A simple guide to breaking the rules of photography

Rules are rules for a reason.

In most cases, they promote aesthetics that we associate with artistic harmony and a pleasant viewing experience.

We hear often that “you have to know the rules before you can break them.” I’d take that a step further, arguing it’s not just “what” and “how” but also “why.”

You need to know the REASON for the rules of photography and design in order to break them effectively.

rulebreaker-focus-and-depth-against-glass-by-brittmark19

brittmark19

defocused-primary-subject-in-documentary-photo-by-piper-anne

Piper Anne

In thinking of the many rules that you may feel obligated to follow, about how many of them have you truly identified the underlying reasons for their existence? ASK WHY! While breaking a dozen rules at once is likely to result in a photograph that feels careless and chaotic, deliberately and gently breaking a rule or two can create unexpected visual interest and tension that captivates and compels the viewer. How might rule-breaking strengthen your message or artistic vision? Think about a reason why each rule might exist; then consider when and why you might strive to achieve the opposite effect in your image.

center-crop-and-unexpected-view-of-subject-by-melkarlberg

melkarlberg

Here’s the exercise:

1. Make a list of rules

What rules do you tend to follow? Make a list! They might include principles of design, technical rules, general rules of thumb, conventional wisdom for stronger images, storytelling guidelines …. There are a lot out there! Which ones stand out to you?

2. Write down the whys

Next, write down the rationale for each the rule, which is unto itself a useful exercise — always be thinking about WHY rules exist, not just whether they do. You may find it to be harder than you think, and you are almost guaranteed to be struck by the fact that, in fact, you DON’T know quite why a particular rule exists. Think it through or do some Googling to figure it out.

3. Brainstorm rulebreaking ideas

Turn those rules on their head. If following the rules accomplishes a certain effect, how can the opposite effect – created by breaking those rules – be used deliberately to change the story or viewing experience?

4. Shoot some rule breakers!!

There’s no definitive or comprehensive set of rules for photography or design, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s walk through how the written portion of the exercise might look for a few commonly mentioned principles or rules of thumb:

Rule example #1: Keep your horizons parallel to the top/bottom edges of the frame

Rule Rationale: A straight horizon grounds the scene, creates a strong foundation, and can establish an excellent sense of repose.

Rulebreaking Ideas: Why might you NOT want the viewer to feel balanced, settled, or even? Establish an unsettling imbalance as a man rides his rickety bike down a dusty path, as a toddler takes her wobbly first steps, or in photographing the spooky abandoned house at the end of the street.

tilt-and-pan-abstract-image-of-ocean-by-heather-pich

Heather Pich

tilted-coffee-cup-design-by-ilaria-cossettini

Ilaria Cossettini

Rule example #2: Place your subject(s) according to the rule of thirds

Rule Rationale: This compositional framework establishes visual balance and encourages the eye to explore the full area of the frame, helping to establish counterbalances between elements and negative space.

Rulebreaking Ideas: Center it! Centered subjects tend to grab the eye instantly, discouraging visual exploration but powerfully suspending the viewer’s attention in the middle of the frame. Alternatively, try a very extreme placement, such as a horizon placed at the bottommost tenth of the frame in a way that emphasizes the massive weightiness of the atmosphere bearing down on the land.

happy-centered-dog-oblivious-to-background-by-helen-green

Helen Green

centered-toddler-being-lifted-as-if-ascending-by-kelly-moore

Kelly Moore

child-sleeping-low-in-the-frame-with-window-dominating-by-seija-kenn

Seija Kenn

Rule example #3: Compose your image so that lines lead into the frame

Rule Rationale: Leading lines draw the viewer towards a subject or into the scene.

Rulebreaking Ideas: Why might you NOT want the viewer to land on the subject and stay there? Incorporate lines that lead away, giving a sense that the subject has been left behind, that departure or ephemera is a critical component of your message, that there is something more important (and unknown) beyond the frame’s edge, or that you want the eye to keep moving.

out-of-focus-hair-blowing-child-in-center-by-jennifer-nobriga

Jennifer Nobriga

subject-as-secondary-to-environment-and-nature-prevailing-by-annmariek

annmariek

Rule example #4: Eliminate clutter and distractions / simplify your background

Rule Rationale: Everything in the frame should serve a purpose and contribute to the story’s underlying message, story, or overall visual balance. Unintended elements distract from the primary point of interest.

