Rules-Cover

Know the rules so that you can break them properly

March 26 , 2014 by: Daniela Bowker Bargain buys, Feature Articles, Photography Theory, Team Photocritic, Tutorials

Rules. They’re pretty important. Can you imagine trying to get anywhere without some rules for the road? No one would know when to stop, when to go, or even where to go. It’d be chaos, and not my idea of fun. They provide us with a framework, a means of understanding how things work, which enables us to get from A to B more safely. Then there are photography’s rules. They aren’t quite so critical to everyone’s navigational competence and safety—the rule of thirds will hardly prevent me from getting run over—but they are there to make pictures look better.

Breaking them properly

If having rules and laws and dos and do-nots seems terribly restrictive to a creative pursuit (or how fast you want to ride your motorbike), remember that if you know and understand them properly and put them into practice, it gives you one up on anyone who doesn’t. In fact, it gives you two up on people who follow them blindly. When you know them properly, you know when you can break them successfully, too.


Make sure your horizons are level…

The power in breaking a rule comes from understanding why it’s a rule in the first place. When you know how and why something works, you also understand its limitations and restrictions. This means that you know when you need to reverse it, to stand it on its head, or to smash it altogether in order to get the effect that you want.


…except when they’re definitely not.

This works better with an example.

Plain versus creative backgrounds

If you want to show off your subject optimally, you’re best to use a plain background. That’s a fairly obvious photographic rule. A busy background will compete for attention with your subject and your eye will struggle to focus where it should be focusing. The type of plain background that you use has its own set of rules that goes with it: black makes colours bolder, white makes them duller, complementary colours are striking, and using the same colour background as your subject can look stunning, too. But you know that the rule is a plain background will serve your subject best.


Nothing else to distract from gorgeous Sheara

Except…

When you need to provide some context for your subject. Photographing an academic against a plain background might make for a lovely portrait, but it doesn’t really convey who this person is or what she does. Photographing her in her study, surrounded by her books, would be much more meaningful. What’s important here is that the background isn’t cluttered or confusing. You need the eye to fall on the professor, but the books to relay who she is.


This background helps to show the context in which the photo was taken, however busy it is

Of course, if you’re photographing something like a riot or a protest, the chaos and the confusion needs to come over in the picture. You’ll need a point of focus for the eye to fall upon, but everything swirling around it will add to the story.

So you want to be a rebel with a cause?

Photography is full of rules. Which means that understanding them properly presents you with hundreds, thousands of opportunities to break them to creative effect. Rather helpfully, Haje combined lots rules and examples of when and how to break them into one rather awesome book: The Rules of Photography and When to Break Them.

Always use a plain background to bring focus to your subject

Always use a plain background to bring focus to your subject

Except when you need to bring context to your story

Except when you need to bring context to your story

Even better, Rules is currently only £4.99 if you download it from the swish looking Ilex Instant site. That’s half-price! This means you can read all the rules and learn how to break them. Go on, be a rebel!

About Daniela

This post was written by Daniela Bowker, who has written 1382 articles for Photocritic

Daniela has written three books on photography, contributed to several others, and acted as the editorial consultant on many more.

Her newest book, Social Photography, is currently available as a digital download as well as in bookshops in the UK and US.

You might also want to check out her exploration of other-worldly photographic creations, Surreal Photography: Creating the Impossible, and Photo School Fundamentals, for which she contributed the section on composition.

1 Comments

  • FYI — the book sounds promising, but your link to its page on the Ilex Instant site is messed up.

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