Rule 23: Learn the Rules

Rusty Buds

Whether you view photography as art, craft, or some mix of the two, it’s useful to bear in mind that it does follow certain rules. As with the rules that apply to any other part of life, some will view them as inviolable while some will swear that each one’s made only to be broken. The truth probably lies somewhere in between; these rules of photography have lasted as long as they have because they can be very useful, but breaking them won’t lead to your gear being confiscated.

As with anything else, you can pull up Google (or your search engine of choice), search “photography rules,” and come back with hits in the tens of thousands. One reason for this is that there seem to be nearly as many rules as there are photographic genres, and photographers. Some apply to settings (Sunny 16, for instance), some to composition, and others still to things like the ethics of photography. That’s not even counting the things that we devise as individuals, some for practical reasons and others out of a sense of superstition, to keep our process flowing smoothly.

Do we really need all those rules? I’d argue that they’re useful on a number of levels. As photographers, they give us a sense of focus, and a convenient means of learning the basics of composition and exposure. As a viewer of photography, they help us both to read and critique photos, giving us the tools to realize when and why a photo works or doesn’t. It also allows both photographers and viewers to step into the other’s shoes for a moment; the latter get to realize some of the challenges of making a good photo, while the former have an easier way to ensure that the point they intended to make gets across.

When you are dealing with a mature medium, it’s natural to think that it’s all been done (if we’re going to be honest, quite a lot of it probably has been) and to think that we might stand a better chance of doing something fresh or original if we throw the rules out the window. With that said, I’d argue that there’s actually a right way to break the rules, and it starts by knowing them. After all, if you’re not familiar with how and why a photo is put together, you’re not avoiding cliches by “breaking” the rules… instead, you end up with a lousy photo, or you end up with one that’s quite good, but that simply follows rules of which you may have been unaware.

There’s some validity to leaving behind, or actively breaking, the rules of photography, and I’ll have more to say about that this time next week. But for now, start by learning the rules, and knowing what makes a photo “work,” so that you can avoid some of the things that keep your shots from looking half-assed or ill-conceived.

Postscript: There’s a tongue-in-cheek list of 78 Photography Rules for Complete Idiots that combines some practical advice with some that’s just plain silly.

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