Rules of Composition Applied to Life

The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera” – Dorothea Lange


Six years ago I picked up a camera to give a visual voice to my heart language. Little did I know how much photography would shape who I am and how I think. I shouldn’t be surprised…the creative process is deeply personal. Creating images is like giving birth. Our work is an incarnation of who we are…an extension of us. Life will always imitate art and art will always mirror life. Aristotle and Oscar Wilde disagreed over which imitates which. I like to think they were both right…that art and life are united when our work is born and they become impossible to tease apart.

The artist in me adores word pictures – they create visual narratives and help me engage concepts that otherwise seem abstract. So I enjoy thinking of the Rules of Composition as guideposts for the expression of my art even as they’re the rules for the execution of it. Though we all know that creative rules are made to be broken, they have to be followed before we earn the right to break them consciously. Even then there’s always a return to first principles. The Rules of Composition are my artistic first principles…occasionally broken but so respected they’re almost reflexive. What LIFE first principles can we draw from the Rules of Composition that might also become reflexive? Gleaned from my own experience, struggles and failings…I humbly submit seven.

01_Rule_of_Thirds_by_Amy_Murgatroyd For Photographers
The Rule of Thirds: The Intersection of Our Purpose and Our Passion

Placing a subject at the intersection of vertical and horizontal lines creates more tension, energy and interest in a composition than simply centering the subject. Along what life axes does your photography run? What intersection creates the most “tension, energy and interest” for you? For me it’s where my purpose and my passion intersect.

I never set out to start a photography business. I woke up to its reality a good year and a half in. I was just doing what I loved with such passion I overlooked that I was regularly booked and starting to make an income. Year three was my hardest. My passion waned just as my visual voice became firmly established. It didn’t make sense! I realized that in the unfolding of my passion I’d never stopped to consider my purpose. It took shape over months of talking with my husband and photographer friends, considering my ideal client and what corner of the world I wanted to make better with my photography. It culminated in a mission statement that guides every business decision I make — every client inquiry or concern, my business investments, my products or where I volunteer my photography. Even before a session it’s my practice to sit in the silence of my car, close my eyes, visualize the family and meditate on my purpose for that session.

Purpose isn’t just for those in business. If you’re a hobbyist who loves to photograph her kids you should still find your why. Don’t settle for easy answers either. Sure “it’s for the kids” but how much is it for you? I have a client whose father was a successful studio photographer in NYC. She suffered what she terms Father-Photographer-Stress-Disorder (FPSD) at having a camera trained on her for her entire childhood. She books me twice a year joking that my approach (receiving not taking photos) is rehabilitating her. Our conversations have changed how I photograph my own children, examining my purpose when deciding to take or leave my camera on an outing. As a rule I ask my kids’ permission first.

If you have all the passion and prowess but are feeling unfulfilled by photography, could it be you’re yearning for a little purpose? I’ve been there and have learned that passion will burn out long before purpose. We don’t create art for ourselves…it FEEDS us but it’s not FOR us. It’s for our children and their children, for our clients, for posterity, for the pool of inspiration we all drink from. It’s created to give away — you can’t send something into the world without purpose or it will return void. The strength of your contribution to the field lies at the intersection of your passion and our purpose. If passion is the flame, purpose is its fuel. Find your why and it will feed your passion.

02_Balancing_Elements_by_Amy_Murgatroyd For Photographers Balancing Elements: “Whole” Living – We Are More Than Photographers

Balance is a compositional technique that juxtaposes objects within a frame so they are of similar visual weight. When different parts of a photo command your attention equally, balance is achieved. It’s easier to accomplish in camera than in life! Where is your life most weighted? What happened to the other interesting parts of you that existed before photography?

I’ve wrestled photography into submission so many times. I’m an “all in” person who loves the satisfaction of knocking down goals. When photography seized my heart and imagination it seized my full attention too. At the time I was raising two little girls and still working as a physical therapist treating patients with spinal cord injuries. That career which I never stopped loving couldn’t compete. Thankfully my daughters have survived but at times I fear they perceive that “photographer” is a more exciting title than “mother”. I stay up until wee hours to edit a gallery while the journal my eldest and I share sits waiting on my bedside for my response to her heart. Tonight my youngest tried to woo my attention away from client work with a story about a unicorn with rainbow teeth and a pizza on his horn. If that doesn’t get my attention what hope does the poor girl have?!

When did we become reduced to pixels on a screen? We diminish ourselves when our photography becomes our identity. Our identity will never be what we DO but who we ARE. Photography is only one expression of our personhood. There are countless other ways we express ourselves. I certainly don’t show love to my girls by photographing them…can we all please agree that photography isn’t a love language kids speak? I show them love by listening, holding them, by being present.

We have to start living the one life we’re given…and live it WHOLE. Let’s put our cameras down and read a book. Let’s sit in a field with our children, bask in a golden hour…and leave the camera at home. Have coffee with an old friend. Take a flower-arranging class. Learn how to wallpaper a room. LEARN broadly, LOVE well and LINGER long. If your work flows from who you are, it’s time to nurture yourself so you can nurture your art.

