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.