Discussion points: photographic rules

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Much has been written about photographic guidelines or rules that are supposed to guarantee you – or at least lead to a high chance of success – an interesting or balanced image. I’m not about to reinforce those, but neither am I about to dismiss them completely. Instead: let me offer you an alternative take on The Pantheon of Photographic Dogma like ‘the rule of thirds’ and ‘best light at dawn and dusk’ and ‘blur only your backgrounds’ etc. Important: it is not to be confused by the limitations imposed by the physiology of the way we see: we cannot help notice bright colours because this is the way our brains and eyes are wired. We cannot help but notice abrupt highlight clipping (but not black shadows) – because we cannot change the way the cells in our retinas are laid out. Apply some scepticism to internet pundits who can’t differentiate between man-imposed rules and those which are physiologically limited. With that, let’s move on to the discussion background.

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The first problem is that a set of rules can only consistently and successfully be applied to a situation where all of the variables and parameters are known and defined: you cannot impose a set of hard rules on a situation that has a fluid form, where there is no certainty over the kinds of challenges or subjects you encounter. Yet the exceptions are precisely what makes for an interesting photograph: it’s what isn’t commonly encountered or routinely seen that holds the attention of an audience. The unexpected visual non-sequitur is what we remember – the unexpected element that has no ‘standard’ way to incorporate because we have no way to anticipate it. Our minds tend to filter out the common and the repetitive – else we’d never get anything done for visual overload. This means we have an innate ability to filter out anything that isn’t exceptionally different; it means that a composition that was created according to a set of fixed rules – and which would therefore follow a certain set of spatial parameters – will not differentiate itself simply because there are others that have come before it, and probably quite a lot of them. In other words: you can’t do the same thing as everybody else and expect a different outcome, and if you don’t have a different outcome, the image simply gets lost.

Bottom line: if the aim of photography is to create something unique – you make it significantly more difficult by imposing constraints that do not need to be there (and are unlikely to take into account edge cases and exceptions, which are the more interesting subjects anyway).

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Spatial rules basically simply and generalise some assumptions – sometimes correct – about physiology and psychology of seeing. For example, having eyes physically laid out left-right means that landscape view is probably more natural to us than portrait because of the way the fields of vision of each eye overlap. Except, not all people have the same physiology, and not all cameras have the same aspect ratio – we haven’t even begun to talk about perspective, either. Some have better (read: more dominant) peripheral vision than others; some have more acute central field vision. A square aspect ratio camera isn’t really going to match our field of vision – or make sense to apply the same compositional rules to as a 16:9 one.

All of this is not to say that rules do not have their uses: they do. I think if anything they give you a good guide as to what to avoid if you want to make an image that stands out – note: I didn’t say works or is interesting or anything of that nature. Sometimes it might just so happen that one particular rule works for that situation; it doesn’t mean it’s universal. It would be risky to say that if a single image of an alien and a celebrity is interesting, they’d all be – but if all or the great majority of images were nothing but aliens and celebrities – who would take a second glance?

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We’ve touched on the cliches, we’ve touched on the physiology (much more detail in this and this article) but we haven’t touched on some things that generally make sense; I use the term ‘generally’ because as always there are exceptions dependent on the subject, scene and communicative intent of the photographer. Whilst for instance hard shadows usually make for interesting architectural images, they aren’t always so good for senior portraits or product photography. But this can be simplified into a logical statement like “shadows can assist with spatial orientation of a composition, and enhancing texture” – which I think is legitimate. But ultimately, the photographer has to decide if they actually want an obvious spatial orientation or not – they may not, for instance, if the intention is to make an extremely abstract composition. The example images given deliberately violate at least one, sometimes more, of the commonly bandied photographic rules – yet to my eyes at least, they still work.

My personal guidelines have long ago been distilled down into The Four Things: note that these are not hard and fast rules, but flexible guidelines that take into account human visual psychology and are not subject or situation or hardware specific. There are other considerations I keep in mind that may be stylistic rather than anything else – e.g. if my aim is to make a graphic image, I’m going to look for very hard shadows and intense colours, or cinematic images require layering, dominant hue and conscious foreground use. But even then – they aren’t exclusive, can deal with the edge cases. A subject can be presented any number of ways and still be arresting. MT

Over to you to discuss in the comments:

  1. Did you ever find photographic rules (golden ratio spirals, don’t put horizons dead centre frame etc.) useful?
  2. Did you eventually find them limiting?
  3. Are there any you still come back to, regardless?
  4. Do you have any personal guidelines of your own you adhere to?

