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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!