Rulebreaking Ideas: Use clutter to make a statement that life is messy or rarely limited to one story/theme at a time. Emphasize busy-ness, chaos, imbalance, and displacement. Own the mess, refuting the idea that “clutter” is a distraction at all but rather itself an important piece of the story, perhaps even as important as a more conventional subject (such as a person) in the frame.

cluttered-and-busy-image-to-show-real-life-by-lisa-samaras

Lisa Samaras

rulebreaker-girls-on-playset-wwith-chaos-by-hannahfens

hannahfens

busy-image-based-on-reflection-and-rulebreaker-center-crop-by-anna-van-demark

Anna VanDemark

Rule example #5: Don’t chop fingers, toes, or shave the edges off an important subject

Rule Rationale: Careful crops avoid breaking the edge of the frame to give a controlled sense of wholeness of both subject and photo.

Rulebreaking Ideas: Pair chops with erratic, dynamic, or explosive movement, as if to suggest that the energy and (e)motion of subject or scene cannot be confined. This can help to give a sense of spontaneity as well. Or use chops with quieter scenes to suggest incompleteness or brokenness.

rulebreaker-action-photo-in-childs-room-by-erica-caligiuri

Erica Caligiuri

laughing-child-out-of-focus-by-kathleen-white

Kathleen White

joint-chopping-out-of-focus-rulebreaker-to-illustrate-illness-and-fatigue-by-maidenmet

maidenmet

incomplete-subject-and-low-light-color-by-jenny-brake

Jenny Brake

Rule example #6: Keep the primary subject in direct and sharp focus

Rule Rationale: Focusing on your subject makes it clear to the viewer what your intended point of interest is and attracts the viewer’s eye as a matter of natural instinct.

Rulebreaking Ideas: Create mystery by letting your subject drift off the focus plane, establish a sense of nostalgia and hazy memory that conveys feelings rather than details, or play with visual balance by focusing on a “trivial” element while defocusing on a naturally attractive subject, such as a very colorful item, a human face, or a scene characterized by sensual or violent passions. Alternatively, look for ways to capture your subject indirectly, focusing on an alternate surface that captures the subject’s shadow or reflection instead.

out-of-focus-kids-in-water-near-dock-during-sunset-by-hdbb

hdbb

defocused-feet-on-hearth-like-a-memory-by-ashley-maple

Ashley Maple

looking-through-car-windshield-at-stoplight-on-snowy-night-by-grandmabish

grandmabish

focus-on-blowing-hair-with-unconventional-crop-by-tatphoto2013

tatphoto2013

Rule example #8: Seek out beautiful light, and place your subject in the most flattering position relative to it

Rule Rationale: Studying and implementing traditional lighting styles and patterns flatter the primary subject.

Rulebreaking Ideas: Let the expected primary subject be secondary to the light itself, either by exposing for the light rather than for the subject, or by composing and exposing so that the light overtakes the viewer’s attention. Traditionally difficult or unappealing light – such as dappled light – can bring forth organic patterns, chaotic rhythm, or even camouflage the subject in strikingly unusual ways.

mixed-lighting-and-child-in-shadows-by-andrea-moffatt

Andrea Moffatt

dappled-light-and-hidden-rhythm-by-linn-rognmo

Linn Rognmo

Rule example #9: Avoid lines that pass through your subject’s head

Rule Rationale: The forced perspective of a vertical line coming extending down into the subject can make the subject appear to be uncomfortably impaled, seem to slice through the figure, or suggest horns or antlers growing out of the head.

Rulebreaking Ideas: Is there ever a good reason to break this one? If you can imagine the inverse of a rule, you can begin to think about how it can be used creatively. Just thinking through the concept is a fantastic mental creative stretch. And remember, the very nature of conscious rule breaking involves doing something deliberately that other people avoid doing – it can be a way to set an image apart. Coming back to this particular rule, we can be very literal here: “Why would I ever want to impale my subject?” When we put it in those words, you won’t be surprised to hear it’s a not uncommon foreshadowing device in horror movies. Or “Why would I ever want to have something growing out of my subject’s head?” Perhaps you are representing an idea or the potential for growth. You might also use it to suggest duality (half of the subject appearing on either side of the line) or as a representation of crucifixion, if both horizontal and vertical lines converge behind the subject. The possibilities, truly, are endless – the only limitation is your own imagination.

L'Atelier, Las Vegas.

Jamie Bates

What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!2015 Editors Choice award for the CMblog

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And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted “10 Tips for Creative Overhead Shooting.” We’d love to see your work!