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Comments

  1. Although I don’t know all the ‘rules’ of composition I know what I like in terms of photos others have taken and sometimes to to form similar compositions. However, much of my shooting is documentary and I simply have to shoot to include things in the frame – what’s depicted is more important than how ‘nice’ it looks.

    • But the story is still clearer if key elements are distinct from background or other context (or non context), so the ‘rules’ of vision still apply to some degree…aesthetic preferences being something else, of course.

  2. Jim Suojanen says:

    Thoughtful musings once again. Rules aren’t meant to be broken, but can be when the purpose behind the rule is understood and simply can’t be applied under certain circumstances (summarizing I suppose what you have written). Laws (and Commandments for those who abide by such things) shouldn’t be broken. Thankfully for most of us, photography laws are few and far between.

    • Perhaps another way to look at it is not so much laws but ‘guidelines’ or ‘restrictions’ to play within to ensure visual consistency of concept…

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        When I first became aware of them, Ming, they were presented to me as “guidelines” (although commonly referred to as rules), and as a youngster starting to try to work on improving my photography, I found them very helpful. After a while, I became more adventurous and started “doing my own thing” more, and they became a basis for planning a photograph, rather than the governing factors.
        There was and still is a good reason for them – they really amount to distillation of experience, and formulation of it in a series of sentences – guidelines – rules – what does it matter WHAT you call them? Because as you said earlier, they encapsulate what is pleasing to the eye.
        Having been a tear-away since I was 8 years old, that immediately throws up a question – do I WANT this shot to be “pleasing to the eye”? – or do I want to do something quite different with it?
        From there, I felt my photography start to grow. I still use the “rules” – when I want to. And yes, they do lead to photos that I wouldn’t enter in a competition. But perhaps we should try this – USE the rules, and see if we are clever enough to create a shot which DOES win a competition – instead of being dismissed as “perfect in every way, but too conventional”!

        • Good point: and one step further, what’s pleasing to my or your eyes may not necessarily be pleasing to others…which sort of explains why I’ve never entered a competition. Judged a lot of them, though… 🙂

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            Are we twins, Ming? “. . . what’s pleasing to my or your eyes may not necessarily be pleasing to others…which sort of explains why I’ve never entered a competition . . . ”
            I couldn’t agree more – when I read that, I fell about the floor, laughing – I first hit that bump in the road back in 1967, which is probably before most of your readers were born! Over the years, it’s made me very selective about who I show my photos to. Not that I’m going to pretend I’m anywhere near as good as you. 🙂

  3. Happy New Year Ming,
    Re compositional rules, I think that one important reason for the longevity and widespread recognition for compositional rules is that they help people see a two dimensional graphic image when composing; as opposed to perceiving the subject and environment the way our brain and eyes evolved to work in the wild for location food and avoiding danger. It is obvious, but it is easy to forget we don’t read or see a 2d image the same way we naturally look at the world, and that’s before we discuss the context for how an image is seen or curated. I have read that a lot of photographers prefer the mirror reversed view of a waist level reflex finder, upside down image on view camera ground glass, and now using an lcd screen with live view because it helps them to see the scene as a 2d abstracted image. Once you start to see in 2d then you can start to compose, well that’s my understanding and experience.

    The following is what I wrote in the comments section re the Rule of Thirds in another photo website that had a similar themed article;-
    I think a better way to start answering your rhetorical questions is to positively talk about what the rule of thirds can do, at least if you were trying to discuss this with someone who is just beginning. I would say that the rule of thirds starts you thinking about graphic composition in the following ways;-
    • The subject will not always look best in the centre.
    • The main subject does not need to be on or near an intersection point.
    • Having ‘something’ graphic near 2 or more of the intersection points can be a good way to fill an image.
    • The ‘something’ could be part of the subject, a secondary figure/ subject, an item that describes context or an element that has a contrast in tone, texture or colour.
    • It is not about geometric accuracy, there are no prizes for getting a composition element dead on a point.
    • Any compositional device, rule or theory can be misused to ruin a photograph, when that happens it is always the fault of the photographer.

    From some understanding about how the rules of thirds can work, it is much easier to start to understand and analyse things such as balance and dynamics. So in conclusion, and possibly an answer to your question, if the rule of thirds is a good starting point for someone understanding their composition then it’s existence is fully justified, regardless of whether you continue to use it consciously where appropriate, or you moved beyond it to compose images more holistically in real time.

