Rules? What rules? / by Neil Alexander

Many of you will have heard me bleat on about the “rules" of composition in the past and why it’s important to learn what they are. Then without breaking stride I go and tell you to break them. 
What is this nonsense??

Well it’s quite simple really. You don’t necessarily need to know how something works in order to use it. Take a car for example. I would hazard a guess that only a fraction of the people who use one actually have the faintest idea what goes on under the bonnet. If for some reason though, you decided you wanted to improve your car somehow, you wouldn’t stand much of a chance unless you understood how a car works. Is that analogy working for you? Nope. Let’s try something else.

You like to read. A great novel can captivate you and keep you glued to the book until the wee small hours. You decide that maybe you could have a go at this writing malarkey yourself. How hard can it be right? You spend hours and hours pouring over your first draft and then give it to your partner to read. They laugh hysterically at the utter drivel you have penned. This is not the reaction that you anticipated or wanted. Devastated, you decide to take a class in creative writing and subsequently churn out another version. Having learnt the basic rules of creating a story, your second version is a major improvement and it’s actually received rather well. But it’s still not a J.K. Rowling. Not disheartened you then go on to take an advanced writing course and the penny finally drops. You suddenly get it. All the rules and pointers that had originally gone over your head suddenly make perfect sense and with renewed vigour you perform a complete rewrite. This time you know exactly what you should be doing and how you should be doing it. In places you take a gamble and knowing full well what you should be doing, you deviate. You mix it up a little and experiment. The result is an outstanding success because not only have you discovered a formula, but you’ve found your formula. You’ve learnt the rules and then bent and twisted them to make something a little different. Something that deviates from the norm but still works. In fact it works better than the standard formula because you completely understand what you're doing. You get the rules and understand the implications of bending and breaking them.

It’s the same with photography. The “rules” are only there as guidelines. There’s no such thing as right or wrong in photography or even in art as a whole. I’m sure that the first time Mondrian came up with the idea of all those lines and boxes, people said he was nuts and they would never sell. The same for Tracy Emin and her bonkers art. The fact that I don’t get her doesn’t mean she’s doing anything wrong.

And finally to the photograph above. The “rules of composition” would state this image does not work. But it does. In fact when I posted it on 500px just the other day, it reached a Pulse of 96.7 so I’m clearly not the only one who thinks this. I’ve placed the three trees in the middle of the frame, and the sun, that the viewers’ eye is instantly drawn to, isn’t far from being drop dead centre. It’s certainly not in any of the “thirds”. 

It was shortly after dawn one February morning 5 years ago when I made this. I experimented with different compositions at the time, but it became apparent very quickly that this format was going to work. Ask me to comment on why exactly it works is a different story. This I can’t do. I just know that it does. I’ve always been dreadful at trying to critique photographs. Putting words together has never been my forté. That’s why I’m a photographer :-)