6 Rules of composition that are also rules to live by

The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera” – Dorothea Lange

Six years ago I picked up-a camera. Little did I know that photography would shape who I am and how I think.

I shouldn’t be surprised as the creative process is deeply personal. Life will always imitate art and art will always mirror life.

In my work, I use every artistic choice as a means of communicating with my audience. In doing so, I have discovered that the rules and lessons of photography are not only applicable to my pictures, but also to my life.

The rules of composition are my artistic first principles. They tell me where to put my subject in the frame. They guide me to create balance and harmony in my photography. And the rules of composition allow me to construct the most pleasing experience for my audience.

So what LIFE principles can we draw from the rules of composition that might also become reflexive? Gleaned from my own experience, struggles and failings these are the rules that work for both photography and life.

The Rule of Thirds: the intersection of purpose and passion

Placing a subject at the intersection of vertical and horizontal thirds lines creates tension, energy, and interest in a composition. While centering the subject might be instinctive, using the rule of thirds allows for a more dynamic photograph.

Along what life axes does your photography run? What intersection creates the most “tension, energy and interest” for you?

For me it’s where my purpose and my passion intersect.

I never set out to start a photography business. I was simply taking pictures with such passion I overlooked that I was regularly booked and starting to make an income.

But eventually, my passion began to wane. My style was stronger than ever, but business no longer excited me. It didn’t make sense!

I realized that in the unfolding of my passion I’d never stopped to consider my purpose. If you find yourself in this position, take the time to really define why you pick up your camera and what you want to do with it. Write down a mission statement and keep it in your mind every time you prepare to take a photograph.

This isn’t just for those of you in business. If you’re a hobbyist who loves to photograph her kids you should still find your why!

If you have all the passion and prowess but are feeling unfulfilled by photography, it is likely that you are yearning for a clearly defined purpose. I’ve been there! And I know that passion will burn out long before purpose.

The strength of your contribution to photography lies at the intersection of your passion and your purpose. If passion is the flame, purpose is its fuel. Find your why and it will feed your passion.

Balancing Elements: We are more than photographers

Balance is a compositional technique that places objects within a frame so they are of similar visual weight. When different parts of a photo command your attention equally, balance is achieved.

This is easier to accomplish in camera than in life! Where is your life most weighted? What has happened to the other interesting parts of you that existed before photography?

I’m an “all in” person who loves the satisfaction of knocking down goals. When photography seized my heart it seized my full attention too.

It’s easy to want to ignore everything else around us when we have a passion like photography. However, it is so important to create balance in the camera and beyond.

Strive to live your WHOLE life. Put the camera down and read a book. Have coffee with an old friend. Take a flower-arranging class. Learn how to wallpaper a room. Nurture relationships and give your passion room to breathe.

The best part? Creating balance in life, just like creating balance with your composition, will make your photography better.

Isolating the Subject: Putting importance where it’s due

When we create an image, we use our in-camera settings as well as the background/foreground to make the subject matter obvious to the viewer. The strength of an image lies in its clearly defined focal point.

We know how to prioritize our subject…do we know how to prioritize our life?

I believe the pursuit of true photographic excellence lies first in humbly acknowledging that we capture only a dim reflection of what REALLY matters. Sometimes, we must put the camera down to prioritize the people and things that matter most.

I faced the crisis of an ovarian tumor eight years ago. I recently I sat in the ER waiting to learn if another tumor had developed in my remaining ovary.

In the chairs across from me a man told his friend that his cancer has returned and was terminal. They cried together and my heart split wide open. I cried into my book for a man who would begin his goodbyes.

I could see myself in him and begged for more time to watch my girls grow while I grew old with my husband. For the five hours it took to run all my tests, not one thought was about my backlog of edits, the session inquiry in my inbox or even this blog deadline. Life has a way of distilling quickly when it might be snatched away.

Some of us know our camera manual better than our personal manual. As often as we do a sensor cleaning (which for me is never often enough!), we need to clean our internal sensor and do a little self-assessment.

