Most of the rules of composition are there to create harmony – to ease viewers into the photograph with grace and mastery. As I said before, rules are useful, and knowing them is fundamental to creating impactful pictures and stories. So what if you don’t follow the rules? There are in
fact only two possible outcomes to ignoring the rules of composition:
- The first possible outcome is failure. You’ve broken the rules, but didn’t know you did – because you don’t really know the rules anyway. You picture is unbalanced, lacks cohesion and substance. The idea has potential, but the execution leaves viewers fairly unimpressed.
- The second possible outcome is creativity. You’ve broken the rules, but in doing so willingly, you also created what I call tension in your image. Instead of being easy on the mind, your picture raises questions that will captivate and generate interest.
You’ve heard me well. The consequence of breaking the rules, if done
properly, thoughtfully and creatively, is to create tension. I will
explain what I mean by that. Tension exists when the mind cannot see what
it expects to see to fully understand the story. The idea of “tension” is
anchored into the Gestalt theory – a theory explaining how the mind
perceives and interprets relationships between elements in a spatial
So what happens when you deprive the mind from seeing what’s expected? You
force the mind to imagine the untold, the unseen. You request viewers to go
beyond the frame in order to get closure. You leave open too many questions
that viewers will desperately seek to answer. In short, you create tension
– and that, by itself, is a terrific fate, but one that is hard to achieve.
In practice, how do we create tension? What does it look like?
Just as there are many rules of composition, there are many ways to break
them – but there are only a finite number of ways to create tension. I will
illustrate this concept through three distinct examples, which is by no
means an exhaustive list J
1. Blurring the lines between subject and environment
Traditionally, good composition is meant to direct the eye to the subject.
Everything we do is aimed at separating the subject from the foreground AND
background in clear, indisputable terms. The idea for applying this rule is
to give preeminence to the subject as opposed to the rest of the scene. The
subject becomes the point of clear focus, and again, the “owner” of the
story being told.
Let’s think about what it means to break that rule: what if my subject cannot be easily distinguished from the environment in the photograph? Then discomfort comes in as the mind cannot properly process what’s going on. It may be that the environment takes precedence, making humans feel small and
vulnerable – relegated to a secondary place in the frame. It may be that
the original distinction between subject and environment doesn’t really
exist – one and the other are interchangeable, part of a bigger scheme.
Interpretations can be endless, but one fact remains: it will demand more
effort to understand your picture. And in many instances, more effort
equals deeper interest.
In The Stairs, the man is quite visible at the bottom of the picture. But
as the eyes travel up to the top of the stairs, the difference between
ornamental objects and human figures become increasingly blurred. Are these
men looking down at us or are these vestiges of the past?
2. Leaving the story untold and depriving the mind from closure
The human mind needs closure. There is a need for a beginning and an end to
everything. In fact, the human mind cannot easily tolerate gaps, nor can it
be sustained with allusive answers. This is why playing on that weakness
can be surprisingly successful in photography and art in general. Again,
the key is to understand that requesting incremental effort from a viewer
will pay off in increased interest for the picture.
In Blue Dream, the woman is facing the frame of the picture, where the eye
cannot go. The relationship between the two silhouettes remains allusive:
they seem to be at proximity, yet no connection is made between them. The
circumstances and context is totally unknown, leaving much gaps to be
In Night Beauty, this is the relationship between the young lady and the
overwhelming darkness that is most interesting. Combined with her forlorn
expression, the viewer is left guessing why she seems to carelessly avoid
the shadows, and what lies beyond her pensive eyes.
The two pictures have something in common: they only tell half of the
story, leaving open many questions – thus creating a persistent sense of
mystery. Not only does the story remain open to interpretation, but viewers
are never fully able to grasp the implications of what they’re seeing –
thus engendering this so-called tension that we are looking to achieve.
Where to Find Marie
Editor’s Note: Don’t miss our next issue where we interview Marie as a featured photographer of the month.