Technically Perfect = Technically Boring. Five Rules You Should Always Sometimes Break

Technically Perfect = Technically Boring. Five Rules You Should Always Sometimes Break

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a new friend via Facebook and he asked me to describe my most creative period of time and, if I could talk about what led to those circumstances. “Easy,” I said. “That moment is now - it’s right this minute.” I went on to describe how I’ve never been happier nor more focused on what I’m doing, how my work is being well-received, etc. But, later, when I thought about it, I realized that I was wrong (sort of). Although I am thrilled with my work and where it’s headed, my most creative period of time - my most purely creative period of time - isn’t now. Not at all.

When I first picked up a camera I, like the rest of us, spent my days taking photos of just about everything and everyone that I could; houses, trees, dogs, cats, people, cars, fences, sticks, friends… Pretty much anything and anyone who will stand still long enough for us to click the shutter button was fair game. Later, as we upload our photos the magic reveals itself and we see maybe for the first time the beauty and depth of a person’s expression as they’re caught off guard, the hope and loyalty in our pet’s eyes, the love and respect in the eyes of a newly engaged couple, or finally, we're able to share our perception of the world through our images.

For me, it was within those first few months in the time when I first picked up a camera that I truly discovered myself. I took photos of everything and anyone. I wasn’t just a person with a camera. I was a photographer and the moment I said that to myself, something clicked. Everything began to make sense. The world, always seeming to be a tangled and knotted rope, suddenly started to straighten and unknot itself. The pathway, to be somewhat overdramatic, began to lay itself clear. 


In those next few months, I did all I could to devour photography. Sure, I had taken a class in high school, but we still used film cameras back then and the digital was just so much more…better, faster, quicker. From vision to realization in minutes - literally. So bought books, I visited websites, I read reviews, I tried different gear, I made photography friends and went to meet-ups and I also snapped thousands of photos. When I look back at these photos I smile because I realize they were a complete departure from what my life had been life prior to that point. I began to look at things differently, I began to recognize light sources, learned the jargon and understood the nomenclature, and suddenly moments weren’t just passing or fleeting, they were opportunities. 

Things were pretty good. I was a happy young(ish) creative in a world of photogenic opportunities. Soon, with my breath held, I began posting photos online for others to see. The response was good. But it was then the my naive creative world came crashing down and I discovered that photography had rules. And rules were meant to be followed. Worse than that, I discovered that there are people on the Internet who’s life’s mission seems to be to enforce those rules on budding young photographers by ridiculing them until they’ve effectively stifled the creativity in all but the strongest willed among them. 


So, in light of the people who spend countless hours in message boards, groups, and forums, touting the rules (and honestly to spite those same people), I’ve complied a list of rules and the reasons why you should always sometimes break the them. Before I begin with the list however, I do want to add that like any hobby, sport, vocation, etc, photography has a set of fundamentals which should be learned and understood at least in some sense. I am not suggesting that someone needs to “learn the rules before you break them” as I’ve always found that a bit limiting, but perhaps someone should at least be “aware” of the rules they are breaking. Regardless, here is the list of rules we should always sometimes break. 

Avoid Backlighting / Shooting into the Light. This is a favorite of mine and one which I think I’ve developed a nice little style around. Living in Southern California, we are lucky to have some of the most amazing, golden sunsets I’ve ever seen, which I believe make the perfect backdrop to well, to just about anything. Granted, if this isn’t the look you’re going for, it’s not going to work, but go ahead, give it a try…you might find you like it.

Sunny 16 Rule. Nothing says boring like industry standard. When I first began shooting, I was set on nailing that perfect exposure despite the fact that the final result wasn’t really that close to the image I had in my head. Regardless, I stuck by this rule for a lot longer than I care to admit and I have the trove of perfectly exposed, perfectly boring photos to prove it. As I’ve explained previously, I like to shoot wide open as much as possible. While that’s not always possible in the bright sun, I learned that there are many, many ways to maintain that shallow DOF while shooting in bright sunlight. 

