Why Professionals Obey the Rules of Photography and Why We Should Also Break Them

Why Professionals Obey the Rules of Photography and Why We Should Also Break Them

Photography is blessed and cursed with both scientific and artistic rules. We always hear that we should keep or break them, but there is much more to it than that.

One of the big mistakes we make in photography is accepting that rules exist. That concept is an old one, probably stemming from the rule of thirds. I have a photography book first published by Kodak in 1920 called “How to make Good Pictures”; mine’s the 1948 revision. On page 70, it says this:

The horizon line in a landscape should never divide a picture into two equal parts. It is best to have it one-third from the top or bottom.

This is nonsense. Not all of it, but it’s the word “never” with which I take issue. Of course, there is nothing wrong with employing the division of the image into thirds as a technique, but any prescriptive rule that insists on what a composition should or should not be is ridiculous.

Pythagoras’ Theorem is a rule because, with a straight-edged triangle in two dimensions, the square on the hypotenuse always equals the sum of the squares on the other two sides. It’s a universal truth. The notion that we must split a picture into thirds isn’t.

This is the fundamental difference between science and art. Science is built around theories and rules, whereas art is entirely subjective. Photography is a unique blend of both science and art. So, finding the balance between those two opposing components is essential for good photography.  

Perhaps we should rename this compositional technique as the Tool of Thirds, a device in our compositional toolbox that we can call upon and use if appropriate. We can add that to the golden ratio tool, the tool of armature, the tool of visual weight, the depth of field tool, and so on.

A central horizon can work, especially when emphasizing symmetry. This 165-second exposure and use of a softening filter gives the image an unusal, dreamy look.

It is an equally silly notion suggesting we must use any of these compositional tools in our photography. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t use them. For example, balancing a large object on one side of the frame with many smaller objects with less individual visual weight on the right does work, but there are times when we might want to have an imbalance in a photo. Or we might ignore Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment or Adams’ appliance of tones, but it doesn’t mean we can’t use them if we want to.

Is there a single idea in photography that cannot be used or ignored? Finding your unique style often results from discovering ways of shooting a subject that is different from how others do it. Whether this means abandoning certain conventions or always using them is up to you.

There is an important distinction between discarding a compositional tool and being ignorant of it. If one is unaware of any of the tools, we can’t choose to either use or ignore them, and your images will be the worse for that.

How we choose to use or ignore the tools very much depends upon the purpose of our photography. The greatest number of images are shot for mass appeal, usually on social media. Therefore, one assumes most photographers shoot for that purpose. Sadly, the largest section of the photographer’s audience is unsophisticated regarding understanding the finer nuances of composition. They want a pretty, unchallenging picture and not much more than that. Consequently, many photographers will shoot to achieve pretty, unchallenging images.

Despite using the same line of symmetry, a much shorter exposure (10 seconds) and more detail gove this shot of the beach and the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle standing above the Northumbrian beach an entirely different feel.

That bleeds over into a lot of professional photography. Photographs are commissioned with a broad audience in mind. Consequently, skilled professional photographers will stick to producing images their clients want. Those are invariably photos with mass appeal because they are easy to like. That inevitably means using the tools of design. The camera is well suited to this as it produces pragmatic art; most images shot for commercial means tell a direct story with little room for ambiguity or artistic expression.

For example, when I shoot a wedding, the couple expects the images will meet a set of norms that most wedding photographers will adhere to, which means using compositional tools. Whereas, wearing my creative photographer hat and shooting solely for myself, I can push the norms and the boundaries. I might slip some of these creatively styled images into the collection of bridal photos, and they usually express pleasure with them, but I would not shoot the entire wedding like that. One of the reasons I am backing away from doing as much wedding photography is that doing too many can seem like a sausage machine. A handful of weddings a year helps me stay enthusiastic about them and enjoy the work.

Photographic artists have freer rein over what they produce when not working to a brief. As well as what my friend describes as “arty-farty” photos, I shoot technically precise images too. These are solely for my enjoyment. They fit within the bounds of what is generally accepted as “good” photography.

A half second exposure with a long lens. Shot handheld in the low light of an eclipse, and using a long lens, the effect is the result of camera and subject movement during the exposure.

There’s no right or wrong here. If you prefer pictures that fit with diagonal compositions, splitting the image into thirds, or having leading lines that cohere with the golden section, then that’s great. Whether you favor silky-smooth seas resulting from long exposures, water shot with a fast shutter with every droplet clearly defined, or somewhere in between, that’s your choice, and nobody has a right to condemn you for that. Decide what you like and work on gaining the tools to achieve those results. If you decide you like something else more after a few months, that’s perfectly okay too.

There is one rule that I think should be prescriptive and invariably ignored by too many photographers; putting thought into how our photographs look. This isn’t just deciding upon a particular subject or genre but finding and putting our own characters into the photo. That is a hard thing for a beginner to achieve at first. Only after shooting 100,000 or so photos, analyzing them, and working out what we like and don’t like about what we do is it possible to develop our styles and recognize them in others’ photos. Then, applying or ignoring those tools will come naturally and be like riding a bike. You won’t even think about them.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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That is good advice that you are giving. In other words, you are suggesting that your friend think about his reason for taking the photograph - what it is that he wants to show in the photo. And then you are suggesting that he compose the photo in a way that best showcases what he was trying to show by taking the picture in the first place. This seems so basic and obvious, but yet many millions of photos are taken every day in which this simple thought is not put into practice.

The problem is with the idea of rules, following them or breaking them. The act of creating requires choices and each choice has an effect on the outcome. We can understand how to make choices and have control of those choices in order to achieve a desired outcome. Instead of rules, the idea of choice gives much more freedom.
Rules are simply a product of systems. If you want to fit into a system then rules can be followed or broken within that system.
If you look at photographers such as Kieth Carter or Sally Mann, it’s easy to see work that breaks all of the rules. Yet, in all of the interviews ive read with these photographers, I’ve never really heard of them talk in terms of breaking rules (except for a few tongue-in-cheek references by Kieth Carter). However, they do speak of making creative choices and how these choices impacts their work. For me, thinking about choice makes more sense than thinking about following or breaking rules.

That's a good point, Justin. I see the tools of composition as just one part of the creative process.