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When Breaking the Rules is a Good Thing

When is breaking the rules a good thing? Some rules, I love. Rules help us all drive on the correct side of the road. It doesn’t matter whether the country you live in requires you drive on the left or the right. As long as we all conform, it works out well. But, in photography, following the rules leads to a different kind of conformity. If there is too much order, everyone’s images start to look the same. When it comes to artistic creativity, playing it safe leads to mediocrity.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times in photography when it makes sense to follow the rules. For example, when you’re just starting out and don’t know what else to do. Even if you are an experienced photographer there will be days when you fall back on compositional rules because you can’t think of what else to do.

Rules can be especially helpful for those beginning in nude photography. It is difficult enough to tackle figure photography, let along without some structure for composition. In my other writings, I explain plenty of rules aimed at helping novices with composition and armatures such as the rule of thirds, the golden mean, diagonals, and so on.

Safety is the Enemy of Creativity

But rules often discourage experimentation. If you never stray outside of the lines, you will never know what other artistic creations are waiting to be invented. Experimentation, by its nature, leads to a mix of successes and failures. At some point you need to take off the training wheels even if it means you are going to fall a few times.

Just about every time I see a rule printed somewhere, it is accompanied by a statement that the rule is “just a suggestion,” “rules were meant to be broken,” or something similar. Nobody intends for these photographic rules to be set in stone. However, photographers who fall into the habit of following the rules too rigidly can fail to make the transition into creative work.

If you’re afraid to be wrong, you’ll never take the risks that are involved with being creative.

So why are so many photographers afraid to ever be wrong? Aside from a general social discouragement from experimentation, photographers are burdened by a particular habit of performance through rote.

Photography is based in math and science. In these disciplines there is only one right answer to any particular problem. When it comes to exposure, many people will tell you there is only one correct value for any given scene. This is not strictly true, as even in exposure there is some room for creativity. However, photographers often fall into the trap of thinking there’s only one best answer to every photographic decision. This is why compositional rules are so popular. They attempt to simplify for us what is right and what is wrong.

Beware especially of rules that are meant for portraiture. In portraiture, the goal is to flatter a subject who is typically not a model but rather the client. These rules are helpful to the portrait studio whose task it is to generate results with a certain level of predictability. When photographing models, on the other hand, your collaborator generally does not need help in hiding flaws in her appearance.

Experimentation should be the rule. If you’re following a rule of composition, you’re probably not pushing your creativity.

Photographic rules will never teach you how to express your personal point of view. All rules do is help you conform to preconceived notions of what your photographs look like. My suggestion is that you take risks – big risks. You should suffer large failures, dust yourself off, and try again. When you do create something outstanding, it will have been worth it.

I recently asked a number of my colleagues to choose one of my images as a stand out. They chose the photo above, despite the fact that it violates the following rules:

  • The subject is centered, violating compositional armatures such as the rule of thirds and the golden mean.
  • The legs are cropped close to the knees, whereas they are “supposed” to be cropped at mid-thigh or mid calf.
  • Shoulders are nearly straight-on (some advocate 45-degrees as the “correct” angle to the camera.)
  • Flat lighting: The image lacks directional contrast that is preferred in most figure work.
  • Nose breaks the cheek line: A head turned sideways but not in complete profile is often considered unflattering
  • Backs of hands: Many photographers caution that the backs of women’s hands can be unsightly. They do recommend an open, sideways hand.
  • Orientation: A standing figure is normally photographed in portrait orientation, not landscape.


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Exquisite Curves: Learn Composition and Posing for Photographing the Female Nude

The contours of the female body are a masterpiece of nature and were the inspiration for the title of this book. There are an infinite number of ways to represent this beauty. The photographer’s role is to create work that is appealing, fitting, and meaningful. This book takes a two-pronged approach: first by teaching the academic and second by encouraging hands-on creativity.

This guide presents the material through five main chapters: Composition, Technique, Posing, Self-Expression (Style), and Shooting Assignments.

The instruction is intended to be accessible to any novice with a serious interest in the composition and posing of female nudes. You do not need to be an artist or a photographer to understand the material but a basic understanding of camera operation is assumed. It is written for the uninitiated and for those who have no more than a modest amount of experience with photography or composition.

