Breaking the Rules of Composition to Create Thought-Provoking Images

by Adobe Stock Team

posted on 07-14-2017

This month we’re exploring how artists use angles, balance, and perspective – but we’re not talking about how to do any of these things the “right” way. Instead, we’re looking at how artists deliberately break the rules of composition to shock or unsettle us. Whether they’re communicating about social change, political upheaval, or environmental threats, we’re examining the rebel-artist mind as it throws us off balance and nudges us to confront hard things. To start, we got some expert advice on flouting convention.

If you want to break the rules, go all in.

It might sound counterintuitive, but if you want to break the rules well, Morgan David de Lossy, photographer, film director, and senior product manager at Adobe, says there are some rules. You can’t simply start by disrupting the standards – to take the rules apart, first you have to figure them out: “It’s like most things in life,” says Morgan. “You must start by mastering the balance. Learn from the classics and feel comfortable with them. Only then can a photographer play with unbalanced composition on purpose.”

Then, if you’ve mastered critical elements like the rule of thirds, and you want to upend the rules, don’t just dip your toe in. Go all in. “Be daring,” Morgan advises. “Being slightly off will feel like a mistake. But breaking a rule with elegance creates images that people’s brains aren’t used to, and that will make your work pop out of the masses.”

But, Morgan explains, there’s also a balance to imbalance. He describes it with a metaphor: “In a movie, a character should never say what they do. You don’t say, ‘I’m angry,’ while playing angry — that’s weak storytelling. If your character says, ‘I’m okay,” but behaves like she’s very angry, it’s much more interesting to watch. Your brain wonders what’s next. Photography and visual arts are similar. There are lots of ways to attract the eye, but each piece — models, composition, light, clothes — should work to tell it’s a part of the grander story.”

When nature’s out of balance, consider all of the angles.

Shannon Benson, a wildlife photographer and Adobe stock contributor with a deep commitment to conservation, is a master of environmental images that celebrate, but also unsettle. She balances traditional elements of composition along with thought-provoking angles that make viewers look twice “You have to make sure to do justice to the scene by exploring various compositions,” says Shannon. “Don’t forget to move around, get lower, or higher, closer or step back to give the viewer a unique perspective and make them sit up and take notice. Most importantly, think about the message you want to communicate and ask yourself if the images are achieving that.”

Get up close with unsettling images.

If you want to try out unbalanced composition, consider starting with immersion—there might be an inspiringly unsettling gallery near you. A current exhibit of the work of painter Otto Dix at Tate Liverpool explores the artist’s “harshly realistic” portrayals of Germany between the world wars. Just as Morgan advises, Dix’s art unsettles with creative tension — we’re at once shocked, but there’s also some joy. In a review of the exhibit, The Guardian called out the complexity and ambiguities of Dix’s challenging work, describing it as “cynical and deliberately obscene,” but not entirely negative. “His art asks us to question what decadence means, for the outrageous erotic mayhem he depicts expresses a belief in social progress and liberation.”

A new Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Hirshhorn plays with balance and composition to give viewers a provocative look at current, unsettling events. The exhibit includes 176 portraits (made of the innocent children’s toy, Legos) representing people the artists says “have been detained, exiled, or have sought political asylum as a result of their actions, beliefs, or affiliations.” If that unexpected juxtaposition doesn’t unsettle you, the wallpaper will. The pattern, “The Plain Version of the Animal That Looks Like a Llama but Is Really an Alpaca,” appears at first glance to be an pleasant, kaleidoscopic design, but a closer view shows a pattern of alarming elements—chains, handcuffs, surveillance cameras, and a take on the Twitter logo (and alpacas).

To browse even more unbalanced compositions that will make you think, check out our curated gallery of Adobe stock. We gathered images that play with the familiar in intriguing ways, from Cubist-style portraits, to a foot with a shoe inside it, and the startling moment of contrast at a protest — a woman in colorful clothes stands in front of a darkly dressed police cordon.

Stay with us on the blog this month as we dive deep into unbalanced portraits, and get up close with artists who play with proportion in startling and delightful ways.


Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends

Products: Stock