Rule of Thirds. Ugh. Probably one of the most detested and yet the most adhered-to photographic rules of all time. It seems to be inevitable that when a young and/or new photographer posts a photo in a group, someone is going to chime in with either, “you’ve nailed the rule of thirds here!” or “Didn’t care to stick to the rule of thirds, here, eh?” Regardless, good, solid composition has it’s place, but I believe what makes a photo worth viewing isn’t a properly placed subject or an alignment within the Golden Ratio; it’s feeling, emotion and soul. Your mileage may vary, of course. 

Proper Exposure. If you follow my work, you know how much I love blowing out highlights. I love looking at a photo and feeling like I’m in it, that I almost have to shield my eyes from the sun just as much as if we were there. Proper exposure has it’s place of course, but holding fast to that rule - or any rule - is a great way to compromise your vision. 

Stay Away from Gimmicks and/or Trends. I’ll admit that there are some truly terrible gimmicks out there (selective coloring of eyes, roses, and babies comes to mind), but if you’re looking to work with companies and/or shoot for a specific brand, they’ll want their photos / advertising to be what’s hip and current i.e.: what’s trendy. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be pushing the envelop - you should, always - in fact, pushing the envelop is what leads to new trends becoming popular, so on and so forth. Run with the trends until they're no longer trends. 

In addition to those rules, there are many other rules which can suck the creative force out of a new photographer / artist in almost no time. Rules such as cutting off hands, fingers, feet, etc, no tilting of the camera (Dutch angles), not shooting at midday, avoiding motion blur, keeping your entire frame and/or main subject in focus, and avoiding negative space are all good fundamentals to keep in mind - especially when you're breaking them.

In addition to all of those "official" rules, there is the breaking of one rule which I feel bears repeating (perhaps shouting from the mountaintop maybe) which is the unwritten rule that You Need Professional Gear to Take Professional Photos. As friend and fellow Fstoppers writer wrote about in his brilliantly put together article, and as any search through Flickr and Deviant Art will tell you, You Don’t Need Professional Gear to Take Professional Photos. Period.  


Some days after our conversation, I wrote my friend and explained that my initial answer was wrong - while I still feel that the period of time I am currently going through now is my most creative and prolific, I do remember back when I first picked up a DSLR and, with a childlike wonder began taking photos of everything with no rules to stop or stifle me. I went on to explain that if there is one thing that differentiates that photographer with the childlike wonder and no knowledge of rules then and the working photographer now, it’s that now when I plan a shoot there is a clear vision  of what I want to accomplish and what rules need to be broken to get what I want as opposed to the happenstance and/or good luck that I previously relied upon. I think this point is best summed up by a friend of mine who basically said that once you become creative, everything else becomes irrelevant. I couldn't agree more.

Thanks for reading

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John Schell is a Lifestyle photographer and writer currently based in Miami, Florida

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I agree with all the 'rule' breaking but I'm having a hard time with the mid-day one, unless your going for flat, colorless, and hard shadows you could hope to expose for.
Guide me with your photo guru brilliance John.
Well written article.

Really enjoy reading your articles, thanks.

Thank you! It's my pleasure!

Love this article!

Just today a college student asked me about a sundrenched, backlit shot of mine. He told me he was surprised to see that shot because in school, they try to drill into him to not shoot backlit. Eff that. If it looks good, we shouldn't be so rigid as photographers to say to ourselves "but, it breaks a rule, so maybe I shouldn't do it."

Another thing about pro gear: All pro gear does is enable you. It enables you to shoot in the rain because it's well made enough to handle it. It enables you to control every aspect of creating the image vs lower end stuff where you have to struggle or hack to get things the way you want it. It doesn't make you better than you are; it enables you to be the best you can be. Having said that you can take awesome photos with anything if you have the eye and the patience (or speed depending on what you're shooting).

Amen about the pro-gear. If you don't feel yourself struggling against some limitation you find in your gear, you don't need new gear.