    Regards Noel

  4. Meier Kurt says:

    4.)due to language limitation’s a in short: Follow Ming…

  5. I think the “rules” are (extreme, simple to explain and remember) simplifications of much broader mechanisms of how visual cues are (commonly) interpreted, like visual weight and visual dynamics. Once you understand these broader mechanisms, you don’t need those hard rules anymore – although you might find yourself applyig the broader mechanics and ending up at the “simple rules” in some cases, simply because that’s what suits the image. I found Michael Freeman’s books (the photographers eye in particular) to do a good job of teaching the reader how those mechanisms work, which allows you to use them beyond the simple rules.

    Compare it to physical construction. If you ask me to build a house, I’ll start with a square base, straight walls, only 1 storey high, and a flat roof… maybe pointy roof if I’m expecting heavy snowfall or rain, and I’m feeling confident. Boring, but at least it doesn’t collapse on me. An architect knows how to use balance and materials to create less predictable, more unique buildings that don’t collapse, and which materials and colors to use to enhance the impression that the building leaves on the viewer. But when the situation calls for it, they might still build a square box.

  6. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Well said, Ming, and a good summing-up, I think. And I like your destilling to the four (to five) things.

    And your chosen photos do work – also to my eyes.
    – – –

    1) – 4) :
    My photography learning started at 13 with a camera, developing b/w and making (small) contact copies. At 15 we moved and my father installed a darkroom with enlarger. The fixed lens often made cropping necessary and 6x6cm film made it possible.

    So trimming under the enlarger I soon learned instinctively to keep the edges clean, the horizon straight and to avoid lines right through the frame corners.
    And composition by experience and instinct.

    ( Aspect ratios varied between 1:1 and 3:1. Size was usually limited to 12″ by the developer bath. Trouser hangers of the type with double clips were good for developing occasional 10″x30″ prints.)

    I read my father’s old photo books and a modern one I was given, but the only rule I can remember that stuck was the one about poles and heads – probably because of the sometimes humorous results.

    ( There was also a foot of good photo magazines for occasional inspiration.)

    I never believed in the golden ratio. Or in later years the rule of thirds. Except as starting points for experiments. (In art class at school we were shown compositional principles used by painters, but that often seemed like an afterthought.)
    [ Dawn and dusk light can be really good for somethings and blurring the foreground really helpful.]

    So I mostly agree with Jeff Smith’s post.

    On the other hand limiting oneself by personal rules is said to ease and free creativity – I admit I am guilty of neglecting that.
    Except when I go out thinking about a certain type of motif.

    I suppose studying composition and other aspects of art would make me a better photographer, but only after unlearning all that again – beside experimenting such knowledge helps only when applied unconsciously, I believe. Being a (happy & fairly good) amateur isn’t bad either.

    • You know…I now wonder if you could make an interesting project solely out of poles and heads…:p

      Too little limitation results in incoherence. Too much in no output. Rephrased: we need a core idea to shoot around; that’s both the limitation and the linkage. The ‘rules’ only matter insomuch as they affect the translation of that specific idea.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Well, if I had saved up to 58 years old wastepaper basket content I might have had some collection – but to sort it out…
        🙂

        Agreed.
        My (changing over time) limitations are probably mostly unconscious and manifest themselves in the (limited) kind of motifs or types of composition that attract me and catch my attention.
        ( Except, as noted above, when I go looking for something defined or experiment.)

  7. Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal. Still, some lovely rationalizing.

  8. Wow. What an enlightening article! (Even more so for me as a few weeks ago I asked you what you think about the rule of thirds. And, by the way, another well-known photography forum has just dealt with that topic as well!). Thank you very much for this rich and concise piece of information.

    To contribute to the discussion: Landscape and cityscape photography have always been quite a challenge for me. One rule that consistently seems to help me is to cater for some balance in the image: something striking on one side – something similar or contrasting or complementary on the other, but with equal visual “weight”.

  9. Jeff Smith says:

    Very good and thoughtful post. Photographic rules can certainly be helpful in that they can consciously make you think more about your composition, thinking more about what you are doing before you do it is usually a good thing. But to rigidly try and adhere to them expecting a great photo just isn’t going to work. And as in life in general at times one needs to just quickly do what they think is right before the moment passes. I think subject matter, an eye for Seeing, and thinkng more about how your subject is lit are far more important than compositional photographic rules. I have seen photos of some of Henri Cartier Bresson’s work overlaid with golden spirals and upteen diagonals; does anymore really think he conciously overlaid a golden spiral over the composition before he pressed the shutter? I don’t think so.