Framing: Minimizing distraction and negativity

As we compose an image, we strive to be conscious of which elements to include in the frame and which to exclude. We eliminate distractions that don’t add to the visual narrative.

And yet we live in an external world of distractions! What choices can we make to minimize them?

I still remember the day I joined Instagram. Always behind trends, I was late to the game and curious to understand the hype. Now I know why so many of us are addicted! In an ocean of puffy hearts, it’s so easy to be swept away in likes and comments.

Social media shines where it allows us to celebrate each other. My heart soars when I see art celebrated and community thrive. However, we must be careful to protect ourselves from comparison. We cannot allow ourselves to find value in these fleeting interactions.

We have to choose every day what to let in to our “frame” and what to exclude. There’s only space for so much. If it doesn’t enrich and edify your life, cut it out. Life, like photography, is the art of exclusion.

Perspective: Allow your personality and viewpoint to shine

Our viewpoint has an enormous impact on the composition of our photo, greatly affecting its message. Each time we lift the camera, we’re deciding whether to shoot from eye level, from above, at ground level, from the side, from the back, from far away, close up, and so on. The viewpoints are infinite. So what makes yours unique? YOU!

In life, our viewpoint is what separates us from everyone else. It makes us unique. It makes us wonderful. And if we try to be anyone else, we will struggle to find fulfillment.

So embrace your truth. Define what moves you. Seek what inspires you. Allow those things to emerge in both your photographs and in your life choices.

My family was extremely close growing up. Relocating several times caused us to lean hard into each other.

As a result, I adore photographing families and mirroring their love for each other.

My husband and I underwent a major home renovation when my oldest daughter was 3 to 10 months old. I grieve that I didn’t have to margins to truly enjoy her infancy…only survive it.

Today newborn sessions are my chance to slow down and savor all the little things for my clients.

My life story has shaped who I am as a photographer. Allow your personality and life experiences to infuse your work. Even if it means that you aren’t shooting what is on-trend, I urge you to seek what truly inspires you. For the love of yourself, don’t try to be somebody you aren’t!

Leading Lines: Staying the course

Leading lines draw the viewer’s attention to the image’s main subject. A leading line paves an easy path for the eye to follow through different elements of a photo.

Where do your life lines lead you? What goal is on your horizon?

I imagine photography to be like a long winding road of leading lines with no final destination. When we first pick up our cameras, we may not really looking for a destination. We are just having fun and are excited by creating “blurry backgrounds” and capturing memories. We may be totally off-roading on that photographic path but we’re having a ton of fun!

It’s when the hobby of photography becomes a passion that we’re motivated to speed up. All the rules and techniques we’ve learned become the curbs to keep us on course. We start to notice others on parallel journeys. We see their speed and yearn to match it.

When the passion becomes an obsession, driver beware! We may focus on the road, forgetting to take in the view.

Perhaps we swerve trying to create beauty while forgetting how to receive it. We sense our own acceleration and watch the road that much closer. We might even slam on the brakes afraid of our own speed and feel creatively blocked at the times we least expect it.

Your journey has its own bends, peaks, and valleys. The scenery is uniquely yours. I encourage you to keep moving on your personal photo journey!

But be sure to keep looking up so as not to miss your life whizzing by. Shoot for purpose not approval. Fail and break a few rules in pursuit of your own voice. Above all, remember that there’s no final destination. There’s only the moment unfolding in front of your camera, begging to be immortalized.

Start thinking about the ways your photography affects how you think and behave. I know I need all kinds of reminders and love returning to first principles. I would love to hear what life lessons you have learned from photography so be sure to share them in the comments below!

About the Author:

Most days Clickin Moms member Amy is chasing light and loving through her lens. When she's not, you can find her in a coffee shop with a friend having a deep conversation...another soul food. She's a mamma by grace to two girls (ages 10 and 8) and is married to an enduring man who's the wind in the sails of her Boston-based lifestyle family photography business. Amy is drawn to light and shadows with a new-found passion for DSLR videography and documentary family films.

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