I don't know I agree that having the high end equipment '... enables you to be the best you can be.' That comes from an understanding of your art, not an understanding of the equipment.
Only when an artist can consistently produce high quality photos with bottom rung equipment can they truly claim to have mastered the art. Only then can they rightly claim to understand they what they are doing. It's the difference between understanding the art and implementing the theory; between knowing how to use the natural elements to obtain a good result versus using the equipment to get a good result. Almost anybody with a bit of training and high quality equipment can consistently perform the later (and I am not disparaging those professionals who use high end equipment), but surely the aim of any artist, irrespective of field, is to be good enough to use anything to achieve good result, to be a true master. And surely, if you '... have to struggle or hack to get things the way you want it ...' you haven't mastered the art (and believe me I am in the 'struggle' class even with high end equipment :-( ).
Love him or hate him, one of the artists I am particularly intrigued by is Jack White. The
reason – his ability to make brilliant music from the most basic of equipment. In other words his mastery of his art. In the opening scenes of the documentary 'It Might Get Loud', he makes a 1 string instrument out of a piece of wire, a glass Coke bottle, a plank of wood and some basic electronic amplification, then proceeds to make music. To watch Jack make music on a guitar that will not hold tune (because the neck is not rigid) is phenomenal. It meant he was constantly making adjustment of finger placement on the on the fret board to play in tune.
All of that said, I enjoyed the article. A refreshing look at the 'rules' and our obsession for their implementation at the expense of an appreciation of the art.

I think there's a big difference between learning the tools of the trade and struggling with a tool because it's the best you have access to.

For example, one of the earliest cameras I had access to when starting in cinematography was a Canon HV20 MiniDV camcorder. That camera had a lot of workarounds you had to perform in order to expose in a manual way or achieve a shallow DoF or a lot of things that shouldn't be "difficult". This was because the firmware of the camera wanted control and you had to trick it into giving it back. When I got an entry level DSLR I just moved the dial to M, had control and got to work.

So I really disagree with is the (slightly romantic IMO) assessment that
"surely the aim of any artist, irrespective of field, is to be good
enough to use anything to achieve good result, to be a true master. And
surely, if you '... have to struggle or hack to get things the way you
want it ...' you haven't mastered the art." See my HV20 example. Being literally the best photographer in the world would not help in that case.

There are also aspects of the gear that are technical that a great
artist can work around to some degree, but not entirely. Things like
resolution and dynamic range and weather sealing and ergonomics. With
all those things you get what you pay for. That's not to say that you can't do good work with an HV20 or an iphone or what have you, but you have a better chance of doing good work; of capturing what you see, on a Blackmagic Cinema Camera or an 1Dx.

So ultimately we are in agreement that being the best you can be "comes from an understanding of your art, not an understanding of the equipment." I just think that having better equipment means you don't have to struggle to actually use it; You learn it and the equipment just gets out of your way and frees your brain to work on just the artistic aspects; which is how you are enabled to be the best you can be.

Put in that context I agree with you. And I to ohave found the equipment can actually limit your ability to concentrate on the craft.

Hmmm, is that yet another argument for less sophisticated equipment?

Nah, couldn’t possibly be.

I sort of agree and disagree with you. Certainly no problems with following your own path and ignoring 'rules'. However, I would say that you should at least learn them and understand why they exist. They can help you learn what underpins a good photograph and show you where you might be going wrong. Things like compositional rules are used because of the way humans look at things and find them pleasing. They are not there because someone decided to come up with an arbitrary rule. Just randomly going off at shooting will generally result in less than stellar pictures. The trick is working out when breaking the rules will result in a better image than following them.

"Nothing in life is left alone by the skeptic, but everything is cast from being into non-being. In this sense, the skeptic appears to return to the standpoint of the master, who also claims for himself the unlimited capacity to negate things."

The whole "go against the rules" thing in photography is just another incarnation of the classic skeptical challenge. The skilled craftsman has the authority to undermine the dilettante. In other words, the master has the "power to negate." The skeptical photographer wants the power of negation but can't get it through the authority of craftsmanship. So, he obtains the power to negate by rejecting formal craftsmanship altogether.

...but if the end result is the same, haven't both become skilled craftsman?

