Rules? We don't need no stinking rules!


hmm I recognise this place! And some of you!
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May 1, 2008
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Nor badgers nor badges - well mostly badges!

Anyway a line of thinking for you all for some discussion.

Rules - rules of composition, rules of exposure, rules of this rules of that. Well ok most of us here can accept that when we say "rules" in photography we often mean "theories" rather than "rules".

We also accept that rules are somewhat like pirates and that they are mostly guidelines rather than fixed things that must be followed no matter the cost.

However there's another side to these rules and theories that I think is important to consider before we get too gun-ho about hashing them off and generally talking down about them to new photographers and indeed each other.

I want to start this with a question - How do you take a macro photo?
Now at the asking of that I'm sure a bunch of answers will have jumped into your head. Things like "get a macro lens" or "extension tubes" as well as things like "use manual focusing" and "use a small aperture" "use flash" etc...

What do all these things have in common? Well each one is aiming to take what is actually a very broad and big question and whittle it down into an easy to understand snip of information that relies upon the most common understanding and practice. Most of you are, without realising it, following the theory (rule) of macro photography.

So why do we do this?
Well the answer is simple; beginners (be they to the whole craft or to a genre or theme or method) have a lot to think about. They can't automatically see a scene and already preconceive a shot in their head and then assign settings and equipment to suit. It's not beyond them by no means, but its a lot to think of all at once. They've got a wealth of choices and sometimes that's as much a barrier to learning as having no choices.

Because with a huge wealth of choices comes confusion. Consider just the aperture. Well what aperture do you pick?
Without any firm guidance we have to think about it; ok fine but if we are thinking about everything else too we suddenly hit a wall of too much thinking. It confuses and can quickly overwhelm people.

So we give them walls. Mental walls to work within that impart a degree of theory and structure to the shot. This brings the number of choices down; it limits things with the intent of getting toward a known result. By saying "use a small aperture like f8 or 13) we've instantly taken the massive number of apertures and cut it down to just two or a range of two values with little between them.

The idea is to get the novice practising and shooting and this helps toward it. In time we encourage them to broaden their horizons. They don't throw away the theory, they add to it with different situations, different artistic ideas, different inspirations etc...
But because we gave them that early structure they've got a starting point.

So don't insult theories or rules; don't talk down about them. Realise that they have their place and that as well as providing inspiration and ideas; they are also about helping people learn photography and gain better and better skills from which to build from. They are a foundation that can remain (like all good foundations) in use throughout the whole of a persons photography interest.
I've said on this forum several times that I have never followed the rules of photography, the reason was that until I joined this forum I had no idea there were rules. I had never heard of a rule of thirds, I had to look that one up. I'm sure as a learning tool they would be quite useful and whatever makes a person a better photographer then they should be used. I learned photography without rules.
Sorry, but your post is long, rambling, and hard to follow. There is an actual visual language. People that wish to work in the visual arts need to understand that, and need to be told the real secrets of how visual communication is done.

There are no "rules" in visual communication, be it painting, drawing, or photography. But there ARE elements of design. And there are principles of design.

The elements and principles of design are the fundamentals of visual communication. Google will lead to many links that will set the beginner and the intermediate photography enthusiast on the path of real, genuine understanding of the field of design.
Rules . . . I think of them as guidelines or "best practices." Yes, you can chose to not follow them, but I feel, all else being equal, an image that follows those guidelines are generally better images. But I also believe that if you (or your customer) is happy, then it's all good.

For me, when I decide to shoot a macro, I'm usually thinking about a very specific part of the subject. I have recently started collecting and almost exclusively writing with fountain pens. One of my projects for 2016 is to catalog them and the growing number of ink bottles and samples I have. Luckily, I only have a dozen or so pens so it won't take long but I will take macros of some of the details - nibs, fittings, clips, etc.

Once I know what I want to shoot, I start to figure out how I'm going to shoot it: which lens, lighting options, and exposure settings. Though I typically go with small apertures to maximize the DOF, and use a tripod whenever possible.
Rules are the stuff people come up with to explain why they like a certain picture.

For example if I see a picture which shows all of a person, but the feet are cut away, it feels wrong. Thus there is a rule for portraiture only cut of a person in places where it looks intentional.
Don't confuse a "rule" with "how things work".
Photography is essentially about what the photographer thinks is right. The audience opinion thereafter is interesting and usually causes a debate about what the photographer achieved as opposed to what the viewer thinks they achieved.
The rules the photographer followed are different from the viewer rules. I wish I had a $ for every time I have heard " it would look better if......" then I have to explain that the fore ground looks a bit dark because I was metering for a bright sky but I wanted to include the sky so I had to batch pics together and the HDR / Tone Mapping was subtle so as not to make the pic look like a cartoon. Then the viewer looks at me like I was speaking gibberish and utters the immortal phrase "these modern cameras have taken out all the skill"