03_Isolating_the_Subject_by_Amy_Murgatroyd For Photographers Isolating the Subject: Putting Importance Where It’s Due

When we visualize an image we use our in-camera settings as well as the background/foreground to make the subject matter obvious to the viewer. The strength of an image lies in its clearly defined subject(s). We know how to prioritize our subject…do we know how to prioritize our life? What do you want to be remembered for?

There’s someone reading this who has suffered a life crisis or deep, aching loss. You know better than the rest of us how insignificant photography is in the big picture. I don’t mean actual photos (those are always significant)…I mean the pursuit of excellence. I believe the pursuit of true excellence lies first in humbly acknowledging that we capture only a dim reflection of what REALLY matters. And second, in putting the camera down to prioritize the people and things that matter most.

My story isn’t one of loss or crisis but I have had close calls with scary diagnoses. An ovarian tumor sparked this hobby and a spiritual awakening for me 8 years ago. This past week I sat in the ER waiting to learn if another had developed in my remaining ovary. In the chairs across from me a man told his friend that his cancer has returned and was terminal. They cried together and my heart split wide open. I cried into my book for a man who would begin his goodbyes. I cried for more time — time to watch my girls grow while I grew old with my husband. For the five hours it took to run all my tests, not one thought was about my backlog of edits, the session inquiry in my inbox or even this blog deadline. Life has a way of distilling quickly when it might be snatched away.

Some of us know our camera manual better than our personal manual. As often as we do a sensor cleaning (which for me is never often enough!), we need to clean our internal sensor and do a little self-assessment. As photographers we need complete clarity of heart to truly see our subjects in a way they feel known and to hear Inspiration’s whisper. For me that clarity comes from knowing who I am and placing my identity in something more significant than the images I create. I’m certain it’s the same for you…sometimes we all just need to be reminded.  


04_Framing_by_Amy_Murgatroyd For Photographers Framing: The Art of Exclusion – Minimizing Distraction and Negativity

As we compose an image we’re conscious of which elements to include in the frame and which to exclude. We eliminate distractions that don’t add to the visual narrative. We live in an external world of distractions and an internal world of negativity. What choices do we need to make to minimize both?

I still remember the day I joined Instagram. Always behind trends, I was late to the game and curious to understand the hype. Now I know why so many of us are addicted. When I first dived in I didn’t surface for hours. In an ocean of puffy hearts, it’s so easy to be swept into the undertow of conditional love. Even as I followed one amazing photographer after another, I could feel myself thrashing to get back to shore – the place where I could gaze over the sea of talent and marvel at its beauty. Under the crushing waves I lose perspective. An hour later, I was glassy-eyed from all the pretty things and soul-sick from the comparison.

Stemming from that “all-in” personality I haven’t always had the healthiest relationship with social media and now limit myself to scrolling over my lunch and avoid it entirely each Sunday. That reset keeps my use from becoming abuse. So WHY do we expose our sensitive Muse and tender hearts to the work of so many others? You’d be hard pressed to convince me we need an ocean of inspiration to be a better photographer. Have you noticed that the photographers you most esteem follow the fewest people? They know who they are and don’t drown in IG inspiration. They realize Inspiration already lives within them. IG will muffle your unique visual voice faster than a shutter release. Tame IG or it will tame your talent.

Celebrating the work of others…that’s where social media shines. My heart soars when I see art celebrated and community thrive. Our joy is complete when we can look beyond our own work to genuinely celebrate that of others. It’s their story not mine and as such it deserves my praise not my comparison.

The negativity we face is rarely from the outside – it’s from the inside. This week I gave away a gallery I bombed. Sure the sky was black from the remnants of a hurricane. Sure their house faced North/South and they WOULD use LED lights. For two hours I maxed my settings and prayed I could fix it all in post. Yeah right. The clients were sad…I was devastated. Beautiful, tender moments (I’m proud of every composition) ruined by soft focus and grain. I didn’t try to deliver hoping they wouldn’t notice. I fessed up to my failing (not rescheduling!), apologized, validated their disappointment and determined to never shoot another session on a hope and a prayer.

An experience like that could cripple me or make me stronger. We have to choose every day what to let in to our “frame” and what to exclude. There’s only space for so much. If it doesn’t enrich and edify your life, cut it out. Life, like photography, is the art of exclusion.


05_Viewpoint_by_Amy_Murgatroyd For Photographers Viewpoint: Your Personality, Your Story and Their Impact On Your Visual Voice

Our viewpoint has an enormous impact on the composition of our photo, greatly affecting its message. Each time we lift the camera, we’re deciding whether to shoot from eye level, from above, at ground level, from the side, from the back, from far away, close up, and so on. The viewpoints are infinite. So what makes yours unique?…YOU!

The field of photography is an emotional minefield. A step in one direction and BOOM!…your tender ego is shattered. A step in the other direction and BOOM!…your beautiful confidence morphs into ugly hubris. Our passion can hurt us and hollow us out. So what is the map that will help you navigate this challenging terrain? 1.) know who you are in relation to your art and 2.) know who you aren’t….EVERYBODY ELSE!

