If you’re following the rules, you’re not being creative

Stillness, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Stillness, South Tufa, Mono Lake
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1 second
ISO 100
32 mm

What do you think would happen if I submitted this image a camera club photo competition? It might elicit a few oohs and ahhs at first, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before somebody dismisses it because the primary subject is centered. And while “never center your subject” is standard camera-club advice for a beginner who automatically bullseyes every subject, reflexively reciting “Rules*” is a cop-out for faux critics who lack genuine insight. (Of course I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about that guy over there by the cookies.) Worse still, photographers who blindly follow Rules are leaning on a crutch that will only atrophy their creative muscles.

This is important

Rules are not inherently bad, but it should be the photographer controlling the Rules, not the other way around. In fact, if you’re following the Rules, you’re not being creative. One more time: If you’re following the Rules, you’re not being creative. 

A couple of examples

One of the most oft-repeated Rules is the Rule of Thirds, which dictates that the primary subject be placed at the intersection points in an imaginary grid dividing the frame into horizontal and vertical thirds (think tic-tac-toe). Another RoT mandate is to never center the horizon, but to instead place it one third of the way up from the bottom or down from the top. Reasonable advice for people who like their images to look like everyone else’s, but it completely ignores the myriad reasons for doing otherwise.

For example, visual artists are often told to give their subjects more space in the frame in the direction they’re looking. In other words, if the subject is gazing rightward, place them on the left side of the frame so they’re looking across the frame and not directly into a virtual wall. But watching “12 Years a Slave”  last weekend (one curse of being a photographer is the inability to turn off my internal critic) I noticed Solomon Northup longingly gazing directly into the left border of the frame, with a vast open sky behind him. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this framing symbolized Northup’s physical and emotional confinement (but who doesn’t know someone who’d ding this framing at the photo club competition?).

And centering a subject is an effective creative tool. Photographing the Mono Lake South Tufa sunset above, I was thrilled to find the kind of mirror reflection usually reserved for sunrise at this often windy location. Enjoying softer light than I’d get shooting toward the sun at sunrise, I tried many compositions before settling on this absolutely symmetrical version to create an equilibrium that conveys the utter stillness I experienced that evening.

Shed the crutch and go forth

Rules serve a beginning photographer in much the way training wheels serve a five-year-old learning to ride a bike: They’re great for getting you started, but soon get in the way. As valuable as these support mechanisms are, you wouldn’t do Tour de France with training wheels, or the Boston Marathon on crutches.

In my workshops I’m frequently exposed to creative damage done to people rendered gun-shy by well-intended but misguided Rule enforcers. Camera clubs and photo competitions are great for many reasons, but I’d love to see them declared no-Rule zones. And if your group can’t no nuclear on Rules, how about at least adding a no-Rule (“best image that breaks a Rule”) competition or category to acknowledge that the Rules are not the final word?

My suggestion to everyone trying to improve their photography is to learn the Rules, but rather than simply memorizing them, do your best to understand their purpose, and how that purpose might conflict with your objective. Then, armed with that wisdom, each time you peer through your viewfinder, set the Rules aside and simply trust your creative instincts.

*Capitalized throughout to mock the deference they’re given

Come break the rules with me in a photo workshop

Eastern Sierra Photo Workshops

Asking for trouble at the camera club

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34 Comments on “If you’re following the rules, you’re not being creative

  1. So well said. I have thought this for quite some time. It has come to the point that if I hear, “this would look better with the rule of thirds”, one more time, I just might lose my mind.

  2. Very well said, Gary. I took a photo a couple of weeks ago, and originally set up the sunset shot so that the sky was 2/3rds and the lake surface 1/3rd. Well, it simply did not capture the magnificence of what I was seeing. So I positioned the horizon almost dead center (did not bring my dead-reckoning tool, so did the best I could.) When I threw that up on my computer screen, I knew I had done the right thing. It needed that stunning “complete” reflection of the sky to hit the viewer between the eyes like I had been that winter night at a wildlife refuge. Rules are supposed to unleash creativity, not restrict it. A difficult notion for many, but if one has worked in developing creative strategies in the field of marketing – and to a lesser extent, general business – it makes a ton of sense.

  3. Gary ,

    Great post Im just happy someone of your caliber said it. Hope you are well.


  4. It’s an image to get lost in. I haven’t been lost recently in my composition books.

  5. Totally agree, Gary. Rules are rules but instinct trumps rules every time.
    .I try to be aware of ROT and placement but I don’t obsess on things like that to be honest.
    If I mess up so what – it’s a digital camera – try again
    I have always loved this image man..just amazing – the smoothness and the angular could pattern – that, in itself,
    blows away any criticism..the visual impact and impression of this is amazing.
    Cheers Sir! – dj

  6. Great post, Gary. I so totally agree with it. I onced was one who was caught up in “rules.” Thank goodness I saw the light with the help of great photographers like you.

  7. Great photo! Exactly how I see things. Rules are important, but usually I follow my heart!

  8. What an amazing photo. It’s so ethereal and the tufas almost look suspended. This post was so timely for me because I just posted a photo on my facebook page where the horizon was smack in the center for the same reasons as yours. I was imagining how my photography friends were thinking I don’t know the rules, but this was the photo I liked the best. Thank you so much for so generously sharing your wisdom with us.

  9. applause! great article, advice and photography, thank you

    Make your day!


  10. Well said. I am a firm believer in knowing and understanding the rules so that you can push those boundaries and really experience things — in photography and life. Beautiful photo. Stunning.

  11. Very well said Gary. I do agree wholeheartedly. Rules are great learning tools; but can be constraining when it comes to one’s creative vision as you so stated so well. Love your work and insights.Thank you.

  12. Back again…RULES and IDEAS or CREATIVE and ART…if these were couples would they leave a legacy or division ( be divided ) I think we know. RULES and Art vise versa would be the better couple BECAUSE ART HAS NO RULES, yet seeks boundaries RULES CAN BE TOO RIGID yet seeks spontaneity…fill in with the moral compass.

    • PS the color is splendid in itself THE CENTER OF LIFE SHINES BECAUSE LIGHT HAS NO BOUNDARIES…😆

  13. Hi Gary!
    I’ve gotta agree. (Of course, I probably break the rules more than I follow them. Out of ignorance, not talent.)
    The only time I’ve entered photos in anything it was a contest judged by the captains of a fleet of schooners. (Not photographers.)
    Centered and symmetrical reflections of the Schooner on Penobscot Bay. 🙂
    Mercantile Sky Reflections
    They chose it for grand prize.

  14. Being totally agree with what is said there is something that I think is important when it comes to breaking the rules. Learn to use them well, knowing how they work, namely execute you if any assiduously practiced is critical in deciding break to take a picture.
    I know many people who tell me that does not follow the rules, feel free to photograph as they wish, but they really know the rules.
    Or even worse, the known but are unable to try to implement routinely then if you want to skip those standards.
    Excuse the translation, I do not speak English.
    Superb photographic image. Great work, is beautiful. With rules and without them …

    A greeting.

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