Sometimes It’s Okay to Ignore the Rules

by Robin Statfeld

I have great respect for the rules of composition. Nine times out of ten, an image made with regard to the Rule of Thirds* will have greater impact than one made with disregard. And a closely cropped bird about to fly into the edge of the frame will more than likely cause distress and claustrophobia amongst your viewers, so it's most often a good idea to give it breathing room surrounded by plenty of sky.

Yet sometimes the situation calls for composing against the grain. I don't advocate ignoring the rules for ignoring's sake. But if you have a compelling artistic reason for defying the tenets of composition, by all means go for it!

RULE: Leave space so that your subject has room to run / swim / fly

A bird flying or swimming off the page? Sometimes it works. Animals do not always come toward you, and they are often very quick. What better way to convey their speed and elusiveness than to compose your frame as they're about to leave it. In this image of an Eared Grebe, the viewer is left in the wake of the bird as it swims away. Sometimes it's just as interesting to see where the animal has been, rather than where it's going.

Eared Grebe

RULE: Do not place your subject dead center

True, images with the subject in the exact center can be visually static and "snapshot-like." Yet there are instances when it makes sense, and there's no good reason to crop off center, aside from letting viewer know that you're aware of the "do not place your subject dead center" rule! Character portraits, such as this pair of giraffes, come to mind.


RULE: Do not leave too much sky

Often, when it comes to land vs. sky, the Rule of Thirds does apply. It is pleasing and balanced when the horizon is one third or two thirds of the way down the frame, depending on where you'd like to place a majority of the interest. However, sometimes the sky is overwhelmingly the story, and it deserves overemphasis. In this image of the Everglades, the vast sky over the as-low-as-possible horizon line is meant to convey the power and vastness of the heavens over Mother Nature.

Everglades Sky

RULE: The composition must have a focal point

Some images leave us questioning where we're supposed to look, and wondering whether the photographer pressed the shutter by accident. The focus of the image should be clear, and the viewer's eye should automatically hone in on the photographer's subject. Yet sometimes the glory of nature, whether on a macro or micro scale, is subject enough. Nature lends itself to brilliant abstracts, and minus a focal point, the viewer is left to appreciate colors, shapes and patterns.


RULE: The subject’s head should be turned toward the camera

Many a debate has ensued regarding the merits of images where the animal’s head is turned even a smidgen too far away from the camera. Yes, a subject looking at the camera makes for a pleasing image. Admittedly, I will often prefer such an image to one taken a few seconds before or after where the head is turned away.

However, a look away from the camera does something very interesting. It acknowledges something other than the photographer! When a bird looks into or toward your camera, you implicitly become part of the photograph. But a bird looking into the distance or slightly toward the background past that imaginary “parallel to the film plane” threshold conveys other possibilities. In this Anhinga portrait, the bird seems oblivious to the photographer and is instead gazing out-of-frame, toward a sound or its mate or perhaps something else, limited only by the viewer’s imagination.


I like to think of photography as thinking inside the box - defining a world within the confines of a small rectangle. When composing your images, I invite and encourage you to think outside the box while thinking inside the box!

* For an introduction to the Rule of Thirds, please see: Wikipedia Entry

Home | Discuss

Related Articles