May 21, 2016

These New Rules for Composition May Change the Way You Create Images

Rules are made to be broken, even when you're working with something as seemingly uncompromising as composition.

A visually appealing image is equal parts creativity, mathematics, and intuition. There are many concepts that teach us how to assemble elements within a frame to give it the maximum amount of aesthetic energy—the rule of thirds, symmetry, balance, etc.—but they certainly aren't the only ways to make that happen. Photographer James Allen Stewart shows us how to break the rules of composition in this interesting video:

Stewart highlights two major ways one can deviate from classic compositional rules, namely the rule of thirds:

Balance between light and dark

Consider for a moment the denseness of light and dark elements—light elements seem to "weigh" less than dark elements. This quality of "weight" does interesting things to an image. For instance, say all of the darks gather on one side of the frame; your image will feel "heavier" on that side, creating the illusion that the image is being pulled down in that direction.

The dark elements on the right side of this image seems to "weigh down" that side, giving the image an uneven feel.
Adding more light elements to the left side of the image brings balance to the composition.

This is an important concept to understand, because according to Stewart, the rule of thirds becomes less important to composition if these two elements are balanced within your image.

Direction/The Story

This is probably the most interesting concept Stewart introduces, that since we tend to "read" or "write" an image from left to right, you can compose your image like you would a story, with a beginning, middle, climax, and end. Consider the following images:

If the "climax" of your story is the woman's eyes, it occurs too early in your "story" and not only gives your viewer no where to go afterward, but it leads their eyes back to the beginning of your visual narrative.
However, when the climax occurs later, it allows your viewer to survey the image more naturally, letting the image to unfold as would a good novel.
You may agree or disagree with Stewart's assertions about composition. What works for one image may not work for others, nor for the entire film as a whole. But I think it's worth learning about because the more tools you have in your arsenal, the better equipped you'll be when composing your shots.     

Your Comment

22 Comments

These are not new rules of composition at all. Techniques like balance, leading your eye etc. used old master painters long time ago. Besides not all of them used rule of thirds (on the contrary, this is a modern idea for simplyifing composition). They used something called dynamic symetry and other composition tools.

May 22, 2016 at 2:04AM

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Agreed

May 22, 2016 at 4:47AM

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John Stockton
Filmmaker, Editor.
668

Nothing new under the sun.

May 22, 2016 at 5:42AM, Edited May 22, 5:42AM

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Adam Fletcher
Producer/Director
178

Dynamic symmetry sounds like something I'd love to study more :)

Thank you for taking your time to give your thoughts about this matter. I hope you will all have a great day!

May 23, 2016 at 6:07AM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
142

It might not be "new" in the sense that it's never existed before, but imagine how many film school grads, or newcomers to photography/film had never knows about these techniques

October 11, 2016 at 1:42AM

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Ehab Eazy Ismail
Director/D.O.P
107

Maybe I'm too old school, but to me most of the images in the "Balance between light and dark" lost impact with the changes. I felt the image for this section in the article above lost 90% of it's impact and became a mishmash with the addition of light space to the left side of the image.

I did see the change in impact attained by flipping the image horizontally though. I gives me pause to consider whether this may be why some images that seemed so strong when I shot them lost impact when they "hit the page." I'll have to go back through some of these shots and see if they gain the impact back by flipping them.

May 22, 2016 at 6:35AM, Edited May 22, 6:35AM

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Robert W.
225

Some languages are written so that the reader's eyes go from right to left, but English readers read from left to right. Would this image be seen 'differently' by someone who reads a left-to-right written language?

May 22, 2016 at 8:23PM

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Vanessa Rolfe
interested amateur
76

Sounds good, feel free to send me your experiments :)

May 25, 2016 at 2:18PM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
142

So his "new rules" are feel it out? ok.

