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Should You Follow The Rules As A Photographer?

There’s an old saying in the photography world: “Good photographers follow the rules, great photographers break them”. 

It’s hard to say whether that’s true or not. 

For instance, we’ve written several blogs giving advice and pointers on how to shoot the perfect Insta pic, or make the perfect Instagram photo book. All of them can be described as “rules” at a base level.

But then again, we often tell people to experiment, move outside of what is expected of them as  photographers, and do things their own way. 

So which is it? Should you follow the rules, or should you break them? 

As a photo book maker, we believe we’re in a pretty good place to express our opinion on this. And our opinion is… Do both. Stick to the rules, and don’t stick to the rules. 

With this in mind, here are three rules we think you must follow and three rules we believe you can break to capture your perfect picture:

The Rules You Can’t Break

These, in our eyes, are not even really rules. They’re necessities. Telling someone they should follow these rules is like telling someone they should follow the rule of breathing. Breathing isn’t a rule. It’s an essential way of staying alive. And these necessities are essential ways of becoming a good photographer: 

  • The Rule Of Thirds

Okay, yes, we said these are not so much rules as necessities, and this necessity is literally called the “rule” of thirds, but shut up because that’s not the point! 

The rule of thirds is one of the most important – and easy – ways to make your photograph look much more elegant. So much so that even the most famous “out there” photographers – such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Chase Jarvis – utilised it.

  • The Leading Line

Photography often uses lines to pull the viewer into the picture, towards the subject, or take them on a journey through the scene itself. Photographers achieve this by finding the lines in their composition, looking at how they align themselves and then snapping the photograph to use them effectively.

It’s an age-old rule and it’s one that, in a way, cannot be broken. There’s always going to be lines – whether physical or non-physical – in your photographs, and the viewer will always follow them. So the least you can do is put them to your advantage!

  • Depth

Background, middle and foreground. Those are the three sections of a photograph that must be addressed, especially if you’re looking for a way to make your photography more interesting. Landscape photography, in particular, needs layers. 

Even the most unconventional landscape photographers – such as Brendan Pattengale, Myoung Ho Lee or Viviane Sassen – pay attention to their compositions and ensure that the background, middle and foreground layers are all identified. This is because it gives the image depth, intrigue and substance.

The Rules You Can Break

These are more like opinions – thought processes that have been built up so much over the last few decades that photographers now believe they are rules they must follow. But there’s nothing stopping you from bending these ones a little, especially if they’re standing in the way of a great photograph.

  • Filling The Frame

One of the rules that many photographers seem intent on following is filling the frame with their subject. The idea here is to avoid including too much in the composition, leading the viewer’s gaze away from the subject itself. So instead of having a wide frame with extraneous details, you have a more zoomed-in, powerful image. 

But including more in a scene can be a great way to tell a story or show a connection between a subject and their surroundings. It can demonstrate the expanse of the subject's world, or vice versa, it can illustrate an intense feeling of isolation and loneliness. Who cares if there’s more to look at?! If you’ve positioned your subject right – ahem, the rule of thirds – the viewer will always find it.

  • Avoid Blur

Anyone heard of the photographer Art Wolfe? Well, he was famous for taking the rule “avoid blur” and snapping it in two. Just a quick look at his photographs will demonstrate how sharp pictures are not the be-all and end-all of good photography. 

You can take photographs that are unfocused, grainy and obscure, and they can be even more interesting to look at than a photo that is clear and distinct. Once again, it’s all about finding the best way to shoot a scene and – if that doesn’t align with how you’re supposed to shoot it – go ahead and shoot it anyway!

  • Do Not Tinker

Weirdly enough, those responsible for this rule are actually seasoned, professional photographers, but we think they’re wrong. In our eyes, if a photograph can be made better after snapping it, then it should be made better. 

Whether that’s through Photoshop – Ansel Adams was using photoshop before it was even a thing! – filters or cropping, every photographer should have the freedom to tinker. If you can get it all done on camera, then great. But don’t be afraid to give your photographs a makeover after the fact!

The End-Goal

So there we have it, three rules we think you should always follow and three rules we believe are there to break. But to make a long story short, this is all about the end goal. 

Don’t break the rules because you think it’s cool to break the rules, and don’t stick to them just because you think you have to stick to them.

Just do whatever takes you closer to that image in your head. At the end of the day, it’s not about the way you capture a great photograph. It’s about capturing a great photograph.


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