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Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Rules Of Photography: Knowing When To Break Them

by Andrew Goodall

Creative photography is a mix of many ingredients; art and
technology, skill and patience, cold mechanical knowhow and
individual flair.

Penguin Book: The Basic Book of Digital Photography: How to Shoot, Enhance, and Share Your Digital Pictures by Tom Grimm, Michele Grimm

For a beginner learning the basics, it would be nice if there was a
simple set of rules to follow to make the whole thing easier.
Surely someone could just tell you what aperture to use in a given
situation, or how to structure a composition to get the best
results every time?

Photography is a lot like learning to drive. With a car, you need
to know the road rules, and you need to know the basic skills of
steering, accelerating and braking. These can be learned easily
with a bit of practice. But even when you have mastered the
essentials, you still need to get to know your car, because each
car is a little different. Then you need experience with night
driving, wet-weather driving, off-road driving...

What you must understand is that following the rules will only take
you so far. In photography, you will find that rules help you in
the beginning, and some rules will stay with you throughout your
career. The trick is to understand when the rules don't apply, or
when you should choose to ignore them. This is the type of
knowledge that can't easily be taught. It comes with experience,
and is what gives you individuality as a photographer.

Below are just a few of the rules that, for an experienced
photographer, are just made to be broken.

Cengage Course Tech. Book and CD-Rom: Understanding Digital Photography by Joseph A. Ippolito

Photography Rule #1.

Outdoor Photos Should Be Taken In The Early
Morning Or Late Afternoon.

This is one of the first principles of
landscape photography, and can be applied to almost any outdoor
photography. The softness and warm colour of the sunlight at these
times adds beauty and character to almost any scene. It also
creates much lower contrast, allowing you to avoid harsh shadows
and over-exposure of the highlights in your photos.

When can you break this rule? I can think of two situations

Black and white photography is defined by contrast rather than by
subtle colour, so you often want stronger shadows to create the
best image. For this reason, black and white photos are often best
taken closer to the middle of the day when the light is stronger.

Rainforest photography is also best in the middle of the day, but
this time you don't want bright sunlight; you want cloudy weather
to create an nice even light throughout the forest. Otherwise the
patches of light coming through the canopy will create 'hot spots'
all over your image.

Pearson Education Book: The Digital Photography Book Kit by Scott Kelby

Photography Rule #2.

The Rule Of Thirds.

The rule of thirds is an
excellent guide for a beginner learning about composition. In
simple terms, it divides your photo into three parts, vertically
and horizontally. The dividing lines are the best places to
position long objects in a photo (like trees and horizon lines).
The points where the lines intersect are the most effective places
to position smaller objects for most impact.

Photos that are taken according to the Rule Of Thirds appear
balanced. They satisfy our natural sense of visual order and simply
look 'right.' Unfortunately, the world is not so easily organised
as the rule, so it is impossible in nature to take every photo this
way. Moreover, sometimes you may decide to ignore the rule, giving
more impact to the photo by shaking up the normal balance of the

When can you break this rule? Here is one obvious example, but I am
sure you can think of many more.

Sunset photos feature colourful skies, and silhouettes in the
foreground. If you have a truly spectacular sky, it doesn't make
sense to fill a third of the picture with empty blackness. You may
choose to tilt the camera up to make a feature of the sky, and
reduce the area filled by the foreground.

Cengage Course Tech. Book: Photography For The 21st Century by Katie Miller

Photography Rule #3.

Your Lightmeter Is Always Right.

Most of the time you can
trust your lightmeter. If it indicates your photo is well exposed,
it probably will be...but not always.

When can you break this rule? When there is a big difference in the
level of light between the subject and the surroundings.

You may be photographing a person, an animal, a flower etc. in full
sunlight, but the background is shady. This is a very effective way
of making your subject stand out from the surroundings. In this
situation, the different levels of light are bound to trick the
lightmeter. In fact, if you take your photo on auto, your subject
will most likely be overexposed. The best approach is to switch
your camera to manual, and adjust your aperture or shutter speed
until the photo is underexposed by one or two stops. This will
darken your background and bring the subject into perfect exposure.

Pearson Education Book: Photography, 10th ed. by Barbara Loudon, John Upton, Jim Stone

Can you see a pattern developing here? Rules are there for a
reason, and your skills will improve in leaps and bounds if you
learn them and practice them. But having done that, you are ready
to take the next step. Start experimenting outside the rules and
see where it takes you. Knowing and following the rules will make
you a good photographer. Choosing how and when to break them will
make you even better.

Click here to visit Digital Photography School.


If you found these tips helpful, Andrew Goodall has released two
top-selling ebooks that have already helped thousands of new
photographers learn the art and skills of nature photography. See
Andrew's images and ebooks at
While you are there, enjoy even more great photography tips by
subscribing to our online's free!

Cengage Course Tech. Book: The Handbook of Photography by James A. Folts, Ronald P. Lovell, Fred C. Zwahlen

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