Whenever we first set out to learn something we usually are forced to learn the rules of that particular activity before we’re allowed to fully engage in it. You don’t get a license to drive without first being able to demonstrate that you know the rules of the road; stop, go, yield, right of way. You wouldn’t send your kid onto a basketball court without first making sure she understands that she’s not allowed to kick the ball. Rules. Every now and then they’re useful.
I think I can safely assume that when most of us started out in photography — whether we were formally trained or not — we encountered rules. Sure, there are some technical statutes one should adhere to in order to get a “proper” exposure and things of that nature, but depending on the channels through which you received your photography education, it’s possible that the rules you encountered served only put a damper on your creativity.
Given that we’re dealing with an artistic medium, rules are sometimes derided as being pretentious and limiting. Artists of all stripes tend to scoff at rules and prefer to think and work outside the realm of social consensus. This is not to say there haven’t been any great photographs made throughout history that don’t follow a more traditional mold; but there have been at least as many great photographs made that roundly subvert preconceived notions of “good” photography — it’s a major factor in why these photographs stay with us in the first place. Compelling art is often created by breaking rules. So, perhaps the real value in learning the rules of photography is knowing how to break them and get away with it.
The Rule of Thirds
The most basic of all the rules of composition, the rule of thirds suggests that an image has more visual appeal when its main components are arranged along imaginary lines that divide the scene horizontally and vertically into thirds.
But there are times when a more unorthodox approach suits a scene far better than any of the standard compositional rules; sometimes responding to a scene emotionally rather than technically is the way to go.
Fill the Frame
The purpose of filling the frame is to bring all the attention to your subject, free of distractions. It’s a worthwhile “rule” and it’s easy to see why it works.
Or you can disregard that rule and go the negative space route. Negative space, when used effectively, can add emphasis to your subject just as effectively as filling the frame, just in a different way.
Don’t Shoot Into the Light
We all learn that we should illuminate our subjects from the front; whether we’re using the sun or flash, we’re not supposed to point the camera into the light. Of course, if you are an advanced portrait photographer, you might use a number of lighting techniques that involve illuminating your subject from multiple angles, but we’re always going to see the subject’s face/front clearly lit.
But if you never go against the grain and shoot into the light, you’ll never be able to make a silhouette!
Whether we’re told explicitly or we incorporate certain conceptions into our own methodology through looking at the work of other photographers, we all have some pretty standard ideas about what to focus on before the shutter button is clicked. Again, it’s something that makes perfect sense.
However, if you want to flex some artistic muscle, try focusing on an unexpected/non-traditional part of a scene.
Never Shoot from Behind Your Subject
Obviously, if you’re photographing people, faces matter a whole lot. What good is a portrait where you can’t see a person’s expression?
Yet, there’s something to be said — something potentially very powerful — for body language and environment, even when faces can’t be seen.
Shoot Children and Animals at their Eye Level
The main reason for this maxim is that by shooting at eye level, we sort of enter the world of a subject that is often closer to the ground than we are. It’s not always the case — particularly with animals that may very well be at or above our eye level — but it’s an effective strategy.
If you want to move beyond making photos that are just “effective” and do something with a little more creative flair, trying changing your vantage point.
So what is the point of all this rule-breaking? Well, there are 4 points, actually.
1. If done with care, breaking the rules may very well make for a better photograph than if you had stuck to them.
2.Breaking the rules — even just one rule — can help reignite your passion for photography and get you out of a creative rut should you ever find yourself bored with and uninspired by your work.
3. In contrast to the costs that would be associated with using film, digital allows you to break rules and experiment all you want. If you don’t like something, you can just hit delete and try something else.
4.Breaking the rules of photography, as an arm of the experimentation process, is how you will develop and refine your personal photographic style.
Sure, there are many more rules than just the ones presented here and there are a plethora of different ways to break all the rules. Perhaps we should start referring to them as guidelines instead of rules. Semantics notwithstanding, the guideline that matters most is the one that encourages you to make photographs that make you happy.
Very good tips. Great photos to show us how breaking the rules can be really effective and rewarding. Thanks
Good advice! I think always working within rules would hinder the creative spirit of a talented photographer.
great examples! thanks for sharing!
Well written and well thought out! I regularly break the rule of thirds, but I do it intentionally and for a purpose (to make a stronger image). I will even let the horizon bisect my photo if the clouds add to the image. I like your method: know when and why you violate the rules!
I agree totally, Jim — if breaking rules makes a better image, just do it!