Almost everything we believe about photographic composition is wrong: the most recurrent myths

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Composition is the unfinished business of many photographers. It is very difficult to arrange the world in a rectangle and make sense of it. To achieve this, we find in books, courses and pages many rules and regulations that are strictly followed and may not make much sense. Let’s see the typical errors of photographic composition.

In the world of photography you have to know how to order reality and make sense of it. The obsession with composition It consists of drawing imaginary lines at random. And it really is more complicated than that. You have to direct the viewer’s gaze so that they know what we want to tell.

In the end, it always ends up talking about the (rule of thirdsor of golden number…). The problem is that are considered fundamental and eternal, when they were born in the 19th century from the mind of an unknown artist who wanted to pass as a theoretician. We photographers have inherited and evolved the way of looking at painters, and they rarely worked with those rules that seem immovable.

composition theories.

In art treatises there are very few references to the rules of composition. And the rule of thirds are minimal, such as a paragraph in a book by John Thomas Smith, ‘Remarks on Rural Scenery’ (1797) that uses it to place the horizon.

But where it is most talked about, and which is the source of inspiration for many later authors, is in ‘The Parthenon and other greek temples. Their dynamic symmetry’ (1924). This book, by the unknown Jay Hambidge, sought the solution to achieve the successes of the great classical artists with the rule of thirds and others less well known.

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Jay Hambidge was an unsuccessful artist who looked for art’s answer in mathematics. And he began to paint lines on the pictures and buildings of antiquity to find the Eldorado.

His ideas penetrated very little within the world of art. Nevertheless, began to be relevant in photography manuals that little by little flooded the bookstores in the 70s. It is difficult to find any reference before.

In the oldest treatises, such as the one by Marco Vitruvius Pollio, which Leonardo DaVinci illustrated, they only speak of the proportion of the human being (according to the canons of Polykleitos and Praxiteles) and that it be used as a measure of all things. This text from the 1st century BC talks about architecture and man’s relationship with it. And it has been used to explain composition in photography.

Vitruvian Man Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci’s interpretation of the Vitruvian man

It is difficult to explain how to compose a photograph. And of course it does not seem like a good idea to start from theories written before the birth of Christ or performed by someone who failed to transcend with his art. If they really work, why do we only know Jay Hambridge from references to his unknown book and none of his works?

You have to get past Jay Hambridge and get closer to the theories of gestalt schoolsince its principles are based on the observation and perception of the elements.

Furthermore, if we delve into neurophysiology, we will learn that the observation of the elements depends on many more things than was thought in the 19th century. And that the members of the Gestalt were very well on their way.

Why does our attention focus more on certain areas of the image? According to studies by Ronald H. Forgus and Lawrence E. Melamed in their book ‘Perception: A Study of Cognitive Development’, it turns out that we pay attention because there are factors that make us react in one way or another.

They can be external: Brightness and size, contrast, movement, change, repetition and isolation; and internal: our physical form, motivation, affections and interest.

Here is the key to compose, to call attention to some elements over others, to direct the gaze. And it also explains why there are authors that we like or that we repel. It all depends on our brain and our experiences.

The myths and beliefs of the composition

composition rules they are a mere guide to start. It’s like using graph paper to avoid twisting when we write by hand, like the training wheels of the bicycle when we learn to ride or like the driving school teacher that we take next to us in the car, with his own pedals.

Cartier Bresson Composition

But which one is good?

If we stay with them, our photography will advance very little. Everything is much more complex. Being able to direct the viewer’s gaze depends on other factors that are much more visible and powerful than drawing lines in the air. You have to forget about clichés.

Composition depends on drawing lines

One of the pinnacles of western painting is ‘Las meninas’ by Diego Velázquez. And there is no line there. But everything is perfectly placed. It is one of the masterpieces of western art.


The composition of the ‘donkey’ with the thick lines so that everything fits. Does it make sense?

We can zoom in more in time and look at the work of Robert Frank, where everything seems messy until you learn to read the images. He can’t be explained with lines either.

In these two works, symbol of an era, composition depends on light and contrast. White on black in the case of the photographer and the light from that open door that we see in the background in the painter’s painting.

The color does not matter in the composition

Many manuals recommend placing the main element at the intersection of the lines of the rule of thirds. And forget about everything else.

But if in the background of the photograph there is a man dressed in red or a prohibited sign is seen, little can be done. It doesn’t matter all the lines you’ve drawn that the composition will not work.

William Eggleston

This photograph of color master William Eggleston loses all its meaning if we convert it to black and white. Blood red and its relationship with the other colors is the basis of the composition.

Color is one of the most important elements within the composition. It even forces you to read the frame differently. What works in black and white may fail in color. And vice versa.

Light is one more element of the composition

It is very curious to read that light is another way of composing. Really it all depends on the lighting. The meaning and composition of photography can change completely with one light or another.

A landscape, a monument, are different depending on the light. And if the light changes, we will have to modify the composition. At noon the Alhambra in Granada can be repetitive, but with the light of the storm, from the same viewpoint of San Nicolás, it can be spectacular.

The Meninas (Wikipedia)

If you look closely, if we darken the background light of the ‘Las meninas’ painting, the entire composition falls apart.

Imagine the whole mountain submerged in darkness and the stone of the palaces bathed in the red light of the sun… The composition will be the same, but in one case the photograph will be one more and in the other case it will be spectacular.

In conclusion, we have to flee from conventions, from everything that limits us when shooting. The composition is nothing more than having its own style, a way of communicating our way of looking.

The day we understood a Goya painting thanks to an old photograph

If we stick to the usual rules, which are even recorded on the camera’s LCD screen, we will manage to bore the staff. It doesn’t mean they don’t work, but it’s not the only thing we have to do. The photographic language is so rich that ABC is not enough that we all know.

Composition is the unfinished business of many photographers. It is very difficult to arrange the world in a rectangle and…

Composition is the unfinished business of many photographers. It is very difficult to arrange the world in a rectangle and…

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