Rule 51: Know When To Break The Rules

Frog

Rules can be a good and useful thing, within limits. They’re helpful aids to composition (think of the Rule of Thirds), exposure (Sunny 16), and even lighting (how often have we been told to always shoot with the sun at our backs?). Similar to writing, the rules of photography help to set forth a visual grammar that helps the viewer to make sense of the photo even as it aids the photographer in composing a better shot.

But then, we’ve all heard the old expression… “Rules are made to be broken.” In his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell writes: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Trying to shoehorn a photo into a rule that doesn’t quite fit it makes it less a photo or an exercise in creativity than an exercise in form that’ll be less about the subject than about the formal constraints you’ve imposed on it.

Sometimes there are practical reasons for this. For instance, the easiest way to eliminate distortion on a fisheye lens is to keep the horizon dead-center in the photo, which is a supposed compositional no-no. Or maybe the only way to get your shot is by shooting directly into the sun… you don’t want to pass up a shot just because it might not conform to some rule or other. At other times, artistic considerations come into play. If, to your eyes, the photo “works” even if it’s not technically perfect, trust your instincts and your own vision.

I’ll include¬†two caveats to all of the above. If you’re a photographer of a certain temperment, it can be tempting to say — sometimes to yourself, sometimes to anyone who’ll listen — that you’re bound and determined to break all the rules. Nothing wrong with that; make sure, however, that you’ve bothered to learn the rules first, since not knowing the rules doesn’t lead to breaking them as much as it leads to sloppy photography.

The other thing is, you’ll want to keep in mind not only what rule(s) you’re breaking, but also why you’re breaking them. There’s a certain pleasure to be taken in breaking rules just for the sake of it (Screw it, I’m eating breakfast for dinner. But first, let’s have dessert.), but sometimes all that rule-breaking just means we’re trading one set of constraints for another. Think about it: if you decide you will never again use the rule of thirds/will only use plastic cameras with plastic lenses and severe light leaks/are extremely enamored with lens flare, you’re not avoiding cliches, you’re embracing them (or becoming one). Rule breaking, like the rules themselves, should be something that gives you more options, rather than limiting them.

The First 10,000 runs on passion (and an awful lot of caffeine). Buy me a coffee.