9 Rules You Should Learn To Break – Photography Basics

Rules to BreakAll About Rule Breakers

Welcome back! If you missed Day 1 and the one law you can’t break, you can find that post here.

Now that we have the law out of the way, let’s look at the rules.

Photography is a subjective art. There’s no real right or wrong way to do it, but if you want to get consistent results and learn, it’s helpful to follow some rules. Once you learn those rules and how and when to apply them, you can choose to ignore them as you experiment.

That’s the wonderful thing about digital photography; you have a near endless supply of “film” with which to play. So take the time to learn these rules as we go through the lessons, but don’t forget, you’re welcome to break them once you understand them.

1. The Rule of Thirds

In this series you will learn about the Rule of Thirds. Take the time to learn it well enough that you can apply it when the situation is right. It’s a helpful tool if you haven’t studied art or photography in the past and it will jumpstart your composition skills.

Breaking Rules - Rule of ThirdsThen ignore it at will. Because the Rule of Thirds is great at producing pleasing compositions or portraits, landscapes, architecture, etc… But you won’t always want pleasing or balanced or perfect symmetry. Sometimes you’ll want to challenge your viewers or highlight some other aspect of a scene.

Breaking Rules - Rule of Thirds

2. Fill the Frame

Some photographers will tell you to fill the frame with your subject. It’s a reliable technique for helping viewers focus on what’s important, just like the Rule of Thirds.

Here’s an example of a filled frame.

Breaking The Rules - Fill The Frame

Now take a step back.

Breaking The Rules - Fill The Frame

And a few more steps back.

Breaking The Rules - Fill The FrameIt helps put the subject in context and is important in certain photography, like wildlife or environmental portraits.

3. 1/Focal Length

1/Focal Length is a simple trick to help you deliver non-blurry photos. And it’s helpful for sure.

The times when it comes in handy to ignore this rule are when you don’t have enough light (so should you not shoot at all?), when you want to induce some blur or when you’re getting creative with abstracts.

Breaking the Rules - BlurWe’ll learn more about this rule on Day 10, so just hold tight.

4. Your Photos Need to be Tack-Sharp

Hand-in-hand with the last rule is one stating your photos need to be tack-sharp. In other words, some people freak out of if there is one thing in your photo that is a slight bit blurry.

Ignore those people. While, generally speaking, you will want your images to be in focus and sharp, it’s not alway advised.

Sometimes you might want to highlight movement, like this:

Breaking Rules - Blur

Or you might be capturing a fleeting moment, as in this image:

Breaking Rules - Blur

5. Never Center Your Subject

Art is subjective. Have I mentioned that?

It really is and as you start to develop your own style you might find you fall in love with certain ratios. But for some, we love our subject front and center.

Breaking The Rules- Never Center Your SubjectThe Rule of Thirds says this is a big no no. As do a bunch of other ratios (Golden Ratio/Fibonacci Spiral being another favorite you should take the time to learn). Sometimes breaking these rules can produce halting results.

6. Separate Your Subject From the Background

Sure, this rule is helpful in portrait work when you want your subject to stand out. But what about when you want a subject to blend in? Or what about when your subject can’t be separated from the background?

Breaking The Rules- Separate From BackgroundDon’t let that stop you from shooting!

7. Lead The Viewer Into the Frame

I wrote about this rule over on another blog I contribute to: Digital Photography School.

It’s a fine rule. Once you learn to do it well you can mix it up and keep your viewer off balance. Like this.

Breaking The Rules - Not LeadingWhile viewers like to be led into the frame, our mind does not like being led off the frame into the abyss. Who knows what’s outside of the frame! Probably dragons.

It also doesn’t like things close to the edge. But so? Maybe you’re in an off-the-edge kind of mood one day while shooting!

8. How to Hold Your Camera

This is a hard one for me to admit because I have been dogmatic about this rule for far too long. It’s hard to come to grips with it, but I was wrong all those years.

In my workshops and individual instruction I profess the “best” way to hold a camera. Heck, I even go over it in this series on day 8. But I’ve learned it’s not the only way.

If you want to hold your camera like every extra paparazzi in every movie, that’s just fine. Hand on the side, the top, two fingers only, press the shutter release with your middle finger…. go ahead.

I will be happy to show you a comfortable way to hold your camera and if it doesn’t work for you, try your own. As long as you’re comfortable and getting the shots you want, go for it.

9. Always Shoot With The Sun at Your Back

Special thanks to my friend Greg for suggesting this rule on my Facebook page.

This one is just silly. I have been told a number of times, while around other photographers at a popular spot, to line up the sun so it is at my back. Don’t shoot toward the sun or with angled sun. This just seems like crazy, limiting advice.

Here are some examples of the sun not being at my back.

Breaking The Rules - Keep The Sun Behind You
The Grand Canyon as seen from the South Rim – Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA
Breaking The Rules - Keep The Sun Behind You
A happy looking Golden Retriever dog is frozen in midair as he runs toward the camera in a suburban backyard.
Breaking The Rules - Keep The Sun Behind You
View of mountains in fog – USA – California
Breaking The Rules - Keep The Sun Behind You
A Man Stands Before The Taj Mahal As The Sun Comes Up Behind It, Agra, India, Asia

Wrapping It Up

Undoubtedly there will be readers who comment that any one of the examples I posted here does not work for X, Y and Z reasons. They might even go beyond the English alphabet and start using emojis. Just remember; If the photo works for you, it works.

History is littered with great artists who both followed the rules and those who broke them. There’s no one right way to photograph a scene. Anyone who tells you otherwise is likely trying to sell you something.

Learn the rules. Know the rules. Then start developing your own style that might break a few. Keep at it and sooner or later you’ll find someone else who connects with your images. That’s the joy of photography; Communicating the scene in front of you in a way that helps your viewer connect with it too. Rules be damned.

Tomorrow we will cover The Exposure Triangle and really dive into some learning!


Questions?  Pop ’em like Pez in the comments section below. or email me at peter@peterwestcarey.com.

Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

Photo ToursIf you enjoy the series, consider learning photography first-hand on a professionally led international photo tour in Nepal or Bhutan. More information can be found at Far Horizon Photo Tours

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