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About the Author:

Sarah Wilkerson is the CEO of Click & Company and also provides mentoring services, teaches advanced Click Photo School courses on composition & creativity, and authors the “Why It Works” series in CLICK magazine. She specializes in low light photography, everyday documentary, and tilt-shift work. A former attorney and Duke graduate, Sarah resides in northern Virginia with her Army JAG husband, four children, and three dogs.

78 Comments

  1. Alyssa Ahern Apr 23 2015 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    I honestly haven’t read any photography ‘books’. My favorite breakout so far is the Location breakout. It was so informative and made me look at the locations I was using differently. Definitely worth buying. Maybe I should study up on those photography books….;)

  2. Ebony Apr 23 2015 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Sarah! I really love the examples and the challenge to define rules to understand them before breaking them. I realize I do some of these things without knowing why! This opened my eyes to new possibilities 🙂

  3. Maryrose Serac Apr 23 2015 at 5:39 pm - Reply

    A Beautiful Mess is one of my favorites. As is the Luminous Portrait

  4. Rebecca van Leeuwen Apr 23 2015 at 7:40 pm - Reply

    I loved this article! I will definitely have to go back to this and try these one at a time. I haven’t read many photography books but I recently picked up a bunch of books from the discard table in my college library on subjects such as daguerrotypes, extachrome film, and composition that I’m excited to peruse!

  5. Stephanie Apr 23 2015 at 8:04 pm - Reply

    I dont read alot of books, mostly websites! I think that the best website I have read for photography is probably this one! There is so much great stuff here and lots of ideas that are out of the box……which I love! 🙂 You can find camera tips everywhere, but tips on how to break the rules……well that is special!

  6. Katy Apr 23 2015 at 9:52 pm - Reply

    Having only just really getting interested in learning photography, I haven’t really read any photography books as such. I’ll have to come back and have a look at what books everyone else has suggested! 🙂
    (BTW, Thanks for the post, what a great way to really getting thinking about the photos I’m taking).

  7. Clara W Apr 23 2015 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    I was a teenager when I read, A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel, which made me want to do nothing but photography for the rest of my life.

  8. Shari S Apr 23 2015 at 11:53 pm - Reply

    Awesome examples, great images ladies!!

  9. Miranda glaeser Apr 24 2015 at 12:42 am - Reply

    I really love Elizabeth Messina’s book “Luminous”. Thank you for this giveaway, I love the inspiration!

  10. Jennifer W Apr 24 2015 at 5:28 am - Reply

    Sarah’s Creativity Exercises are wonderful. They really do make you think about things, learn new things, and grow in your photography. Thanks Sarah!

  11. Michele Kendzie Apr 24 2015 at 11:28 am - Reply

    The best photography book I’ve read is The Visual Toolbox by David DuChemin.

    And I keep intending to participating in these Creativity Exercises! I read them every time. For the next one, I make an appointment with myself to shoot for it.

  12. AnnaVanDemark Apr 24 2015 at 12:13 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much for including my image in this creative grouping! I love Sarah’s Creativity Exercises, as they push me to further my photographic experiments and vision.
    As far a photography books go, I always read a mix of technically based books along with artist profile types. Early on, I read Bryan Peterson’s, Understanding Exposure, which was a huge help. I just read about the life of Josef Sudek, The Legacy of a Deeper Vision, Hirmer Publishers..so inspiring.

  13. Meghan Apr 24 2015 at 12:44 pm - Reply

    Great tips and examples. Thanks!

  14. Jessica Jensen Apr 24 2015 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    Understanding Exposure. It was such an interesting and simple introduction to the topic!

  15. Melissa Allen Apr 24 2015 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    I still remember reading one of Brian Petersen’s books, Understanding Exposure- 1st edition, and how I had an “Ah-ha” moment several times even though I had taken some pretty advanced photography classes!

  16. Kimberly Anne Knox Apr 25 2015 at 7:51 am - Reply

    Oh, I have so many favorite photography books! One of my favorite is “Photographing Childhood: the image and the memory” by LaNola Stone. LOVE her perspective and her work.

  17. Casey Byrum Apr 25 2015 at 8:23 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing Sarah! <3

  18. Stacy Geis Apr 25 2015 at 8:53 am - Reply

    Love this post! I’m just starting out, enrolled in a photography class which is all about the rules! It’s good to know that breaking them can be beautiful too, as I tend to do that accidentally! 😉

  19. Lagardère Apr 25 2015 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    THE book that made me want to discover more about photography and manual mode is Lisa Tichané’s book. I would really like to read yours, so fingers crossed!!! 🙂

  20. mara Apr 25 2015 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    Sarah! This was fabulous! I say you publish a compilation of your creativity exercises!