Skepticism pertains to the realm of beliefs and ideas, not of facts or proven things in the domain of reality.

While the "dilettante" works up his own path, it's a whole different story that he bases his learnings and knowledge on a history of what he is to master. Nothing is created out of nothing. Nihilism is just a fantasy.

Shooting into the light is often the best way to light, esp. when you have additional lighting.

"Sunny 16" is just a guideline for what exposure will yield neutral gray under bright sunny conditions without metering -- but with or without a meter, the "correct" exposure is whatever exposure gives you the image you want.

I despise rule of thirds. For one, it's not a rule. Second, sometimes the best place for elements is somewhere other than what it says.

Nice piece. I hate it when people take things that started as general
principles that are supposed to serve us as tools and try to turn them
into "rules." I posted something similar some time ago:

Cool post. 3 years ago I did not believe in the phrase "You Don’t Need Professional Gear to Take Professional Photos. Period. " but quickly started believe and started worrying more about learning than being concerned about the professional gear. I still photograph with the first DSLR I bought a Nikon D3000. The only thing I did was buy a 50mm lens to do the best for portrait photography. Yes one day I hope to have a full frame, but for now I'm happy with my little Nikon.

With the right lighting, exposure, and composition, your little Nikon is very capable. Some of my favorite photographs I've ever taken were with a black and white disposable camera.

Yes, my little Nikon is very capable. I usually only work with natural light. And yes I think I have made ​​good pictures. Especially when I started using a 50mm.

"Five Rules You Should Always Sometimes Break"

Always............sometimes............always............I'm so confused...

Yep. The trick is knowing when. Always, sometimes.

great article

The Sunny 16 rule (EV 15) is just a starting point, from which your vision of the scene can develop. Along with Sunny 16 comes EV and the reciprocity law, and also deeming the lighting ratios (contrast between elements in a scene). By knowing them, you can get deeper knowledge of light intensity of a scene through theory and practice, and even measure the light in the scene without a meter, everything mental.

It's like, for example, photographing under a heavy overcast, which is EV 9, but 6 steps away from Sunny 16, or +6 EV if we consider S16 as 0 EV (which is not the same as EV 0). Ok, that is a strictly correct technical exposure in that condition, but what it carries along is also an understanding of what is going on when observing lighting conditions, and what the technique might point to be correct, your eyes might not.

It's a compass, not words written in rock, and in being so, you gain comprehension at what's going on in your surroundings in terms of lighting. You can always have the rule at your disposal and exploitation.

It is a drawback for the technical corpus in photography to hinder the knowledge of an "industry standard" because of misplacing it and telling people to avoid it. You do no favour.

I was shooting at a vintage motorcycle event some years ago and shooting into the sun, exposing for the shadows and letting the sun radiate from behind the polished metal bits. Someone, a stranger no less, behind me said "You know, it's better if you shoot with the sun behind you." I stood up, showed them the image in the LCD and said "Sometimes you get more interesting shots if you don't do what everyone else does." The person looked at the image and said "Oh, I guess you do know what you're doing!"

Ansel Adams said it best: "There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs."

Very good article! Thanks for that!
Almost every time I read Fstoppers' articles about "how to improve", "how to be more creative" (...) the featured photos for those articles are almost always cute girls in bikini or short. Every time I finish to read the article, what is finally in my head is "ok, great tips, but what makes those picture great is partly due (large part) to the cute model". And most of the time I am thinking, "I would like the photographer to have taken the very same photos, triggered by the very same creative urge, but with a person who is averagely attractive, then, would it still work?" (by "averagely attractive" i do not mean someone ugly, but just someone who does not fit the standards of fashion photography).

So, two things:
1) you gave very good tips (I mean it!), but finally you took the easy shortcut of illustrating them with cute models, what is, in a tutorial point of view, a trick (specially if the article is about breaking rules).

2) I would like to challenge writers at Fstoppers to (sometimes) illustrate their articles with "normal people" in order not to blind the reader with the beauty of the model, but rather with the efficiency of the tips.