    But again anything that helps one to think more about the scene before they press the shutter is a plus, more important is an interesting subject.

    • We can back fit whatever we want; most of the time there’s something that people can use as justification. Maybe HCB’s way of seeing had unconscious spirals already embedded, but to be honest – I highly, highly doubt it… 😉

  10. Paul Wilson says:

    Enlightening and inspiring as always. For my part, as a keen but stumbling late entry into photography as an enthusiast rather than diarist, I have already noted the inconsistencies between general guidance and what I am sometimes drawn to. Including but not limited to the following.

    Before reading up on compositional tips such as rule of thirds / golden ratio, I was driven entirely be gut feel – with mostly prosaic results but occasionally capturing something of what I felt. With the benefit of reading, many of my old favourites do indeed conform to guidelines, while a significant minority do not. So yes, I have learned to use the rules as a guide when setting up a shot, but don’t be afraid to trust the gut!

    The chase for high contrast, sharpness, colour and even resolution do not always work for me. I find myself deliberately toning down gradation and / or saturation for example to capture a misty, dreamy ambience on a hazy seaside morning. Or to achieve a soft, appealing look to a portrait. And of course if bright colours or strong shadows are what caught my eye I am not afraid to make sure these are represented too.

    The trick seems to be; bear in mind good practise, but let your eye and heart decide where to apply and where to deny. Photography for me is an art that uses technology and rules, but is not driven or limited by them.

    Paul W.

    • “The chase for high contrast, sharpness, colour and even resolution do not always work for me. I find myself deliberately toning down gradation and / or saturation for example to capture a misty, dreamy ambience on a hazy seaside morning. Or to achieve a soft, appealing look to a portrait. And of course if bright colours or strong shadows are what caught my eye I am not afraid to make sure these are represented too.”
      I’d call this “fidelity”: important, because if the output doesn’t represent the original scene/ idea – then it doesn’t really convey what you are seeing to the audience, does it? 🙂

  11. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Thanks for this post, Ming – it’s a triumph of the wisdom that is distilled from experience, over dogma.

    1 – Did I ever find the rules useful? – yes of course I did – when I first started taking photos, they were very helpful, in improving how I saw what was in front of the camera and in deciding what exactly I wanted to capture. I stumbled upon “composition” quite by chance – I never went to art classes at school, I simply had my cameras and my enthusiasm. But one day while I was in my local camera store I spotted a book called “Photo Composition in Black & white and Colour”, alongside a book on the camera I had recently bought. It was a revelation. And yes, it improved my photography substantially.

    2 – Did I eventually find them limiting? Well eventually would mean it took too long. I’ve always been bad at doing what I was told, so I didn’t hang around for “eventually” to eventuate before I started doing my own thing – little by little but growing all the while. I didn’t abandon them – I simply explored the world of light & shade, colour etc around me. – and what cameras and (then) film could do with it all. It wasn’t just rules of composition either – it was films & film speed, different ways of developing films, shutter speed, aperture settings, the lot. And here again, being told not to do something was a perfectly good reason for seeing what happened if I did. Later, I began to realise I was “seeing” differently. All the while, this path had been helping me to “see” – and quite by chance, a conversation way off the chart threw a supercharger at this process of learning to “see”. Which in turn changed the way I look at the so-called “rules” of composition.

    BTW – none of that’s new – I’ve read comments from heaps of professional photographers and highly respected amateurs which point in the same direction.

    3 – Are there any I still come back to? – yes of course there are – they were put out there to help people take better photos, or paint better pictures, or draw better sketches – and sensibly applied, they surely CAN help. But this aspect reminds me of the exchange between Alice in Wonderland and Humpty Dumpty, where he says that “when I use a word, it means precisely what I choose it to mean” and Alice challenges this, saying “the question is whether a word can have so many meanings!” And then Humpty Dumpty squashes all further argument by saying “the question is simply which is to be master – that’s all”.

    And for photographers, the same idea applies. The question is which is to be master – the “rules”? – or what the photographer is trying to achieve? Sometimes they will coincide – other times they will not – and as you rightly point out, Ming, applying the “rules” too often can lead to a portfolio of rather uninteresting and repetitive photos. Creativity has to be the master! – and the rules have to serve the master!

    4 – Personal guidelines? – after some of my earlier comments, I should excuse myself from answering this one – I’m clearly “rules averse” and guidelines sound like the same breed.

