Do you think we should we follow rules of composition?

Hopper - Nighthawks

Hopper – Nighthawks 

Watching some Chinese movies, I am often struck by how actors are often plonked right in the middle of the screen. I then find myself thinking, these Chinese directors never encountered John Thomas Smith who invented the rule of thirds back in 1797.

For those who don’t know the background story, Smith proposed that rectangular viewpoints should be broken up into intersecting thirds. Important elements of the scene should be placed where the thirds intersected.

Smith’s ideas weren’t based on any scientific research, rather, he just sort of felt that his theory was on the money. Nevertheless, they proved influential and became one of the compositional rules that not only shaped western painters, but also western photographers and western directors.

Of course, not all creatives were believers. American photographer Edward Weston proposed,

“To consult rules of composition before making a picture is like consulting the law of gravitation before taking a walk.”

Personally, I have to be honest and say I agree with Weston. It’s seems a bit irrational to intentionally follow a rule that is originated in a feeling even when your own feelings are telling you to go a different way. Sometimes our feelings are shaped by the feelings of others so when everyone else is going on about a rule of thirds, it may be easy to get caught up in the contagion.  At other times; however, you have something different going on, such as wanting your eye to dance around the canvas without hierarchies of importance. Rule of thirds are just going to be a nuisance in such cases.


2 thoughts on “Do you think we should we follow rules of composition?

  1. I think these sorts of rules are useful, but if everyone follows them than everyone’s art will look the same. How can one do something different if one follows a popular formula? I rather think this sort of thing is good for beginners and getting a foundation, but, it tends to be that those that go too far down that path stay where it leads (a kind of academic art). I think I tried to apply the formula once and it caused me a lot of problems. Ultimately you have to go with what composition works according to your eye. If you leave it to a rule, it’s as if your eyes aren’t as reliable, in which case, subjectivity is shelved for objective standards. You got it, the answer is probably balancing the two.

    • I think you can still have individuality by following formulas, think renaissance painting or music. In the rule of thirds; however, I have found it a bit ironic that it has attained a kind of sacred cow status when it was never based on any kind of verifiable research. I first questioned it when Chinese people kept insulting some of my photos and asking my why I could never get people in the middle of the photo. Saying, “I’m following the rule of thirds” would have been a bit silly when all these people simply didn’t like my rule of thirds compositions.

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