is less than 15 km/10 miles away. Obviously the subject is far from fully symmetrical, but Frances chose to compose it as symmetrically as possible, then to crop the print to a long, thin, 'letterbox' format. In the original there is a glaring white water tower on the left but this was retouched out as a distraction. Which is better: literal honesty, or a picture that looks better? The odd tonality is the result of developing Ilford Delta 3200 in a developer we had for review; this was before we had worked out the optimum development... She used her Alpa 12 S/WA with 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Grandagon and a 6x9cm Linhof/Alpa back.



Water tower, Mazeuil

No, not the water tower from the picture above. Again, Frances chose not only to centre the tower, but also to use the gate and road to add to the symmetry. The interesting thing here is that there is a great deal of man-made symmetry -- and complete asymmetry in the clouds. This technique of contrasting symmetry and asymmetry can be very effective. Voigländer Bessa-T, 21/4 Color-Skopar with orange B+W filter, Kodak Tri-X developed in Ilford DD-X and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.


Repetition is in some ways quite close to symmetry. In symmetry, we see the same thing on either side (or more rarely, arranged radially, as in the symmetry of a starfish). In repetition, we see the same thing again and again, usually diminishing in size because of perspective.

Like symmetry, repetition is rarely perfect. More often, it is broken to a greater or lesser extent. If it is broken, it should either be broken to such a slight degree that it doesn't really make much difference, or broken decisively. As Granny Weatherwax puts it, if you're going to break the rules, break 'em good and hard. The interior shot of the ruined spa, above, is decisively broken; in the exterior shot of the same spa, on the right, the departures from repetition are trivial, and the symmetry further reinforces the effect.

If you are aiming for maximum symmetry, you need to compose carefully, preferably with a gridded screen on a reflex or view camera. This is even more true if you are using a wide-angle lens. Putting the camera on a tripod will make matters much easier too: the picture on the right had to be pulled about quite a bit in Adobe Photoshop in order to get everything symmetrical, because Roger shot it hand-held using a 21mm Kobalux lens on a Leica M8 (where it is a 28mm equivalent).



Spa, Barbazon

The polished concrete of the floor is cracked and strewn with leaves (some were removed for this shot), and obviously the outdoor scenery between the pillars changes; but by and large, the symmetry is fairly compelling, and unbroken.

spa colonnade


spa colonnade posterized


For the most part, we eschew Photoshop filters as 'un-photographic', but we wondered how this very graphic image would work; on the left is the 'poster edges' filter. The interesting thing is that while in one way it emphasizes the repetition, by making the two arches and the pillars rather harder edged and more obvious, it diminishes it in another because of the way that the shadows are rendered. The 'High Pass' filter, below, seems to us to emphasize the graphic quality more.

spa colonnade high pass



Windsurfers, Rhodes

Here we have a fairly extreme example of repetition without symmetry, but the picture is still strengthened by repetition; there seems to be something in the human mind that likes to compare (and even count) a number of different, but similar, picture elements. Roger use a Leica M4-P and (as far as he recalls) 90/2 Summicron for this shot on Agfa ISO 100 slide film.



Shadow of railings, Sibiu (Hermannstadt)



There are many ways to shoot this picture. Perhaps the main variations are higher/lower, and with or without people. Focal length also makes a difference.

Although we are not convinced that this is the best possible picture that could be made of the subject matter, we are sure it is the best we took (we both shot it, and this is one of Frances's shots). The disembodied legs are a bit odd but they give additional scale, context and perspective.

The image is cropped down from 35mm (foreground removed): a Voigtländer Bessa-T with 50/2.5 Color-Skopar, on Ilford HP5 Plus.


railing shadows



red flags+


Red flags, Tienanman Square

Quite often, repetition creates a picture where there is none without repetition. One red flag, even with the shiny metal poles, gold star and snapping breeze, might make a picture: five are a lot more arresting. Roger used his Leica MP loaded with Kodak Elite Chrome ISO 100 and the 75/2 Summicron for this shot.

The Bottom Line

The 'rules of composition' are woolly beyond belief -- distrust anyone who tries to impose them rigidly -- and many of the best pictures make no use of them whatsoever. Often, too, they are imposed after the event: you shoot what looks right in the viewfinder, or on the ground glass, and only notice afterwards that it fits the 'rules'.

If a picture doesn't work, it doesn't work, regardless of whether it obeys or disobeys any or all of the so-called rules, but overall they are fractionally more useful than not. Sometimes a picture may be improved by adhering more closely to the 'rules', and sometimes it won't make a blind bit of difference; but at least the 'rules' are a collection of (rather blunt) tools for analysis, and they help you to think about how and why a picture succeeds or fails.

If you end up thinking, "Yes, if I'd done that, it would have been better," then it doesn't matter what that was. It might be part of the 'rules', but it might also be a question of the decisive moment (another paid module), or colour balance, or the wrong time of day, or almost anything. The important thing is thinking about it.

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© 2007 Roger W. Hicks