We have to know and embrace our truths. My portfolio isn’t the most innovative or wildly creative…I’m a rules girl. My social media following is modest…it’s not important to me. My clients aren’t flawlessly styled…I want them to be themselves. What truths do you need to embrace about your photography? Perhaps it will help you come to terms with who you are as a photographer and what you’re not.

Some of my earliest memories were documented on my father’s Pentax. It’s now one of my greatest treasures. Before I knew I had a creative bone in my body a part of him had taken root in me. My family was extremely close growing up. Relocating several times caused us to lean hard into each other. Today I adore photographing families and mirroring their love for eachother. Likewise, my husband and I undertookwent a major home renovation the span of time my older daughter was 3 to 10 months old. I grieve that I didn’t have the margins to truly enjoy her infancy…only survive it. Today newborn sessions are my chance to slow down and savor all the little things for my clients. Do you see how my story has shaped the photographer I am?

Your personality and life experiences infuse who you are as a photographer. There are as many viewpoints on this earth as there are photographers. Each beautiful in their own way. I don’t care what wonky/majestic/stirring viewpoint it is…it’s yours. Own it. Embrace it. And for the love of yourself…stop trying to be somebody you aren’t for people who don’t know you in the first place. They’ll probably pick up on it anyway and then your cover is blown.


06_Depth_by_Amy_Murgatroyd For Photographers Depth: Second Sight – Our Cameras as Instruments of Hope and Healing

Because photography is a two-dimensional medium, we have to compose carefully to convey depth in an image. We include objects in the foreground, middleground and background so the viewer can perceive the depth present in the actual scene. Our cameras enable us a second sight to reveal the layers of life as well. How can we use our tool to chart the range and depth of the human condition?

What if the job of the photographer is to see through all the mundane, ugly and hard to what matters most and to put it right for the world to see real? I believe that our beautiful calling is to affirm meaning. Having been gifted this second sight, we have an obligation to view the world a layer deeper and to use our cameras as instruments of hope and healing.

If unaided eyes and memories were enough for a world desperate to pause and attend, we wouldn’t be needed. But we are needed. Society’s senses are deadened by overstimulation. The average American spends 86 hours a month staring at their phone. The demands and distractions of this world can lead a person to hollow-living – a numbness to fully feeling. As Georgia O’Keeffe said “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” This is where photographers step in. We picked up cameras to give a visual voice to our heart language and to weigh down moments. When an image resonates with our viewer it’s because it echos their heart and feeds her/his craving to slow down and savor their own moments.

Clients teetering on divorce need to see themselves loving and being loved. Parents with challenging kids need to see their love mirrored back to them when their world stops spinning long enough to lean in. Parents with sick littles need to see some hint of beauty in their pain. Our families need to see how our hearts see them. I’m not in the business of giving my clients and family what they WANT (come on, these days my kids only want to do the floss for the camera), I became an artist to give them what they NEED.

Consider the power you hold in your hands. Wield it well and you will receive more than you give. The stories and connection of the courageous families I meet volunteering at Boston Children’s Hospital have given me more growth and perspective than any workshop. A few months ago the hospital called with a special request. A child in the cardiac ICU was dying and the parents were desperate for photos. My purpose (to mirror a family’s eternal bond) tenderly carried me through their session. It’s what held the tears back as four nurses and a respiratory therapist took 20 minutes arranging for the mom to crawl into the hospital bed and hold her daughter one last time. She died two days later and the very next day the mother emailed me the most beautiful thanks I’ve ever received.

Your camera is inert circuitry apart from you. Go put a soul in your camera and your own will be fed.


07_Leading_Lines_by_Amy_Murgatroyd For Photographers Leading Lines: Staying the Course…You’ll Never Arrive at the Horizon

Leading lines draw the viewer’s attention to the image’s main subject. A leading line paves an easy path for the eye to follow through different elements of a photo. Where do your life lines lead you? What goal is on your horizon?

I wonder if photography is like a long winding road of leading lines with no final destination. We’ll never arrive. When we first pick up the hobby we’re not really looking for a destination or watching the speed of others. We feel limitless – such freedom! We may be totally off-roading but we’re having a ton of fun.

When the hobby becomes a passion we’re motivated to speed up. All the rules and techniques we’ve learned become the curbs to keep us on course as the road opens up before us. Soon though, eager to arrive, we notice others on parallel journeys. We see their speed and yearn to match it.

When the passion becomes an obsession, driver beware. We may focus on the road, forgetting to take in the view. Perhaps we swerve trying to create beauty, forgetting how to receive it. We sense our own acceleration and watch the road that much closer. We might even slam on the brakes afraid of our own speed and feel creatively blocked at a time we would least expect it.

Your journey has its own bends, peaks and valleys – even the scenery is uniquely yours. A parked car goes nowhere, so keep moving, but keep looking up so as not to miss your life whizzing by. Shoot for purpose not approval. Fail and break a few rules in pursuit of your own voice. Above all, remember that there’s no final destination – only the moment unfolding in front of your camera, begging to be immortalized.

I hope this little exercise has you thinking about the ways your photography affects how you think and behave. I know I need all kinds of reminders and love returning to first principles. 

You’ve got this. Brave on you wonderful dreamer.

love amy xo


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