  21. Stacie Apr 26 2015 at 10:44 am - Reply

    Thank you, loved all the examples!

  22. Erika Apr 27 2015 at 11:38 am - Reply

    I like Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson! Great starting book and also reference! Thanks!

  23. Casey N. Apr 27 2015 at 11:39 am - Reply

    What is the best photography book you’ve read?

    The Art of Children’s Portrait Photography by Tamara Lackey

  24. Allison Apr 27 2015 at 11:43 am - Reply

    Understanding Exposure – I learned SO much from that book!

  25. Aris Wells Apr 27 2015 at 11:44 am - Reply

    I’ve read so many I can’t remember but one of the best I’ve read recently is Understanding Exposure 3rd Edition by Bryan Peterson. Even after being practicing photography for almost 10 years, I learned new things thorough this book.

  26. Pamela Apr 27 2015 at 11:45 am - Reply

    This book looks super magical & amazing !

  27. Lori S Apr 27 2015 at 11:45 am - Reply

    I’ve read Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson and Better Photo Basics by Jim Moitke, which really helped when I was first starting out. I still don’t think I’ve found a style that I’m completely passionate about so a book about the rules and breaking them sounds like a must-have for my library!

  28. Erica Apr 27 2015 at 11:46 am - Reply

    Thanks so much for including one of my images; I just love these challenges!!

  29. kim Apr 27 2015 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    I love Scott Kelby’s books. He helped me really get into photography

  30. Krystle Sperry Apr 27 2015 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    The best photography book I’ve read is probably the field guide for my camera:) It’s basically the only one I’ve read so far. Though I am working through The Photographer’s Mind and The Photographer’s Eye and I have the War of Art waiting to be read:) Thank you for this opportunity!!

  31. Marisa Apr 27 2015 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    I love these challenges!

  32. Susan Dixon Apr 27 2015 at 12:18 pm - Reply

    Jose Villa’s wedding book…I can’t remember the title though. 🙂

  33. Lisa Burnes Apr 27 2015 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    Shelter Dogs by Traer Scott

  34. magan sheffield Apr 27 2015 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    I love Anne Geddas photography books. The first photography book that I read was an old Kodak book on how to photograph children.

  35. Christine Apr 27 2015 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    I saw this book in my local bookstore just yesterday but regretfully had to put it back after spending the better part of an hour seated on the floor in front of the wall of shelves, wistfully going through it. My single-parent-with-deadbeat-ex budget just doesn’t allow for luxuries like this right now – milk and fruit has to take priority.

    It is a beautiful and inspiring collection of photographs and encouragement to break down the walls of propriety and allow our inner artist to reveal more than what our viewfinder frames.

    THIS book would top my list of all-time-favourites were I able to bring it home.

  36. Vero Apr 27 2015 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    “Picture Perfect Practice” by Roberto Valenzuela!!

  37. Rhonda Apr 27 2015 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    I also have not read many photography books yet. But I did enjoy reading Within the Frame : the journey of photographic vision by David duChemin.

  38. Deb Wisker Apr 27 2015 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    I read The Passionate Photographer by Steve Simon a few years ago. He outlines 10 steps to improve your craft and become a “great photographer”. Can I say I’m now “great” because I read it? No. But I think I’m pretty darn good.

  39. Alyssa Apr 27 2015 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    What a great prize

  40. Valerie Apr 27 2015 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    I love Elizabeth Messina’s book The Luminous Portrait. So many gorgeous images!

  41. Tina Apr 27 2015 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    I really liked Within the Frame by David Duchemin

  42. Stephanie Apr 27 2015 at 1:12 pm - Reply

    Creative ideas and great way to express the ones shared – the photos are exactly what I needed to “get thinking” about these things in another way.

  43. Christine b Apr 27 2015 at 1:12 pm - Reply

    Brian Petersen’s books, Understanding Exposure

  44. melissa mcclain Apr 27 2015 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    I haven’t really read any photography books – usually only websites so this book would be nice to have.

  45. Chrissy Phelps Apr 27 2015 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    This would be my first! I am fairly new to the photo world:)

  46. Cassandra Apr 27 2015 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    I think A Beautiful Mess stands out as my favourite photography book. (Though, I could see Capture the Moment replacing it, knowing some of the incredible photographers that are featured inside!)

