What do you think would happen if I submitted this image a camera club photo competition? The sunstar and golden glow might elicit a few oohs and ahhs at first, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before the resident Rule enforcer dismisses it because the horizon and sunstar are centered. And while “never center your subject” is great advice for a beginner who automatically bullseyes every subject, reflexively reciting “Rules*” is a cop-out for faux experts who lack creative instincts. (Of course I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about that guy standing 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
Among the most frequently 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). Part of the 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.
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 left of the frame’s center so they’re looking across the frame and not directly into a virtual wall. But to cite just one cinema example among many, in a scene in the movie “12 Years a Slave” 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 subtly but effectively conveyed Northup’s physical and emotional confinement. But who doesn’t know someone who’d ding this framing at the photo club competition?
About this image
Rather than blindly following the ROT, my horizon placement is a function of the relative visual appeal of the sky vs. the foreground: Whichever is better between the foreground and sky gets the majority of the frame real estate.
Anticipating a sunstar to culminate last Friday’s Mono Lake sunrise, I scanned the muddy lakeshore until I found a foreground that would compliment what was happening in the sky. Given the color reflecting on the lake surface and the diagonal symmetry of the small tufa islands before me, my original thought this morning was to bias the composition to favor the foreground. But peering through my viewfinder it was impossible not to miss the way the clouds seemed to emanate from the point of the sun’s imminent arrival. I decided to emphasize the symmetry by splitting the scene with the horizon, and centering the sun.
This isn’t to say there was no other way to compose this scene—there are almost always many ways to compose a scene. For example, I could have moved to my right to get a little separation between the sun and the tufa islands, placing the tufa a little left of center and the sun right of center. And/or I could have angled the camera down to get more lake, putting the top of the frame just above the darker clouds near the sun. When things are happening slowly I usually give myself as many compositional variations as I can think of, but when the light is changing fast (as it does with a rising or setting sun), I find I’m much better off just sticking to one thing and making sure I have it right.
The other thing I did here was add my 6-stop Breakthrough neutral density filter. This allowed me, despite the extremely bright sunlight, to achieve a 1-second exposure that smoothed the water just enough. I captured this with a single click and without a graduated neutral density filter, relying entirely on the dynamic range of my Sony a7RIII to retain virtually all the scene’s extreme shadow to highlight range.
Shed the crutch and go forth
Rules serve a beginning photographer in much the way training wheels serve a child 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, I suggest at the very 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.
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