The Tyranny Of Rules

One of the age-old discussions in photography is whether or not photography is art. Personally, I believe that some photography is most definitely art and some is most definitely not art. Some of that is by design. Photo-journalism is intended an accurate documentation of the scene. At the other end of the spectrum, we have creative photography that is intended to be an artistic representation of the photographer’s vision which is not necessarily realism. However, the area in between these two points is a bit murkier as to whether it is journalism or art. Often, we are unconsciously cowed by the tyranny of rules for photography that push our photography away from the realm of art and solidly into the more documentary realm. Whether or not this is an issue depends on our intention; were we intending to create art or photo-journalism? Are you making photos or taking photos?

What Are The Rules?

The real rules of photography, the ones we really do have to follow, are thankfully, simple and few. The rules for photo-journalism are derived from the ethical rules of journalism in general. The rules of photo-journalism as typified by the Associated Press Code of Ethics for Photojournalists and the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics are quite straightforward and clearly aimed at getting a true documentation of the scene.

The real rules for artistic photography are even simpler; there are none. Anything goes. Period. Full stop.

But What About All The Other Rules I’ve Learned To Follow

So, since anything other than photo-journalism has no rules why do we allow the tyranny of rules to govern our photography? Think about all of the “rules” we have. Here is just a sampling.

Composition “Rules”
  • rule of thirds – don’t center subject
  • don’t center horizon
  • odd numbers of objects
  • don’t let individual objects share an edge
  • cropping of body parts only in certain ways
Technique “Rules”
  • vertical elements must always be truly vertical
  • wildlife must have the eye in tack sharp focus
  • have to have catchlight in eyes
  • horizon has to be level
Genre Specific “Rules”
tyranny of rules
Rawpixel.com / stock.adobe.com

The Tyranny Of These Rules

In reality the “rules” are only guidelines or suggestions that will generally give better results than their opposite action. We don’t have to follow them. However, human nature being what it is, we like the comfort and reassurance of following them and so we slavishly follow them without question. While it is true that most time you go against these at your own peril, it should be an intentional decision to follow or not follow the “rule”. The decision should be based upon what you think looks best and fits your vision.

The concept of these being hard and fast rules is reinforced by the way we talk about photos. Very often a review of photos starts with a list of “rules violations” e.g., the horizon isn’t level, the eyes aren’t sharp. I’ve even seen “professional” photographers fall into this trap. Instead of citing the rules it is better to describe the issue.

For example, which is more useful and informative?

  1. The horizon isn’t level (a rules violation).
  2. My attention is pulled away from the subject because my eye keeps going back to the out-of-level horizon which is un-natural.

Clearly, the second comment above is the most helpful.

Breaking Free From The Tyranny Of Rules

Allowing the “rules” to control our photography can stifle our creativity and limit our ability to achieve the vision we had for the image. Here are two tips to re-take control of our photography and keep the rules as true guidelines which are optional.

  1. Every time we do an action based on a rule, stop and think about why we are doing this. Does it make my photo better? Does it fit my vision of what I want to accomplish? What are other options I could try?
  2. When you do decide to violate a rule make it obvious that your action was intentional. Otherwise, you may leave people wondering if this is an intentional action or simply an error which means they aren’t thinking about the subject.

One example of this is the concept of a “Dutch angle” where you deliberately and noticeably tilt the camera to create a sense of uneasiness. When using this technique, a 1 degree tilt isn’t sufficient; most often you’d want a tilt of 20 to 40 degrees which is a very obvious action to the viewer.

While researching for this post I came across a very good example of why you may want to go against the rules. The article 5 Portrait Photography Rules You Should Probably Ignore discusses the advantages of violating the rules on occasion. The article also has a number of great photos showing how effective going against the rules can be.

A Final Word Of Caution And Potential

Most of the rules became rules for a very good reason. So, as I said earlier, you violate them at your own peril. Most of the time the rule is the right choice. But not always, and that’s where the magic of photography lies. It’s about learning the “rules” and knowing when to follow them and when to break them. So, question the rules, choose wisely, and unleash your creativity!

Leave A Comment And Share

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback on this post. I hope it was helpful. How have you expressed your creativity by breaking the rules? Please leave a comment in the comment box below.

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