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

John Schell | Instagram | Facebook | Vimeo

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John Schell's picture

I love it. ;)

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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.

John Schell's picture

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.

John Schell's picture

Hey, no dividing by zero allowed!

Anthony Cayetano's picture

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.

Galdino Sanchez's picture

"You should always sometimes" was enough for me.

Sven Larsen's picture

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 .

Bob Shurtleff's picture

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.