Sometimes breaking the rules gives an artist the creative burst they need. Try these tips on breaking rules and creating the unexpected from seventeen established photographers.
When it comes to photography, we hear a lot about different rules we should follow, ranging from the proper exposure to the perfect composition. But none of these so-called “rules” are set in stone. The great landscape photographer Ansel Adams, for one, liked to challenge the status quo; “There are no rules for good photographs,” he famously claimed. “There are only good photographs.”
It’s the season of New Year’s Resolutions, so now is the time to experiment creatively. We asked seventeen talented Shutterstock contributors of different genres and backgrounds to tell us about the rules they think more photographers should break every once in a while. Read on to learn what guidelines they think are outdated and which still remain relevant today.
On Composition and the Rule of Thirds…
1. “The importance of the laws of composition in photography is greatly exaggerated.”
Image by Fotaro1965. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF20-105 F4L lens. Settings: Focal length 105mm; exposure 1 sec; f/11; ISO 320.
The importance of the laws of composition in photography is greatly exaggerated. This has been noticed by many photographers, not least by Henri Cartier-Bresson in his idea of the “Decisive Moment.” He argues that schematic reading of the composition can be carried out only after the picture has already been taken. Yet, for some reason, many photographers continue to carefully inscribe objects in a triangle or arrange them diagonally before taking a picture. My advice? Less logic, more intuition.
Image by Fotaro1965.
2. “One of the rules that I like to challenge in my food photography is the rule of thirds.”
Image by Alphonsine Sabine. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon 100mm macro lens. Settings: F2.8; ISO 50.
Rules are there to help us when we are out of composition ideas, but when we apply them systematically, we risk falling into monotony. One of the rules that I like to challenge in my food photography is the rule of thirds. My concern is that sometimes this rule makes the composition too “clean.” That’s why I rely first on what I see and what I feel.
Image by Alphonsine Sabine.
3. “One common compositional rule…is that the horizon should stay in the upper or lower third of the image…However, there are many reasons for breaking this rule.”
Maurizio De Mattei
Image by Maurizio De Mattei. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF 24-70 f/4L IS USM lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f11; ISO 100.
One common compositional rule in landscape photography is that the horizon should stay in the upper or lower third of the image, not in the middle; for example, the upper third gives emphasis to the land, while the lower portion gives emphasis to the sky. However, there are many reasons for breaking this rule. Most of the time, it depends on the specific elements the photographer wants to include and how they balance each other in a strong photograph.
Image by Maurizio De Mattei.
A reflection is one common example. Here, the subject, positioned in the upper portion of the image, is balanced by its reflection, placed in the lower part of the image. In this case, perfect balance is usually achieved by placing the horizon in the middle of the photograph.
4. “If you’re working with abstract shapes, the rule of thirds can be thrown out the window.”
Shelly Still Photo
Image by Shelly Still Photo. Gear: Canon E550D camera, Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. Settings: Focal length 20mm; exposure 1/80 sec; f8; ISO 400.
If you’re working with abstract shapes, the rule of thirds can be thrown out the window. A lot of the time, the image works better when the feeling and vibe are captured instead of the composition. Also if an image is slightly “off” in composition, it gives the viewer a bit more to think about, especially if you are trying to create a more edgy feel.
Image by Shelly Still Photo.
On Technical Perfection…
5. “Technical perfection is not everything.”
iconogenic (Katja de Bruijn)
Image by iconogenic (Katja de Bruijn). Gear: Unknown. Settings: Unknown.
Technical perfection is not everything. We should loosen up on our attempts to make a “perfect” picture and instead try to express how our subjects make us feel. I think that standing still with a level tripod and a gray card is just the beginning of our studies in photography. It would be fun to see more impressionism, irregularity, and yes, even absurdity, to remind ourselves that we are artists and not human scanners.
Image by iconogenic (Katja de Bruijn).
6. “One rule that I break intentionally is ‘avoiding visible motion.'”
Image by Jennifer Bosvert. Gear: Nikon D810 camera, Nikon Micro f/2.8 55mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/2000 sec; f4.5; ISO 400.
As a nature photographer, I find myself breaking all kinds of traditional photography rules just trying to get the shot; sometimes intentionally, and often out of necessity. One rule that I break intentionally is “avoiding visible motion.”
We can get so wrapped up in producing technical perfection, but sometimes a bit of artistic license makes for a truer representation. When shooting flying creatures, such as birds or insects, I find that a bit of motion in the wings communicates the nature of the animal far better than a perfect stop-motion shot.
Bee photography has become a bit of a passion of mine, especially considering the challenges our vital pollinators are facing right now. In this shot, the bee is perfectly lit and sharp, while the wings are visible but blurry, drawing us into the picture almost enough to hear the bee’s buzz.
7. “I think that some photographers spend too much time and effort on the technical aspects of photography…”
Image by David Pereiras. Gear: Canon 5D Mk III camera, Canon 24-70 mm. f/2.8 L II lens. Settings: Focal length: 24mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f4.0; ISO 250
Some people think you’re a better photographer if you shoot all your photos in manual mode. I think that some photographers spend too much time and effort on the technical aspects of photography, and that is not the smartest thing to do if you want to achieve a fluid and profitable stock photo.
Image by David Pereiras.
Of course, this does not mean that you don’t know how to use your equipment. My advice is to dedicate as much time as necessary to reading up on everything your gear can do for you, but don’t spend unnecessary time on this when you are shooting. Focus most of your efforts on what really matters: the production and the people who are involved in it.
8. “Your light meter might say it’s the perfect exposure, but only your eyes can tell you if it’s a good photo.”
Image by Joshua Resnick. Gear: Sony A7RII camera, Sigma ART 35mm 1.4 lens. Settings: Focal length 35mm; exposure 1/20 sec; f11; ISO 100.
