Photography rules are among some of the most frequently disputed ones. Of course, there is a reason for their existence. Our eyes find it more logical to look at a scene that follows the rule of thirds. Color theory dictates that red and blue are colors that contrast really well. Every tutorial on gels will prove this right.
How Did Photography Rules Come To Be?
It is hard to pinpoint where photography rules come from; after all, they're not a religious text. One can’t disagree with the photography bible, because a photography bible doesn’t exist. My own wanderings led me to believe that photography rules are derived from classical visual artwork, nature’s light patterns, and color theory.
Classic Rules That You Should Break
Rule of Thirds
The most overused rule in photography is this one. There are valid reasons to follow it: it allows for easy and effortless composition that is pleasing to look at. However, the art world has millions upon millions of photos, paintings, and more doing the exact same rule of thirds thing.
There are instances where the rule of thirds is simply non-applicable. So, by following this common composition technique, not only are you limiting yourself to something cliché but also to something that isn't universally applicable. Take one of my fashion images as an example: the rule of thirds is hard to apply in a close-up beauty photograph.
A great way to break the rule of thirds is to study graphic design. For the most part, all photographers are confronted with a rectangle to fill. Learning different ways graphic designers would see that task could help you be more creative with composition and see photography from different points of view. Ultimately, this will improve your work.
Good proper exposure is critical to nail. Most beginners are taught how to expose so that the overall image is pleasing to look at. Most of the time, this is what the meter says is proper, not necessarily your artistic desire.
There are plenty of instances where the meter reading is not what the picture demands. For example, a lot of concert venues have hard directional lights on the performers, which are very bright compared to everything else. The camera meter will try to even out the whole picture, making the performers less prominent. Shooting in manual is the solution to breaking common rules of exposure in order to achieve what you desire as a creative photographer.
Lighting rules exist and are pretty set in stone. They are derived from what is visually pleasing and natural-looking. For example, the columella (where the nostrils are) should be always darker than the nose bridge. Another perhaps more silly notion is that a high quality light is soft and diffused. There is a problem with defining something as good light and something else as bad.
Soft and diffused being good renders hard and specular bad. This, in turn, limits creatives from being truly creative with their lighting, as no one wants to create bad light. Sure enough, for portraiture hard light, is less flattering to most faces; however, hard light still has its place in photography. For example, hard light is often the best option to highlight texture in the fabric. Another place for hard light is in jewelry advertisements. Hard light will show every intricate accessory detail, which is much wanted by the art directors.
Yet another lighting rule is that lighting setups exist. For example, there are clear rules on how to achieve a loop light or how to create a beauty setup. A classical beauty setup will have a beauty dish at the top, a reflector at the bottom, two strip boxes on either side to blow out the background. Unfortunately, many beginner photographers, myself included, end up creating work that is similar lighting-wise. This leads to a monotonous portfolio, which is perhaps not as interesting to look at. Breaking the rules on what is a “classic beauty light” will help you add flair and originality not only to your work but also to your crew's respective portfolios, as they likely have hundreds of photos with the same setup.
Beauty Dish Is Only for Beauty Photography
Lastly, there seems to be a consensus that a beauty dish is only a modifier that is to be used in beauty photography. No one considers a beauty dish when they’re lighting a background. Interestingly enough, a series of beauty dishes can create a very effective uniform background light. Albert Watson is known to use a beauty dish for background light, portrait, fashion, and everything in-between.
I used to be fully convinced that cropping is a sign of poor photography. For the longest time, if I was asked to crop an image, I would blatantly refuse and get offended. However, having transitioned into commercial and editorial fashion, I’ve soon realized that cropping for different media is part of the job. Now, I shoot so that I can later crop for a few different media while following basic graphic design concepts.
While there is certainly an argument to be made for getting everything right in camera, that isn't always possible. Editing images has been around for over a century. Being a darkroom technician or a retoucher is considered a creative job. When I can, I give my retouchers significant creative freedom so that they can contribute their vision. Almost always, the outcome is above and beyond what I initially imagined. Cropping is one of the tools in the creative toolbox, so why not use it?
As with many of my articles, I enjoy offering a different perspective in the last section. Rules should be learned before they can be broken. As with music composition: first, one has to learn the accepted way of harmonic progression, and only then can they write a piece that is nothing but 4:33 of silence. Hence, don’t take this article as a call to break rules without even knowing what they are. Instead, take this article as a source of inspiration to deviate from what you commonly do and explore unconventional approaches to image-making.
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