The book begins with a discussion of visual literacy and its importance. Next are the abstract elements of composition, such as lines, colors, value, mass, depth, illusion, time, and motion. A section on design principles instructs in the assembly of these elements. Visual pathways, including cyclical, triangular, and others, are explained. Methods of design such as the rule of thirds, the golden mean, diagonal method, armatures, and forty-five degrees are all described and illustrated. The design instruction is rounded out with a discussion of commonalities and pitfalls in the design methods.

The various camera techniques range from controlling framing, focus, and lighting. There is information about high-key, low-key, and minor-key lighting, complete with histograms and diagrams that show where the lights are set up. The section on post-processing mentions the importance of vignettes, contrast, monochrome (black and white) images, color mapping, the zone system, isolating images, and making composites (montages). The book includes 100 examples of nude poses (in addition to the numerous other samples) grouped into sections, such as standing, furniture, and props.

The section on style addresses why we make a photograph and what constitutes an artistic body of work. There is a discussion of how your choice of genre, whether it is pin-up, glamour, or fine art, figure study, or commercial design, influences your composition. The examination of style would not be complete without addressing how to analyze your work and sources of inspiration. The shooting assignments are real-world exercises that provide an opportunity to put what you have learned into practice. The book is rounded out with a glossary, index, and bibliography.


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The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds states that you should place your subjects and other important compositional elements along the division lines between the nine squares formed by dividing both vertical and horizontal edges into thirds.

An application of the rule of thirds
An application of the rule of thirds

A standing subject would be placed on one of the two vertical lines, and the horizon would be placed on one of the two longitudinal lines. A subject can be aligned either through its center or along one of its edges. The most important compositional elements would be placed on the four points created by the intersection of these lines. Bear in mind that placing subjects along all four lines runs the risk of a static composition with symmetry from top to bottom and left to right.

Of course, there are many great photographs and other visual compositions throughout history that do not conform to this. Nonetheless, the rule of thirds is a good start for anyone who is learning composition, and this knowledge can help you produce satisfying images at any stage in your career.

Also see: Golden Mean

Also see: Comparing Thirds to Golden Mean

Learn more about composition here:

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The Golden Mean

To see how the Fibonacci sequence relates to visual space, consider the following representation. We stack squares based on the numbers in the sequence. The first two numbers are one, so the first two squares have sides equal to one unit. The next number is two, so this square lines up nicely with the first two. As the arrangement becomes larger, it begins to fall into a recognizable, repeating pattern.

Creating an arc that traces the edges of each block leads us toward the center in what is called the Fibonacci spiral. Starting with just a few blocks, the spiral is not yet very accurate, but we can extrapolate what the spiral should look like given an infinite number of iterations. Artists call the center of the spiral the cradle and mathematicians call it the pole.

Fibonacci spiral
Fibonacci spiral

Consider how Phi applies within a composition. The ratio between lines and masses will correspond to the golden ratio. In the previous illustration, the ratio of line B to line A is Phi, 1.618. For example if line B is 16.18 inches long, line A is 10 inches, 16.18/10 = 1.618. The borders of the outside rectangle follow the same proportion. The area in pink is a square. The remaining rectangle is divided in the same way, by creating a square whose proportion to the overall rectangle is Phi. Each subsequent rectangle can be subdivided, and so on, to infinity.

Golden ratio, Fibonacci Spiral, and Cradles
Golden ratio, Fibonacci Spiral, and Cradles

The preceding diagrams are a form of armature, or a framework on which a photograph can be composed. The armature can be flipped horizontally, vertically, or rotated 180 degrees and it would still be in accordance with the golden mean. Additional golden mean armatures can be applied to subsections of the image. One way to use the golden mean in a composition is to place the design elements along the lines indicating the golden rectangles and Fibonacci spiral. Also, the golden mean should appear in the subjects. This means showing body proportions and other compositional elements that correspond to the golden ratio when compared to one another. For example, if you photograph a model laying on a rock, you might choose a rock that is 1.6 times her length rather than one that is twice her length. A group of rocks with a visual mass totaling this ratio would also suffice, especially if the subdivisions of the rocks also conform to the golden ratio.

