Rules are great, but….

Sunrise, Drake’s Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore
Canon EOS 10D
1/3 second
F/32
ISO 220
100 mm

Rules are important. The glue of civilization. Bedtimes, homework, and curfews constrained our childhood and taught us to self-police to the point where as adults we’re so conditioned that we honor rules simply because we’ve been told to. (Who hasn’t waited two minutes for a signal to change with no car or cop in sight?)

As important as this conditioning is to the preservation of society, an inability to question rules sometimes impacts areas of our lives that might not be so cut-and-dried. One example would be blind adherence to the (usually) well-intended photography “experts” proliferating online and in print. These self-proclaimed authorities love nothing more than to issue an edict that their disciples are all too happy to embrace. My general advice to anyone seeking advice from strangers is to beware of absolutes, and when you hear one, run (don’t walk) to the nearest exit. The truth is, there are very, very few absolutes in photography.

A more insidious problem is the constraints imposed by our own self-proclaimed rules. These are directives we picked up through education or experience that probably served us well as we learned photography: the rule of thirds, never blow your highlights, and a host of others. But they’re insidious because, while they may be founded on truth, we’re very unaware that they’re hindering our growth. Like walls that give comfort by protecting us from intruders, photographic rules obscure the stars of our creativity.

For example, one of the “rules” that has served me well says that I need a focal point in my frame, a place for the eye to go. And while I agree that this may generally be true, and many images suffer for lack of it, I have to remind myself that there is no official proclamation making this so. Had I not broken that rule early one morning on Drake’s Bay in Point Reyes, I’d have missed what turned out to be one of my favorite ocean images.

The moral is, when you find yourself basing composition or exposure decisions on pre-conceived ideas (either your own or others’) of how things should be, just slow down a bit and challenge yourself to break the rules. Go ahead and get your standard shot, but then force yourself to try something outside your comfort zone. Who knows what you might find.

3 Comments on “Rules are great, but….

  1. The above picture does follow the rules, so I’m not sure what he’s getting at. The rule of thirds is not confined to pixel count; it can also refer to the degrees of saturation. The intensity of the orange triples that of the gray mountain, and the midrange of the ocean is actually two -sixths (white and blue) making the final third. As for focal point, its up there on top of the mountain, that little gap demarking the right side of the left third. There’s foreground, midground and background. So what rule was missed here? Must have person in picture for interest? I do, however, agree that rules can confine and restrict, and must be employed judiciously, lest one create just a cliché.

    • It’s interesting that when most people think about rules in photography, they get hung up on the “rule of thirds.” The point illustrated by this image is that the most limiting rules aren’t those known to many (such as the rule of thirds), they’re the private rules we’ve created for ourselves. The rule broken in this case was my own rule that requires a primary subject, a visual resting place, in every frame. I’m glad you found one, but since I didn’t (and still don’t), breaking my own rule allowed me to transcend self-imposed constraints. It also serves as a reminder to continue looking for opportunities to break the mold.

  2. Sea sprays on the crest of waves are magnificent just as much as the colors of this beautiful well composed image

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