The Zen of Learning and Breaking the Rules of Photography

By: Gary Gray



In photography, there are rules and there are fules.  Some rules are technical, some are subjective, all can be broken or ignored if the end result works.  As Ansel Adams once said, "there are no rules to good photographs, there are only good photographs."


Lets talk about rules, which more correctly should be explained as "guidelines."  I'll ease you into the transition of phrases.  Learning the rules is easy, learning how and when you can break them is a little more difficult.  Your images probably won't be outstanding until you have a firm grasp of the most common photographic rules and have also learneed to bend or break them successfully.


With different types of photography, you'll have similar and different specific rules (guidelines.)


Concepts that apply to landscape photography don't always apply to portraint photography or street photography or cheesecake photography.  Each area has specific guidelines that will get you to a specific zone of acceptable results.


As a general guideline, the technical rules of exposure (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) will always apply.  These are mathematical in nature and can't really be changed or totally ignored., though through experience you'll find that the different camera brands and makes of camera bodies will have their own way of enforcing these rules.  For example, ISO 200 on one camera may measurably be ISO 250 on another camera.  The underlyingmathematical relationshiop will still be the same and the cameras will function according to the same basic rules none-the-less.


Where rules most often vary are in the compositions.  Compositional rules are also "guidelines" to get you into a zone of acceptable results.  Once you understand how and why you got to that happy zone, you can then begin understanding the variations on the theme.   It's more commonly referred to as creativity.


As children, we are given coloring books and crayons and we are told to color in the pages by staying within the lines of the subjects on the pages.  At first we struggle and though mom and dad encourage us with praise most of the early attempts are just scribbles and not within the lines. With a little practice and a few more attempts most of us eventually learn to make perfect coloring pages and nothing is outside the lines.  Mom and Dad are even more proud.  To be an artist, one doesn't stop with learning to stay within the lines.  One learns how to color without lines.


Scribbling on a piece of paper with a crayon time after time and eventually coming up with one page that looks pretty neat is not being creative, it is being lucky.

Learning photography is in many ways similar to learning to color in a coloring book.  Learning to write on paper in a specific manner with a specific intent to create a pleasing scribble pattern may or may not result in a usable result, but the hit rates will be higher as time and practice continues.


You'll eventually learn how to repeatedly make something that on the surface may look like scribble, but upon further observation looks like darn good scribble with a specific style and approach.  This is what we as artist hope to obtain.  Perfect scribble techniques that set our own scribbling apart from other peoples scribbling.


The trick to being an outstanding photographer is to find your way of coloring outside the lines and eventually without lines in a manner that produces a unique and appealing result.  If you can't find that way with one method, choose a different way.  In the meantime, starting from within the lines will keep you grounded until you find your perfect combination of rules to follow, rules to break and ways to break those rules.


I don't believe there are many short-cuts to this elusive zone of photographic nirvana.  One can't simply begin with scribbling and expect to hit the mother load.  One should learn to stay within the lines and understand everything involved with that process before one can make an educated guess as to where to bend the method and approach to produce something more artistic.


Photography isn't about style or attitude or wishes.  It is an art form that is has very deep technical roots, so being successful isn't going to be a stroke of luck.


Being a good photographer is about getting good results and you should never rely on your own opinion of how good your results are.


It's the job of other people to be the judge of how well you can scribble.


How well you listen and adapt from the opinions of others is your job.