    But yes I do – “see”, for a start. There’s nothing wrong with the rule that tells us not to have a pole growing out of the head of the person we are trying to photograph – but to avoid it, we first have to “see” it. And seeing goes a zillion miles further than that. I have gone so far along this path now, that I find it quite odd drawing someone’s attention to something they aren’t looking at, but which is right there – odd, because they haven’t seen what I am pointing them to – and odd, when they give me their reaction upon discovering something they’d previously failed to notice.

    Another is “plan”. Sometimes there’s no opportunity to do this – the chance to grab a shot is there for an instant and any delay means missing it. It sounds awful to dismiss a shot taken like that, but all too often it’s somewhere between a snapshot and a masterpiece – good, but not as good as the photographer might have wished. Then I stumbled on the work of a lady in America who might plan a shot for a month or two – commonly two, and sometimes longer – goes out into the field (she’s a landscape photographer), takes her shot and comes home with it. And believe me, her work is brilliant – blows your mind! None of this stuff like spraying the scene with shots, using a DSLR with the ability to fire like a cine camera, and then selecting the best shot out of – perhaps – 50 or a hundred shots of (almost) the same thing. Research & planning have become a basic part of my photography in more recent years – they always were there, but they’ve grown enormously in importance.

    And GAS – oh dear – what to do, what to do? So many people out there suffer from GAS – if ONLY I had this camera or that lens, I could take better photos than Ansell Adams! Sigh – yes, well, maybe – probably not, your mind isn’t in gear – why don’t you sit with the stuff you have in your camera bag, and see how you can take better photos, using what you’ve already got? It that works, it means you’ve taught yourself (or someone else has) to become and be a “better photographer”, and maybe you didn’t need that precious new toy. And you’ve still got $5 grand in your bank account!

    • Seeing and planning: bingo. I personally shoot a lot less quantity these days, even when experimenting. Most of the time you have enough experience to know what is at least executable or not before trying – saving a lot of failures and increasing the hit rate. Slower cameras tend to force this, too…

  12. Interesting questions and hopefully some interesting answers below …

    1. Since I started my structured photographic training with your email school, the 4 Things have been burned into my brain. I don’t think I even think about it consciously now: it’s just an automatic way I evaluate all photos. I also look at the frame border intersections very carefully (which I still can’t do all the time unconsciously in realtime) as well as unintended overlaps, like a branch growing out of someone’s head. I’ve kind of generalized it to the idea of the camera as a projector of a 3D world into a finite 2D frame and all that implies.

    2. On the contrary, it’s helped me develop my own style, for better or for worse! It’s very freeing since it gives me a kind of vocabulary to compose and talk about a scene.

    3. I think 1 and 2 should answer this.

    4. The no-overlaps rule is really big for me, especially for my dance photos, and now I can’t really look at any other dance photos without this rule encroaching on how I evaluate it. Since they’re speaking with their bodies, there has to be clarity in how that’s shown in the frame, so even self-overlapping is out! Like you, I like my photos to be very structured, so no tilted horizons and lines near the frame borders should be parallel to the borders if possible.

    Also I’ve learned to trust my instincts more. If I like a photo even if it violates the rules, I’ll sleep on it, and revisit it later. Often they turn out to be some of my favorite photos! Same thing when I’m working a scene.

    Speaking of which, as a metarule, I try to do something totally different than one kind of photography. I’ll get immersed in dance photography for weeks, but I make sure to get out on the weekends to shoot some landscapes, where the pace and compositional needs are different. I find that in the long run, they help each other get better since there are ideas that can transfer across.

    And another metarule is not to worry too much if nothing comes out, or the process of making the photo feels terrible or unproductive. There’s either something there that I won’t see until later, or there’s something to learn.

    • 4. is important: if subject can’t be separated from background, it becomes background (and indistinct).

      As for breaking rules: shoot first, evaluate later 🙂

      • scott devitte says:

        Having walked Havana and Venice beside you, and observing your instinctual qua empirical genius, I saw: stimulus, evaluation, response/shoot at the near speed of available light, archive later.

        • Haha – I think what you saw were the results of visual stimulation in overdrive; very rarely does one get to go somewhere so different and so target-rich – fully knowing that you’ll probably never go back again. So yes, work with instinct, work quickly – feverishly, I usually think – and worry about sorting it out later.

  13. Excellent post. I would repost this if there was a button 🔘.

  14. Excellent post.

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