You’ve heard the phrase, “Learn the rules so that you know when to break them”.
Personally, I have found that this sentiment is usually thrown around by artists who are leaders in the field and have honed their craft. They usually have loads of followers and are speaking to new photographers who are just starting out.
They’re talking to people who find the phrase a little confusing.
I know it seemed confusing to me back in the beginning. Technically I understood what it was saying but the phrase didn’t mean anything to me yet. I didn’t get it. I was new and I wanted to learn all the rules. After all, I’m a rule follower by nature and breaking rules doesn’t come easy to me.
Besides, whenever I heard that phrase, it was generally written by a seasoned photographer and accompanied by stunningly gorgeous images. All I would think while looking at their work was, “You might claim these images are breaking rules but all I see is swoon-worthy art that I would give anything to produce”.
Maybe you’re in the same place that I was. Maybe you are more seasoned and have written those words of advice to beginners before.
No matter where you are in your photography journey, you’ve probably heard that center compositions are supposedly boring, considered a no-no and only something that a complete amateur would do. All the “good” artists prefer using more exciting compositions like the rule-of-thirds, leading lines or golden triangles.
Here’s the thing, I love using the rule-of-thirds. I also love leading lines. I see those pop up in my work all the time. In fact, after I learned all the rules, I shot primarily with the rule-of-thirds (far right was my sweet spot).
Sure, those compositions were pleasing to the eye and I was proud of using them. I still am. But I was stuck there. Like, actually stuck. To the point that I couldn’t see any other composition. It was like I became locked in the rules.
Let me back up a bit and give you a little back story. A couple years ago, after my third child was born, I was in a funk. I was tired. I was emotionally drained. And artistically, I felt off.
For the next year, I took a few classes, read articles and hired a mentor. I did all these things trying to pull myself out of the weird space. I enjoyed all the learning but still didn’t feel quite right. Then I decided to finally commit to a Project 365 (something I had tried and failed at several times before). Somewhere in this project, my work started to slowly evolve.
It was a painfully slow process. In fact, at the time it didn’t seem like a process at all. Only now, being on the other side of it and looking back, can I see the big change.
My compositions, editing, and shooting style has evolved and been honed. My work is feeling more and more like me. Somewhere in this journey, I kinda fell in love with, gasp, center compositions.
Center composition gets a bad wrap. It is seen as something that only amateurs with nothing cameras use. All the tourists use it. Grandma uses it. School portraits use it. Center composition is just not cool for a “real artist” to use.
Here I am. I finally get it. I am far along enough in my journey that I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it. I’m breaking the rules, not because I don’t know them, but because I want to. And there is a huge shift there.
So, why do I love center composition so much?
I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint it really. Maybe it’s because I love symmetry so much. Maybe it’s because my own three children fit perfectly in the center of the frame. And maybe it’s because a good, dramatic, pulled-way-back center composition just looks amazing. I am not sure really but I love it and I am doing it more and more.
Of course, in my centered images, I am still adding a lot of interest with other elements like texture, emotion, color and movement. My centered images also usually fit into some other shooting rules like filling the frame, or keeping limbs in tact. But they are still centered. And they still have a completely different look and feel than had I shot the same moment in my old favorite, the rule-of-thirds.
In the end, I’m not here to make you love center compositions as much as I do. After all, your art is your art, so by all means, do what you want. This is maybe just a nudge to try it out. Embrace it when it feels like it could fit instead of automatically slapping your wrist out of rule-breaking shame.
More than anything, I want to leave you with this: keep pushing yourself, one foot in front of the other.
If you are like I was, in the beginning of your journey and totally confused by the phrase, “learn the rules so you can break them,” don’t fret. You won’t always be in that spot. I promise.
And it’s totally not a bad place to be in. You still live in the world where you are on fire for learning this amazing new craft.
Keep at it. Keep learning. And one day, you will feel yourself slowly pass onto the other side.
One day you will wake up breaking the rules and loving it.