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Jim Zuckerman on Composition: Breaking the Rules


BY Jim Zuckerman September 10, 2014 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Photographer Jim Zuckerman talks about cases in which breaking the classic rules of composition can result in a stronger image in the final article of his sixteen-part series on composition.

Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.


Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.


The guidelines for creating successful compositions presented in this series of articles are just that—guidelines. They are not set in stone, and there are countless situations in which breaking a rule produces just as good a picture (or possibly better) than if you had followed traditional compositional principles. How do you know when it’s acceptable to deviate from the rules of composition? Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If it looks good to you, then it works. If you are at a stage in your photographic education where you are not sure about your ability to determine whether a photo is well-composed, then my suggestion would be to adhere to the guidelines already discussed.

If you would like to explore compositional possibilities outside those parameters, study the images below and see how photos can benefit from going in another direction.

For example, instead of positioning a subject on one of the vertical or horizontal thirds of an image as the Rule of Thirds suggests, try placing it in the center of the frame. Images 16.1 and 16.2 are very different pictures, but both subjects look good with a central placement. Both the tree and the Cambodian dancer could have been composed off-center, but I preferred shooting them as you see here. I did the same thing with a giraffe portrait in Kenya (16.3), and with the colorful door I shot in Antigua (16.4). These four images show how disparate images can look perfectly correct when the subjects are placed in the middle of the frame.

Figure 16.1

Figure 16.2

Figure 16.3

Figure 16.4

One of the tenets of traditional compositional rules is that the horizon line should never be placed in the center of the frame. However, sometimes it works very well to go against this rule and to put this important graphic element in the middle of the shot. This is especially true when shooting reflections. The reflection provides a nice sense of balance to the top part of the picture, and the horizon line (or water line) in the middle of the frame underscores that. This is true if the reflection is real or if it was created digitally. Image 16.5 of the Matterhorn in Switzerland looks dramatic in a reflection that I made in Photoshop. To maintain a sense of balance in the composition, I placed the horizon precisely in the center. The beach photo I took in the Dominican Republic 16.6 also shows the horizon in the middle. In this case, I felt that the shadow in the lower part of the image balanced the upper portion, and therefore the center position of the horizon was justified.

Figure 16.5

Figure 16.6

Another rule of composition is that a subject facing to the left or right should look toward the center of the frame. The same is recommended for a subject in motion. It should move from an off-center position toward the vertical center line of the photograph. An example of breaking this rule can be seen in the village photo of an Indian woman (16.7), as she is walking out of the frame. In other words, she was placed to the left of the center line in the composition. Similarly, a wild dog in Kenya (16.8) was photographed looking out of the frame.

Figure 16.7

Figure 16.8

One of the shooting styles that is very popular now is angling the camera to make horizontal lines diagonal. This would have been laughed at in the decades preceding this one, but now wedding and fashion photographers do it all the time, and shooters in other disciplines use it as well. I felt this technique was appropriate for the unique Hill of Crosses in Lithuania (16.9). With fashion in mind, I used the same idea in a carnival shot in Venice (16.10). Photographs of architectural elements that end up as diagonal lines probably drive architects crazy, but in terms of attention-getting compositions, they work very well at times.

Figure 16.9

Figure 16.10

Ultra-wide-angle distortion is something that many photographers have shunned in the past, but in certain circumstances it can work. Cows, for example, make people laugh anyway, and when they are photographed with outrageous distortion as in image 16.11, it just adds to the sense of humor. This picture was taken with a 14mm lens on a full-frame camera. The closer the lens is placed to the subject, the more distortion you’ll get.

Figure 16.11


Read the full series:

  1. The Rule of Thirds
  2. Leading Lines
  3. Framing
  4. Graphic Design
  5. Backgrounds
  6. Classic Landscape Technique
  7. Foregrounds
  8. Moving into the Frame
  9. Patterns
  10. Lines
  11. Balance
  12. Distinctive Perspectives
  13. Symmetry
  14. Light's Influence
  15. Negative Space
  16. Breaking the Rules


Composition and Posing

Featured photographer: Jim Zuckerman

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