I am amazed to see how much credence is given to some “rules of composition.” If you search the web for these rules you will find dozens of websites informing you that certain principles of composition must be applied to obtain “optimum” results. One of the most popular is the Rule of Thirds. That rule specifies that if one draws lines dividing the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically, the optimum placement for the subject matter of the photograph is at one of the intersections of these lines. I have no objections to the use of these “rules” as guidelines that may be helpful in some situations. However, a few days ago I attended a gathering of photographers at which images submitted by members were critiqued by a “professional judge.” The person deducted points for any photograph in which the primary subject matter was placed somewhere other than one of the points dictated by the rule of thirds. Really?!
I am reminded of a story told by photographer Brett Weston about a day on the beach with his father, Edward Weston. Brett had set up his view camera to make a photograph but was struggling because he felt that the composition was not quite right. His father came to him, looked at the image on the ground glass and rotated the camera back 90-degrees to convert a horizontal to a vertical photograph. According to Brett, that change was exactly what the image needed.
Edward Weston noted that rules of composition were devised by looking at images after the fact. He once stated that “consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.”
Sometimes, the best composition means placing the subject according to the rule of thirds. Sometimes the best composition is to center the subject in the frame. Sometimes the best composition results from ignoring all of the rules. Ultimately, the strongest photograph results from choosing a composition that suits the subject. To me, the most important “rule of composition” was stated by Edward Weston, “To compose a subject well means no more than to see and present it in the strongest manner possible.”