Photography News

Rules, Rules, Rules

November 27, 2013 by Leanne Cole

When I first got into photography I was given a Pentax K1000 for my birthday and I had no idea how to use it.  It was a long time ago and the internet wasn’t around so I couldn’t google “how do I use my SLR”, so I had to figure it out for myself.  Trial and error got me there.  I did one course at the CAE here in Melbourne, but it was about black and white processing, didn’t really help with learning how to use it.  I did read a lot, and I figured out what it all meant.

One of my first photos with the Pentax, when I didn't know what I was doing.

One of my first photos with the Pentax, when I didn’t know what I was doing.


Composition was a different thing though.  I had to learn that on my own.  I had to work out what was the best way an image looked.  Then I did a beginners course at a local camera club and I learned the”Rules”.The rules that say everything must be on those thirds lines in every image, you must not deviate, you must not be creative, you must follow those rules at all times.

A horizon line in the middle of the image.

A horizon line in the middle of the image.


So it may not have been exactly like that, but pretty close.  It certainly felt like that when they had their competitions and if you didn’t have things exactly how they should be you lost points.  Didn’t matter if the image was great, if your horizon line was in the middle, well then, almost automatic disqualification.  Okay, it wasn’t really that bad, but I do remember that anything different from the norm was pretty much frowned on and didn’t go well in competitions.


The reason for this post today is because I was recently asked on my other blog if the rules should be stuck to religiously or can we deviate from them, or do professional photographers not bother with them.  I thought it was an interesting question and one that should be discussed.


We all know what those rules of composition are and if you don’t, then you should google them, now that we can, and find out what they are.  So how strict should we be with them?

The thirds work here.

The thirds work here.


When I am teaching, the only class I really talk about composition, as far as the thirds go, is my landscape class.  I really only follow the rules when I am doing landscape photography, I don’t follow them religiously, but I do think about them more.  You will find the horizon on one of third lines at lot more with my landscapes. I think with this sort of photography it is good to know the rules, think about them and practice them.  Taking photos following the rules, taking photos not following them, compare the results and see which you like best.


When it comes to other types of photography, like portraits and architecture, I find the rules fly out the window, and I do what I want.  Which is probably what got me into trouble with the clubs.  I took photosaccording to what I liked, what I thought looked good.  I didn’t follow the rules at all.  If you are photographing a person or a building, who cares where the horizon line is, it is about the subject.

Another example of the thirds.

Another example of the thirds.


I’m not saying I don’t think of things to help make an image more interesting, like lines that will lead you into an image, or not cutting off someone’s feet, which can look like you were clumsy and didn’t take enough care.  I think what I am saying it is that I let the image dictate what it will be, rather than some rules.  I decide what I think the image needs.

This one was entered in a competition, won it, and then was criticised by the rest of the club members, saying it wasn't good enough.  I left the club soon after.

This one was entered in a competition, won it, and then was criticised by the rest of the club members, saying it wasn’t good enough. I left the club soon after.


I have started doing my portraits and the person in them is always very central in them.  I like that, I like the symmetry, I don’t mind if others don’t like it, but I do.  I remember a teacher at art school telling me once, “it is your image, do what you want”.  I like that idea, so that is what I have followed ever since.  It doesn’t always work, but you have to try and you have to experiment, what would life be without experimentation?


All the photos in this post were taken before digital and are all photos taken with black and white film.  Do you know the rules?  Do you always follow them?


Leanne Cole is a Melbourne based fine art photographer who specialises in Architecture and landscapes.  She has over 20 years experience and has a Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Melbourne, faculty VCA.  Leanne also writes her own blog and has been doing that for many years now, she writes for anyone interested in photography.  You can find Leanne at her website, or her blog, she is also on Google+ and Facebook

26 Responses to “Rules, Rules, Rules”

  1. Ardys says:

    The theory of rules is all very well, and quite helpful in the beginning of any new endeavour, but when one truly becomes an artist, by hours and hours of practice, they learn how to break and bend rules to create something unique and special. Good, thought provoking article Leanne.

  2. Robert says:

    A better word for rules would be “suggestions” – which are used in order to make most images work…most of the time – but not always. As a beginner, it is helpful to have some idea of how to start with image composition – then work out from there – experience is still the best long-term teacher. The rules provide guidance and guidance only – ultimately we all should develop a style that works for us – and if other like it, great – if not, perhaps the wrong people are looking at our images. For me, composition is just second nature – I do not have to think a lot about it – but, I have been shooting for a very long time.
    Interesting observations in this article Leanne!

    • Leanne Cole says:

      I call them guidelines Robert, I think that is how they should be thought of. As you said good to know, but as you grow with experience you learn what works what doesn’t. I’m the same with composition, have been doing it for so long, that it is second nature now. Thanks Robert.

  3. Hi

    The best photos are those that cause some visceral reaction in the viewer, whether the viewer is the photographer or someone else. Its very hard to create that sort of effect if you rely on the rule of thirds on its own. Good artists intuitively bring other elements like light, contrast, movement, tension etc into play to create powerful images.
    In my classes I urge people to experiment find out what works and what does not.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      I do the same George in my classes. I give them the “rules”, but encourage them to try lots of different things and see what works. I agree about good images. Thank you George.