May 22, 2016 at 8:41AM

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Michael Markham
Actor/Filmmaker
1019

cool post! Thanks for sharing

May 22, 2016 at 10:56AM, Edited May 22, 10:56AM

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Kyle Lamar
Director Producer DP
1208

Yes, please lecture me on composition while all the shots of you speaking are composed so horrendously.

May 22, 2016 at 12:32PM

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AJ Lodge
102

Thank you for sharing your opinion, have a great day Mr. Lodge :)

May 25, 2016 at 2:18PM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
142

Rules? Again?

May 22, 2016 at 1:05PM

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David R. Falzarano
Director / Writer / Editor
1411

Excellent.
Great work.
Thanks for this game changer :)

May 23, 2016 at 12:56AM

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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
1473

You're welcome, Sameir! :)

May 25, 2016 at 2:19PM, Edited May 25, 2:19PM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
142

I guess his wanted to show us how powerfull his rules are, by making the greatest composition ever with this long video shot of the microphone and the dog, look how our eyes are almost not distract at all by the foreheadless men in the background :D

May 23, 2016 at 5:23AM

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AvdS
1271

Thank you for your constructive criticism, I will gain much from this comment :) Have a great day!

May 25, 2016 at 2:20PM, Edited May 25, 2:20PM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
142

In my mind the first part is just another layer of Match Cuts. Where if you match Shape, color, or in this case lightness and darkness of an image. But yeah very much like positive and negative spacing.

The second part is super subjective, and I really would not recommend as it can and could have the potential to be more jarring that it would in creating a story. Though I do think its important to have shots that have a beginning middle and end, its just that if we push the left to right thing we risk alienating other cultures for the sake of what we think looks good.

I think the best way to break the rules of composition is to have your shots have a planned focus point that changes in the shot but still has continuity with the next one. Which should lead the audience to pretty much any point of the screen. It takes planning, but it works.

May 24, 2016 at 12:14AM

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Kyle Dockum
Videographer and Editor
1409

Many years ago in school, I learned that the eye travels through an image in 2 ways. First, it is generally attracted to lighter areas and then explores darker areas. Second the eye generally scans an image from upper left to upper right, then lower right, then kind of lands back on the left middle of the frame. Movies like Casablanca take advantage of this eye movement in framing characters and their relative threat, or power over one another. In many ways Stewart's comments seem to be in line with that general methodology and thinking. The “rule of thirds” is all well and good, but in the end it's all about what composition best serves the story. With any shot one should ask, “How does the composition draw the viewer through the frame” and “What information does the viewer need from this image”. Just because information is placed on the thirds does not mean the shot is automatically well balanced or functionally useful as a story element. It's a bit of an oversimplification more useful for beginners. Golden mean, or Fibonacci framing has more intriguing characteristics but can still become a crutch. Actually, good comic book art is worth studying in this regard. You can find hundreds of examples of comic images carefully composed to draw the reader through a frame to carefully reveal information in a given order... all within a single page. It can be useful inspiration when trying to think outside the box regarding composition. At the very least its fun content to consider when academically dismantling composition techniques.

May 24, 2016 at 2:20PM

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Toll
Production Manager / Producer
177

The dark and light example I can see working for stills, but it's hard to imagine for film and video because the aspect ratio is always going to be 16x9.

The left to right example I can understand easier. With her head on the left, my eyes stop at the face and don't continue to her body. But with her head on the right, my eyes are actually following the body to her face where they finally rest.

Others in these comments are talking about different languages. So, in the case of film and video, which most likely will have dialogue, does that mean Directors of Photographers will compose the shot according to what language and culture the film is in? haha

October 11, 2016 at 1:13AM, Edited October 11, 1:13AM

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November 15, 2016 at 12:36AM

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C'mon Nofilmschool, you usually give us nice articles to read, but this one...
Anyway, this rules aren't new and in now you this guy didn't "found" them, this are old rules used by painters and they are taught in every film or photography school as basics. Now the problem is that everybody learns film or photography from tutorials or one week workshops.

June 17, 2019 at 8:13AM

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