There are many articles in the internet about composition rules. And almost all of them says many masters sometimes break composition rules to make more appealing photographs. But the problem I face is that these articles does not give examples where composition rules are broken still the photograph is a masterpiece.

If you agree that rules of composition can be broken, could you please list some of the photograph references from “famous photographers” and explain where and how the rules are broken?

Note: What I mean by the term “famous photographers” is that their photographs are exhibited in a museum or there are multiple (at least 4) books published about their photographs.

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    List-type questions generally don't work too well on Stack Exchange. Is there any way you can refine this question down so that it has a more specific focus? – Philip Kendall Jan 16 '15 at 14:31
  • Additionally, it's basically asking for opinions, which is another no-no. Questions with objective answers work best here. If I show you a Cartier-Bresson photo that "breaks the rules," someone could well argue that it sucks, and that proves the value of the rules. – Warren Young Jan 16 '15 at 14:34
  • @PhilipKendall It is not a mere list question. I have updated the question to emphasis the explanation part of it. – LCJ Jan 16 '15 at 14:34
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    How do you plan on deciding which is the correct answer, @Lijo? The person who posts the most photographs and explanations? The one who finds the perfect — to you — example of rules being broken? What, in the end, is the objective criteria of success here? – Warren Young Jan 16 '15 at 14:36
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    @WarrenYoung Could you please point out any question in this forum from composition tag that cannot generate an opinion based reply? – LCJ Jan 16 '15 at 14:37

There are no "rules" so nothing to break. Nobody is going to take away your camera, levy a fine, or throw you in jail, regardless of how you compose a scene.

There are some suggestions or maybe guidelines, but these are perceptual principles dumbed down that produce OK results most of the time. The point of them is reduce bad pictures by bad photographers, not to make good pictures.

For example, when you are taking a head and shoulders shot of a person, you generally want to use vertical orientation and put the top of the head near the top of the picture. This is to counter the knee-jerk reaction of most inexperienced people, which is to point the camera at the nose and never even consider rotating it. That doesn't mean there can't be cases where that actually makes a good picture, but that most of the time it won't. So newbies are told do it this way. When they get enough experience hopefully they'll realize there is no such rule and use their own creative judgement each picture without using these so-called rules as crutches.

Another common one you hear is the "rule" of thirds. That is trying to prevent you from putting a major dividing line, like the horizon, right in the middle of the picture. Put the horizon 1/3 of the way up if the sky is the point of the picture, or 2/3 of the way up if the ground is the point of the picture. Obviously, this isn't going to be optimal much of the time, but it's usually better than putting the horizon in the middle of the picture.

Here's an example, which happens to be the featured photo on the site right now:

backlit shrub against sky

The land is closer to the 1/5 mark than 1/3, and the largest shrub is dead center in the photograph. It's still nice, though.

Again, it doesn't mean that there aren't cases where putting the horizon in the middle won't result in a good photograph. But, by the time you're ready for that, you'll have gotten past these crutches and will evaluate the framing of the picture for that scene on its own merit anyway.

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  • I'd even mention that the oh-so-famous rule of thirds comes from a simplified version of the golden section. The absurd thing about this "rule" is that it's used as if it existed before any composition was ever made. Indeed it's quite the opposite. The rule (which is a by-product of a statistical study) has been created as a means to classify renowned pictures. Most of them had this latent structure, these proportions but the rules were not even used as guidelines. – Nomaru Jan 16 '15 at 14:51

The compositional rules aren't really prescriptive rules how to compose a picture, but rather descriptive rules how the composition of a picture affects the viewer.

As such, "breaking the rules" means composing in such a way that other effects/emotions are instilled in the viewer than an adherence to the rules would produce.

Eg. a bicycle needs space to "drive into" - the viewer does not feel comfortable if the bike seems to crash into the side of the picture. So if you want to rattle your viewers, you'll do exactly that. random flickr photo enter link description here
random flickr photos

I wouldn't even call that "breaking" the rules, but just "using" them.

Knowing the rules then is simply important because we want to know how our pictures affect the viewers before we press the shutter button.

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It's ok to break a rule of composition when you know why you're breaking the rule.

Consider the likelihood that you can't possibly follow all the rules on the same photo. For example, the rule of thirds probably conflicts with the rule of symmetry most of the time, or it might impact your ability to use leading lines, and so on.

In fact, it might make sense to think about rules of composition in terms of an ordered list of rules governing the composition of each photo. One photo might be guided primarily by the rule of thirds, then by the rule of odds, for instance. Each photo will have its own guiding thought, and not all rules of composition will be used.

Inasmuch as rules of composition are intended to help teach great composition, I think you'll also find that their importance as discrete "rules" falls away as the act of composition becomes more natural, as well.

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