Do the composition rules matter?

Composition rules might make a photo more appealing, and it’s important to know the rules. But, are there times when it’s perfectly acceptable to break the rules? Photography is an art form. You need to be able to find the beauty in the scene before you and present it in your own way.

The Rule: Reflected light should never be brighter than its source.

Why we broke it: Although in reality the reflected light in the pool wasn’t as bright as the light in the sky, I made an artistic choice to let it go a little brighter because I wanted to draw the viewer’s attention toward that area of the image.

The Rules: Never use direct flash, and always place your point of interest off-center.

Why we broke them: Let’s start with the flash. For this shot, I needed bright light inside the cabin in order to match the exposure indoors to the exposure outdoors. I used the flash on my camera to light the interior of the cabin. Then, in post-processing, I reduced the contrast inside the cabin in order to reduce the extreme lighting. I broke the direct flash rule because I didn’t have any other light available. As for the centered point of interest – that came down to personal preference. I felt that a centered composition worked well in this case.

The Rule: Never center the horizon. Use the rule-of-thirds to place it in the top or bottom third of the composition.

Why we broke it: For this particular shot, I wanted to capture both the reflection and the sky. By placing the horizon at the top third or the bottom third, it would have been necessary to sacrifice either part of the reflection or part of the sky.

new zealand_1441c copy


Maybe you’ve had other photographs comment on rules that you’ve broken with your photography – but it’s important to remember that the rules are often more important to other artists than they are to potential buyers. So let your eye be your guide. Shoot what feels right to you.

Know the rules… but don’t be afraid to break them.

About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.

  • shehzaad khan

    Good article :))

  • Каким фотоаппаратом это снято, наверняка очень большое разрешение, а может профессиональный фотоаппарат? Очень красиво!

  • You can only successfully break the rules when you understand them.

  • Очень красиво, даже не вется, что есть такие красивые места в мире.

    • Thank you so much, Елена. It really is an incredible planet, isn’t it? 🙂

  • Debarshi Basu

    Excellent examples Varina, I always thought of rules of photography like rules of grammar. They are great for the novices like me to learn the language of photography.
    Whereas only the experts like you and Jay can handle the creative license to compose beyond the confines of the rules.

    • Thanks, Debarshi! Never be afraid to break the rules. They are meant to be guidelines – for when you aren’t sure what to do. Over time, you will feel more comfortable with your own style and skills. Let yourself go when you have a camera in your hands. When you can relax and completely enjoy photography, then you are doing it “right”. Let your photographs reflect who you are and how you see!

  • Tri Nguyen

    I agree 100% with your reasons for breaking the rules. However, one must know the rules before breaking the rules.

    • True indeed, Tri. 🙂 It’s important to learn the rules.

  • Great article. I agree that there are times to “break the rules”. You photos here are wonderful! I love your color and composition.

  • Nice to know breaking the rules can still result in good pictures.

  • Scott Loraditch

    For the last one, it actually does follow the rule of thirds, even though the horizon is in the middle. Both the reflection from the sky and the water are on the upper and lower thirds respectively.

    • Yep, you’re right, Scott. True enough. 🙂