Over the years my golden rule has evolved into "Be Original"
I understand simplifying for beginners, but some of the things one hears stated as "rules" simply don't apply to many images, and the results of trying to follow the "rule" often are bad images that are inconsistent with (to borrow Derrel's phrase) the elements and principles of design. An example is someone who is trying to follow either the rule of thirds or the admonition not to center a subject, but who has an image with only one element in the frame, with the result that the image is unbalanced - most books on composition from the art world stress balance as probably the most important principle. I once pulled about 5-10 images from the web, each one arguably the most famous by a particular well-regarded photographer, many of them appearing on monograph covers. I put a thirds grid on them and not one clearly followed the rule of thirds, some of them also were centered, and they all worked well as compositions for reasons one could explain. I think it's better to tell beginners to read a book on composition (preferably not one written by a photographer) and to look at a lot of images.
I didn't fully follow all of the OP train of thought, but I agree that 'rules' by themselves are rather sterile. The 'rule of thirds' is one of my absolute favorites because it:

a) is easy to understand,
b) is easy to see when it has been applied or not applied to an image, and
c) gives a 'critic' the opportunity to point out that (s)he saw that you 'broke' the rule.​

In other words, instead of asking "Is this image pleasing?"- some will merely ask "Was the 'rule' applied?". If someone posts an image for C/C and I detect that the subject is dead-center, I can call the author out for breaking the rule, whether it was a good choice or not, because- hey, it's the law! This proves that I must be really smart for catching this 'violation'. ;)

Having said that, @Derrel, @runnah, @snowbear and others are correct that you ignore 'the rules' at your own peril, as they are excellent guidelines for good composition. Best you understand general principles and why they exist before you choose to depart from them for a specific image. I wish I knew more, and I work to learn more 'rules' all the time.

(climbs down from soap box and drops mic)...
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the rules of photography are the rules of art composition are the rules of mathematics. You can deny them if you like but that is generally due to a inability to grasp. Rules ARE made to be broken but one must understand to break a rule. Broken rules in art are done to make a viewer uncomfortable or "feel". Rules are aesthetics. Would you put your bed in the kitchen if given other option?

I have no idea if this answers the question.
Firstly the examples you give are not rules but are all technical choices. The are definite actions with an exact and predictable outcome, they conform to strict mathematical formulae. Changing aperture or using extension tubes will create an exact and predictable outcome so they're rules whether you like it or not. This transfers to all the camera settings you choose to assign.
Many, and I think you included, fail to understand the principles and rules of design, or the visual language, because they apply this technical approach to images as well. Because the camera captures absolute values you assume that the image is made of absolute values and you see it as absolute values. Here's a simple and well known example that I just created in PhotoShop and will demonstrate absolutely and without a shadow of doubt that we don't see in absolute values at all:


What is it? It is a series of outer squares that lighten in steps from black to white with an inner square that's exactly the same shade of grey throughout. So why do you see the inner square as darkening from left to right? It must now be obvious that we don't see in absolute values as if you did you'd see all the inner squares as the same shade of grey, which they absolutely are. It's an interesting question and one that's at the centre of the principals of art and design. When you make the mistake of thinking we see in absolute values you also mistakenly assume that everybody sees exactly what you see. And just as you've taken the principals of art, design and the visual language and, without really understanding them, imposed your own logic of how you think they should be viewed so you can also impose your own logic on how your images should be viewed.

Understanding the principles of art and design is, in it's simplest form, about understanding how others really see your images. It's about understanding the very fluid way in which other people see and perceive and using that to present the coherent vision that you want them to see. With a little knowledge and a few minutes in PhotoShop I've already fooled your eyes, and this is just scratching the surface of the subject.

EDIT: This is exactly what I was trying to demonstrate in the tomatoes thread in this forum, that you make colour appear brighter or duller not changing it but by how you contrast it. Saturation simply removes colour and equalises values, visually it's the same as as moving towards the centre square in the grid. Something I was hoping to show further in Pt 2 and is a key principle in art and design.

For those that argue that nature and composition are not mathematical or geometric I ask why you impose the form of a perfect geometric rectangle, (or circle/oval), on all your images? It's time to state the obvious, (and demonstrate how easy it is not to see things if you decide your logic dictates they don't exist ;)), it's the photographer who imposes geometry on nature by adding the rigid geometry of a frame where it didn't exist before, and if you're going to add this geometry then you may as well understand it's implications. This is the key principle to understanding composition.
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KenC said:
SNIP> I once pulled about 5-10 images from the web, each one arguably the most famous by a particular well-regarded photographer, many of them appearing on monograph covers. I put a thirds grid on them and not one clearly followed the rule of thirds, some of them also were centered, and they all worked well as compositions for reasons one could explain. I think it's better to tell beginners to read a book on composition (preferably not one written by a photographer) and to look at a lot of images.

That's because the so-called "rule of thirds" was invented by a magazine article writer, in the 20th century, as a simplified shortcut, a beginner's tip, a type of early "For Dummies-level" shorthand way to give beginning photographers a way to avoid simply centering their subject dead center within the frame and then mashing on the shutter button.

Here is a very short blog post that shows what KenC did--iconic, well-known images, with 1/3 grid lines over them...
Photos and Stuff: Rule of Thirds Redux

Photos and Stuff: Kill The Rule of Thirds

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