  47. Traci O Apr 27 2015 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    One of my fav books is Picture Perfect Practice by Roberto Valenzuela. Love it!

  48. Erica Apr 27 2015 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    Amazing giveaway. This post is helpful and gets me thinking! there are rules for photography and I understand why they are there, but sometimes a photo is just as compelling when a rule is broken! Thank you!

  49. Jill McDonald Apr 27 2015 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    I ready mainly blogs and emails, or just peoples websites in regards to photography. I would love to find some more photography books people would recommend that are good.

  50. sheetal Apr 27 2015 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    all of MeRa Koh’s books!

  51. Kahra Gilley Apr 27 2015 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    My last book was A Beautiful Mess. Great book full of great ideas to extend your creativity!

  52. Jeff Apr 27 2015 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    “On-Camera Flash Photography” by Neil van Niekerk was HUGE for me! It was the first book that allowed me to (semi) understand how to use my flash.

  53. Kellie Apr 27 2015 at 3:07 pm - Reply

    I have read understanding exposure and found that to be a very useful phoyography book starting out.

  54. Nichole Apr 27 2015 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    Sad to say I can’t remember the names of any! How lame am I!!

  55. Anna P Apr 27 2015 at 6:03 pm - Reply

    How to Photography Your Life by Nick Kelsh. However I keep hearing about A Beautiful Mess, think I NEED to pick it up 🙂

  56. Kelly Kardos Apr 27 2015 at 8:32 pm - Reply

    From plate to pixel

  57. Laura Apr 27 2015 at 9:30 pm - Reply

    Boudoir Photography, A Ģuide to Excellence. Tammy Warnock

  58. Lauryn Apr 27 2015 at 9:31 pm - Reply

    Can’t remember the exact title but it was how to capture photos of my baby’s first year

  59. Melinda Anderson Apr 27 2015 at 10:30 pm - Reply

    The Visual Toolbox by David duChemin!

    • laura z Apr 28 2015 at 12:23 am - Reply

      I love David DeChemin too!

  60. Terri Apr 27 2015 at 10:41 pm - Reply

    Several books, one by Audrey Woolard, very inspiring and encouraging!

  61. Cathie Apr 27 2015 at 11:42 pm - Reply

    I love Expressive Photography by the Shutter Sisters.

  62. Cindy B Apr 28 2015 at 12:27 am - Reply

    The Unforgettable Photograph

  63. Alaina Nunez Apr 28 2015 at 2:58 am - Reply

    Films Not Dead

  64. Kayren D Apr 28 2015 at 8:57 am - Reply

    The Visual Toolbox!

  65. Stephanie Mullen Apr 28 2015 at 9:41 am - Reply

    Learning to See Creatively: Design, Color & Composition in Photography (Updated Edition)

  66. Terri Apr 28 2015 at 10:21 am - Reply

    The Scott Kelby Digital Photography Book series.

  67. Brittany Anderson Apr 28 2015 at 11:19 am - Reply

    Visual Toolbox

  68. Kayla Apr 28 2015 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    I haven’t read too many books but can’t wait to get this book!

  69. Michele Q Apr 28 2015 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    Photographing Childhood – the image & the memory – Lanola Kathleen Stone

  70. Loren Haar Apr 28 2015 at 4:57 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the chance — the book looks fabulous!

  71. Tamar Apr 28 2015 at 10:20 pm - Reply

    Read Complete Digital Photography in my photo courses, can’t wait to read some of these 🙂

  72. Hazel Apr 29 2015 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    A beautiful mess was the last photography book I’ve read.

  73. Anda Panciuk Apr 29 2015 at 9:09 pm - Reply

    Does Humans of New York count? That was the one I most recently ‘finished’. 🙂

  74. Ali Apr 29 2015 at 9:12 pm - Reply

    The Photography Bible by Daniel Lezano. I was so new to photography when I bought it and it explained so much!

  75. Mary Williams Apr 29 2015 at 10:20 pm - Reply

    I read Understand Exposure even before I had the money to buy my camera! That one has to be the best so far.

  76. Traci Apr 30 2015 at 12:22 am - Reply

    What the heck? The email said entries until 11:59 PST, it’s 9:21pm. Was it 11:59AM?? Perhaps next time include AM or PM! Bummer…

  77. Anastasia May 03 2015 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    I think book doesn’t help much. you just need to watch a lot of pictures and compare.
    but this article is great, I love it!

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