Some photographers follow the golden mean religiously and sometimes sacrifice everything else in their photos in the process. Others reject the golden ratio outright, deeming it an over-practiced fad and actively avoid it. I prefer to produce images that I find interesting and innovative, rather than photograph according to a formula-but I also apply lessons learned from the classic methods of composition.

Also see: Rule of Thirds

Also see: Comparing Golden Mean and Thirds

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Comparing the Rule of Thirds to the Golden Mean

Some people are apt to assert that the rule of thirds is the same as the golden mean. The proportions are close, but not the same. In addition, most of the various golden mean methods emphasize a primary, off-center subject; the rule of thirds does not suggest an order of precedence among subjects. The rule of thirds involves only straight lines, while some golden mean offers the Fibonacci spiral for placement. The rule of thirds offers four points of interest and four division lines for the main elements; the golden mean can be used to proportion elements more deeply embedded in the composition.

In the following image, a 2:3 image, divided in vertical thirds and horizontal thirds, is shown in pink. A frame conforming to the golden ratio is shown in green.

Thirds vs. Golden Mean
Thirds vs. Golden Mean


You do not have to use either of these methods to construct your compositions. In four years of art school, not a single instructor or textbook mentioned either of these methods. They are relatively quick and easy ways to begin thinking about composition and the placement of elements. For this reason, many photographers benefit from trying them.

Also see: The Golden Mean

Also see: The Rule of Thirds


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Leading Lines

The use of lines is an effective way to add structure to an image. Lines are apparent in the distinction between light and dark, especially at the edge of the subject seen against the background and in the limbs.

Strong lines are powerful compositional elements that suggest to the viewer where they will look. A dominant line that draws our eye, such as a distinct horizon or roadway, is at times called a line of force, guiding line, or leading line.

In the image below, the lines of perspective converge on the model. Notice how the lines align with the lines of the body. The lower edge of the back railing lines up with the model’s arm and the upper edge lines up with her elbow. The edges of the slab on which she is lying line up with the interior lines of her figure.


More about lines

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Irregular Lines

In photographic composition, there are many kinds of lines. When two kinds of line segments join, it can be called an irregular line. For example, a straight line that intersects a curved line.

The image below contains examples of irregular lines. One of these is highlighted: the arms form straight line segments and the light falling across the clavicle connects these with curved segments.


Irregular Lines

More about lines


Learn composition from the book Exquisite Curves


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Diagonal and Oblique Lines

To most people, diagonal and oblique mean the same thing. For compositional purposes, though, diagonal can mean a line that runs between opposite corners of a shape (such as the image frame). Oblique can describe a line that intersects the middle of another line, instead of the corner of a shape.

Oblique lines draw the eye more than horizontal or diagonal lines. This is because lines that are parallel to the picture frame are more static than those that slope against it. The image below contains several oblique lines.


More about lines

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The Many Kinds of Lines

The use of lines is effective in adding structure to an image. Lines appear between areas of light and dark, especially at the edge of the subject seen against the background and in the limbs. Lines can be definite, such as the edge of the body, or implicit, such as the imaginary line between two distinct points of interest.

There are many kinds of lines, and keeping them straight can be a task. But once you learn to recognize them, they become another tool for building composition.

Here are a few kinds of lines:

Lines within a visual presentation form relationships with one another. When formed by arms and legs, lines can be parallel or perpendicular. Lines form relationships with the picture frame (the edges of the photograph). They can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal.

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Balancing a Composition

A balanced composition has masses that are distributed across the image. Most nude compositions are simple, having just one mass. (Visual mass is the magnitude to which a form or shape attracts the viewer’s eye). The relative sizes and placement of various masses within a composition are what
determine if it is balanced.

Imagine your image as being balanced on a pivot point, like a seesaw, and ask yourself which side is
heavier. If both sides are equally weighted, you have balance. An image does not need to be symmetrical to be balanced, nor do the elements need to be spaced equally from the center. A sense of balance will vary from person to person. But, it is not difficult to reach consensus on the balance of most compositions.

Three Kinds of Balance Summarized

  • Formal balance: Symmetrical photographs work best when the balance of the symmetry of the subject itself is the strongest, most interesting factor about it. (See image #1)
  • Informal balance: The most common kind of balance; the composition is balanced between left and right halves by elements of equal visual weight.
  • Radical balance: The line of equilibrium is far from the center. (Image #2)