  4. Mary McAvoy says:

    Hi Leanne,
    I found your post to be encouraging. Thanks.
    I find that “in the moment” I don’t get bogged down on the thirds rule. If it’s obvious and works, I might shoot it that way. But more often, it’s when I’m cropping that I might see the opportunity to incorporate it and I’ll try it to see if it enhances the image. If so, I’ll incorporate it – otherwise, I don’t.

    Also, in addition to the landscape shot, I seem to use the concept more when I might position the most key element in the “crosshairs” of the thirds grid. For instance, a bird in flight works well at the crossing of the top and the leftmost intersection of the thirds (imaginary) lines – giving the bird much “air” space for flight. And it seems to be a natural point of interest to the eye so it’s a comfortable positioning when viewing the photo.

    Thanks for your posts this month. It’s been interesting to follow you. You’re busy!

    • Leanne Cole says:

      Thank you Mary, it is good to know the rules/guidelines, but as you said, we shouldn’t be bogged down by what they are. Sometimes, they just don’t work and we need to experiment with them to see what works the best.

  5. G.A. Miller says:

    Very helpful. Thanks Leanne!

  6. robert says:

    I’m simply impressed that you have those photos, from back when. I suspect some of us (me for certain) could think of the rules/suggestions a bit more when shooting.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      I have all the negatives, so I scanned them a couple of years ago, I got a scanner especially for it. I think it is a good idea to have them in your head, know about them, then decide if you need them when shooting. Thanks Robert.

  7. Jen says:

    This is a good post, Leanne. As others have suggested, I think that “shooting by the guidelines” at first is a great way to begin, because those guidelines do teach us to be concerned with proper composition; they train our eye. As a photographer becomes more experienced, though, they can and will find themselves bending and entirely ignoring those “rules” for specific reasons, whether they’re considering the fact that they’re ignoring the guidelines or no. I’ve intentionally shot several things so that they’re slightly unsettling/unnerving to the viewer, giving them pause to think about the subject.

    Good post!

    • Leanne Cole says:

      Thank you Jen. It is a great way to learn, but you after awhile you should decide for yourself where you want your images to go and own them.

  8. Leah Jlyn says:

    Thanks for inviting us and it was helpful. It was also freeing to know just create what we like.

  9. Jessica says:

    Very interesting post today!

  10. […] With this image I have probably broken every photographic compositional rule you will ever read about – however, in this case, the tilted horizon and vertical convergence are used to imply the sense of disorder and entropy of this particular scene. The tight crop excludes quite a bit of the structure but (hopefully) leads your eye to the irony of the sign in the foreground. Indeed, rules are made to be broken…when appropriate. For an interesting commentary on this subject, please see an article by my blogging friend, Leanne Cole at: […]

  11. LB says:

    Still learning of course, and I don’t know “the rules”, though I’ve heard of the thirds. I use my eye, and if no one else likes the result, then I’m lucky to not be earning my living following the rules of photography.
    I will take some time to learn more about them though :-)

    • Leanne Cole says:

      It is not a bad idea to know them, they aren’t bad, and they can make your image better, but they should be considered guidelines. Thank you LB.

  12. Amy Skalski says:

    Hi, Leanne. I profess to be a self-taught photographer. I learned the “ropes” along the way. What is my biggest criteria for taking a photo, is what my “gut” says about it. Something within me stirs, and at times stirs deeply. I then put my eye to the view finder, and adjust for the frame and focus. When the “frame” is to my liking, my “gut” says YES! And my finger snaps!

    Someone once said of my work…….”It is a good thing you did not go to school, for the teachers would have ruined your talent.” I take photos from the Heart. I just play and have fun. And when I hit the GREAT ONE, I actually do jump and down in JOY, to the amusement of some. But then again, that’s me!

    • Leanne Cole says:

      Many of us are self taught, though I started that way, I did end up doing some courses. I think if you are a good photographer school won’t ruin you, especially if it is one that doesn’t try to change what you are doing, which most schools don’t, they show you how to be better at what you do.
      It is good to know the rules, as I said, I don’t always follow them, but other times I do, and the images often can look better in some situations when you do. I know I have been out with friends and taken landscape photos and mine often look better, because i knew the rules and followed them, then there are times when it is better to do your own thing, I think the rules are always there, and it is good to know them.
      I think we all do that when we get that great shot, it is why we do photography.
      Thanks Amy.

  13. dianaed2013 says:

    I have been reading your latest comments about art pictures and your early words – no one should be put off by a Club – photography is so subjective. I really enjoy your photography and find it inspiring but I especially like the black and white but the art is really inspiring. I take photos because I am responding to the subject matter and I like making Blurb books to share. I have an inexperienced Group which I take out – I think that that is a good way to learn composition and to look at the controls on the camera. Thank you for your photos Diana

    • Leanne Cole says:

      I agree Diana, no one should be, clubs can be horrible though, the jealousy can be really destructive. You are very welcome Diana, I have been thinking about making books, but not sure yet, might see about it soon. Thank you so much.

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