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When Breaking the Rules is a Good Thing

When is breaking the rules a good thing? Some rules, I love. Rules help us all drive on the correct side of the road. It doesn’t matter whether the country you live in requires you drive on the left or the right. As long as we all conform, it works out well. But, in photography, following the rules leads to a different kind of conformity. If there is too much order, everyone’s images start to look the same. When it comes to artistic creativity, playing it safe leads to mediocrity.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times in photography when it makes sense to follow the rules. For example, when you’re just starting out and don’t know what else to do. Even if you are an experienced photographer there will be days when you fall back on compositional rules because you can’t think of what else to do.

Rules can be especially helpful for those beginning in nude photography. It is difficult enough to tackle figure photography, let along without some structure for composition. In my other writings, I explain plenty of rules aimed at helping novices with composition and armatures such as the rule of thirds, the golden mean, diagonals, and so on.

Safety is the Enemy of Creativity

But rules often discourage experimentation. If you never stray outside of the lines, you will never know what other artistic creations are waiting to be invented. Experimentation, by its nature, leads to a mix of successes and failures. At some point you need to take off the training wheels even if it means you are going to fall a few times.

Just about every time I see a rule printed somewhere, it is accompanied by a statement that the rule is “just a suggestion,” “rules were meant to be broken,” or something similar. Nobody intends for these photographic rules to be set in stone. However, photographers who fall into the habit of following the rules too rigidly can fail to make the transition into creative work.

If you’re afraid to be wrong, you’ll never take the risks that are involved with being creative.

So why are so many photographers afraid to ever be wrong? Aside from a general social discouragement from experimentation, photographers are burdened by a particular habit of performance through rote.

Photography is based in math and science. In these disciplines there is only one right answer to any particular problem. When it comes to exposure, many people will tell you there is only one correct value for any given scene. This is not strictly true, as even in exposure there is some room for creativity. However, photographers often fall into the trap of thinking there’s only one best answer to every photographic decision. This is why compositional rules are so popular. They attempt to simplify for us what is right and what is wrong.

Beware especially of rules that are meant for portraiture. In portraiture, the goal is to flatter a subject who is typically not a model but rather the client. These rules are helpful to the portrait studio whose task it is to generate results with a certain level of predictability. When photographing models, on the other hand, your collaborator generally does not need help in hiding flaws in her appearance.

Experimentation should be the rule. If you’re following a rule of composition, you’re probably not pushing your creativity.

Photographic rules will never teach you how to express your personal point of view. All rules do is help you conform to preconceived notions of what your photographs look like. My suggestion is that you take risks – big risks. You should suffer large failures, dust yourself off, and try again. When you do create something outstanding, it will have been worth it.

I recently asked a number of my colleagues to choose one of my images as a stand out. They chose the photo above, despite the fact that it violates the following rules:

  • The subject is centered, violating compositional armatures such as the rule of thirds and the golden mean.
  • The legs are cropped close to the knees, whereas they are “supposed” to be cropped at mid-thigh or mid calf.
  • Shoulders are nearly straight-on (some advocate 45-degrees as the “correct” angle to the camera.)
  • Flat lighting: The image lacks directional contrast that is preferred in most figure work.
  • Nose breaks the cheek line: A head turned sideways but not in complete profile is often considered unflattering
  • Backs of hands: Many photographers caution that the backs of women’s hands can be unsightly. They do recommend an open, sideways hand.
  • Orientation: A standing figure is normally photographed in portrait orientation, not landscape.