Creativity is the process of making, or creating, something new and useful – in context, that would be a photograph. So in order for a photograph to be creative it must involve a scene, technique, or composition that’s new and unique – never been done before. But making something new isn’t nearly enough. There are an infinite number of ways to make new or novel images with your camera – including tripping the shutter as your tripod accidentally falls to the ground or firing it remotely after attaching the camera to your dog’s tail as it runs through the yard. The results would be new or unique, to be sure, but they wouldn’t necessarily be creative. Almost all of the photos would be failures, unless you “created” a random, happy accident. The photograph needs to be both new and useful, meaning it has to make a meaningful connection with the viewer. Art can never be the product of an accident, it must be purposeful. Composing a scene through your camera’s viewfinder is just one conscious, purposeful thing you can do as a photographic artist.
Following the compositional “rules” will surely lead to visually appealing images that are “useful” but they might lack the creativity you’re striving for since there’s nothing new in any composition recipes. You must learn to break the rules in order to achieve true creative results but you also must know the rules in order to break them. Actors and actresses are instructed to learn their lines so they can later forget them and improvise lines in the moment. The good ones do just that. Call it counter-intuitive if you wish, but I prefer to call it the Creative Principle. Feel free to break this one too since there are, in fact, no rules here.
It’s also crucial to understand that breaking the rules just for the sake of breaking them is not being creative either. What’s most important about knowing the rules is understanding why they work most of the time. Knowing why the rules work will lead to something akin to a higher state of compositional enlightenment: knowing when your photo is successful when not using the rules, or better yet, purposely breaking them. Once you get to that happy place, you will be on the path to true creative synthesis.
The last step on this journey to creative expression is actually putting The Creative Principle into action. The French artist, Henri Matisse once famously declared, “creativity takes courage.” It takes considerable courage to deviate from the safe confines of conventional compositional rules because trying something different could lead to failure. Your art should be an intimate expression of yourself so it’s easy to take failure personally. It’s important to remember, however, that artistic growth requires experimenting and trying new things. Failures will occur along the way but they’re a small price to pay for the creative breakthroughs you’re going to make by venturing outside your comfort zone. Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, said, “an essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.” Don’t be afraid to try something new.
So consider the rules merely as guidelines or suggestions with which to take generous liberties. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,” Pablo Picasso offered as advice to fellow creatives. When I’m behind the camera, I am not thinking about compositional rules, guidelines, or suggestions but instead I’m working on more of an intuitive level. I don’t think too much about composition. I simply defer to what feels right. Later on, I often discover that I did, in fact, use one of the rules presented here (or I’ve discovered that I ignored all of them) but I’m never thinking that way while creating.
Remember, no one is born an accomplished photographer and master of composition. It’s not an innate talent. It’s not a gift. There are no child prodigies in the field of photography. Every great photographer has had to learn the rules, intentionally break the rules, then ignore them altogether. If you’re just starting out, rest assured that you are in the same place that I once was, as well as every other professional photographer. Learn the rules, adopt the Creative Principle, then follow your heart and intuition to a life of creative expression. Enjoy the journey.