Challenge accepted. By the way, I posted an article a few weeks ago using males as my subjects and it was the least-read article I've ever posted. So, it was back to bikini girls. ;)

Meaning the article was read only by people very interested by the topic ("la crème de la crème" as we say in France) :)

Nice article John! Thanks for your constant inspiration!

Nice article...funny to see that all images in the blog follow the rule of thirds, maybe not intended. There are no rules in photography as far as I'm concerned...just go with your feeling. Use things handed (like f.i. rule of thirds) to get better and drop it somewhere down the road :-)

Great article ... love breaking rules. Love shooting wide open and backlit ...

BANG ON! great article

Hi there,

Thank you for this article on breaking 'the rules'. I find it very important to have a good technical training, so that you know exactly how to take photos correctly. When I take photos, it's a combination of my esthetic and emotional bond with the story I'm capturing, built on top of my technical knowledge. I like to break the rules because when I follow my heart, I'm able to create the story as I experience it when I'm there in that moment.

Again, I loved your article! Great thanks for sharing these tips!

Cheers Anaïs

Hi, nice discussion indeed. What do you think about the "cliché" of always shooting wide open in this kind of trendy lifestyle way of displaying things ?

I love it. ;)

I just see how it looks on the back of the LCD *SMH*

When you really work for agencies or commercial clients then you should know that "Proper Exposure" is a must. Extensive blowing out of highlights will usually get your images rejected by editors.

Have you ever seen an ad for Pacsun? Brandy Melville? Quicksilver? Any of the surf 'lifestyle' brands will surely disagree with you

You have to learn the rules before you break them.

Jean Renoir, the film director, said that technical perfection can only create Bordom because it only reproduces nature.

Hi! great article, but i think this create a paradox,becouse when you say to people "avoid the rules" you also mention a specific way to do photography, and, in some ways, that is also destructive... maybe the answer is just to be yourself, be honest with your preferences and give to your creativity the way that it need, dont matter if that makes you use often the rules of thirds or take photos from cats or babies. Grettings! (and sorry for my english, mid lvl, lol)

I have this argument with people all the time, all the training does is stifle your creativity. rules are for football players. Photography is art.

"breaking the rules" is also a trend.

Hey, no dividing by zero allowed!

Love the article. But the "always sometimes" bit bugs the hell outta me!

Nice, fun read. Some other important observations. The bigger the camera, the better the photographer. Lens hoods can help here. Also, if you use a tripod, the bigger the better, you must be a professional photographer. Probably, having an assistant to help carry your equipment might get you higher on the professional rankings. Just some suggestions.

"You should always sometimes" was enough for me.

I believe the rules are there to play a part. The basic rules have been created to work with how human brains see and read images. As a beginner photographer we all need to start somewhere and the rules help to set a path, guide us, build confidence and grow. As we grow in experience we automatically see images without the rules and better understand how to break or bend these rules

I do believe there is great merit in what John says here. As much as I believe these rilues are a good base line, we should rather be referring to them as learning guild lines. Far to many people are fixated on these rules which so often restricts the creativity of what we wanted to achieve with our images. Photography like all art forms is subjective. To become a van Gogh or a Da Vinci we need to step out of box governed by these rules and let our creativity rule

Another great article John, thanks

Good read, John, although i have a mild distaste for the use of "awareness" in breaking the rules. For me, knowing a rule is synonymous to "experience", which should be the foundation for any *artistic creative* decision. Simple awareness doesn't cut it.
Only, when you've shot a gazilion pix adhering to the rule of thirds you'll "know" that in some cases a dead center composition will nail the artistic experience (I like this phrase...) of a given picture.
Or negative space. Or cut off arms Orwhatever.

I agree you need to learn the rules first but later you should forget about them . It would get too complicated fitting all the rules into every photo. nail the exposure, composition rule of thirds , make sure not to cut the elbow the fingers, look into the background ..what the hell youl never take the photo . see a nice shot shoot it .

Nice article. Rules for a good exposure are useful guides to get you across the road. But if you don't want your work to look like everyone else's it is OK to take risks.