I think all too often people play it safe with lighting or rely too much on automatic exposure, resulting in boring, flat images. Your light meter might say it’s the perfect exposure, but only your eyes can tell you if it’s a good photo. Don’t be afraid to adjust things even if the light meter thinks it’s wrong.
Image by Joshua Resnick.
9. “The first rule I would recommend breaking is the one that says you always have to use natural colors and observe the white balance.”
Image by Pablos33. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF 50mm F/1.4 USM lens. Settings: Focal length 50 mm; exposure 1/250 sec; f 3,5; ISO 100.
The first rule I would recommend breaking is the one that says you always have to use natural colors and observe the white balance. In artistic photography, you can have more freedom to play with colors than you might in documentary photography or photojournalism.
Image by Pablos3.
10. “One of the classic rules in photography is to use the correct exposure. I often break that one.”
Image by Cristian Lipovan. Gear: Canon 5D Mark 3 camera, 16-35mm, f/2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 16mm; 5 exposures -6, -3, 0, +3, +6; f10; ISO 100.
One of the classic rules in photography is to use the correct exposure. I often break that one. I think that overexposure or underexposure can give your photographs an extra effect, depending on what you want. In my case, many of my photographs are more underexposed to add some drama.
On the Golden Hour…
11. “One rule I break pretty often is photographing at the golden hour.”
Image by Daniel Mirlea. Gear: A7R II camera, Sigma Art 20mm f/1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/160 sec; f9; ISO 100.
One rule I break pretty often is photographing at the golden hour. It’s nice to have colorful light, but it’s not everything, especially in nature photography. You can take great photos in the middle of the day. You just need to search for inspiration and work a little harder. The only secret here is to practice and have an open mind. Winter is the perfect season to photograph all day because the sun is not so high in the sky. Try to play with the shadows and the sunlight.
Image by Daniel Mirlea.
If your photo is good, no one will care about the rules you did or didn’t follow. The only thing that will capture their attention will be the meaning of your photo, the subject, and the story behind it. It’s all about practicing. That’s more important than following any rules.
12. “One of the basic rules of photography is taking pictures at the right time, usually in the morning or in the evening at the golden hour. However, in my opinion, this is a rule we can often break.”
Image by kavalenkava. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; Exposure 4 sec; f22; ISO 200.
The word “photography” means “drawing with light.” Therefore, it is not surprising that one of the basic rules of photography is taking pictures at the right time, usually in the morning or in the evening at the golden hour. However, in my opinion, this is a rule we can often break. It is better to have a photo without the perfect lighting conditions than to have no photo at all.
Consider this: my most popular photo was taken in Amsterdam on the last day of our trip. Our tripods were folded, and our cameras were packed. The sky was cloudy, and the morning was gray and foggy. Suddenly, I saw the houses lined up on the bank of the canal, and I saw their mirror image in the calm water.
Image by kavalenkava.
After a few minutes of deliberation, I decided to take a couple of shots to clear my conscience. I planned to return another time under more suitable conditions, and I had to use toning when editing because the light was not very good. But remember, this picture was very successful. And the next time I visited, there was construction here, and there were no reflections in sight because of the windy weather.
On Depth of Field…
13. “Isolating your subject with a shallow depth of field is regarded as a rule, but in my opinion, it’s a technique rather than a rule.”
Image by Jamen Percy. Gear: Canon 5d Mark IV camera, Carl Zeiss 15mm lens. Settings: Exposure 30 sec; f2.8; ISO 1000.
Isolating your subject with a shallow depth of field is regarded as a rule, but in my opinion, it’s a technique rather than a rule. I see a lot of photographers relying on a shallow depth of field to make their image work too much of the time. It’s not something I would call out on a single image but rather over a collection of work, or an album, where it becomes repetitive and bokehtastic. There definitely is a time and place to use it, but you should always utilize a variety of techniques in any one scene and encourage yourself to broaden your style, especially for stock because you never know how the image will be used.
Image by Jamen Percy.
Using other principles like composition or color can be just as powerful if not more effective in directing the viewer’s eye or focus to a subject. It can also tell more of a story about the relationship between the subject matter and its environment. You can also raise the impact of your image through incredible detail that keeps your viewer exploring your picture well beyond the initial engagement. Don’t forget the focus stack technique if you are in a situation where you have to use a large aperture.
14. “You don’t always have to shoot portraits at eye level.”
Image by akturer.
You don’t always have to shoot portraits at eye level. I like to change my point of view by going up high or down low. Everybody sees the world from eye level already, so if you want to make something different, change that. I like to take portraits with children from a much higher angle, sometimes with a wide angle lens, and portraits of groups from down low.
On Breaking the Rules…
15. “Don’t be afraid to follow the rules and see what happens.”
Image by Michal Durinik. Gear: Nikon D7000 camera, Samyang 8/3.5 fisheye lens. Settings: Exposure 1/500 sec; f5.6; ISO 200.
The rule I feel is over-followed is “Break the rules!”All the rules about composition, lighting, and exposure are not made up nonsense. They emerged from thousands of brilliant minds over the course of decades. In most cases, following them helps you take great photos. Don’t be afraid to follow the rules and see what happens.
I’m a big fan of consciously breaking the rules when it makes sense, but I see so much emphasis on breaking the rules nowadays, with many people trying to break the rules just to follow the one rule to rule them all: break the rules! Take it easy, let go, and be fine with following the rules from time to time.
16. “It all depends on the situation, and the guidelines should change based on your goal.”
Image by Mike Pellinni. Gear: Canon EOS 650D camera, Canon EFs 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM lens. Settings: Focal length 18mm; exposure 1/250 sec; f10; ISO 100.
People hate rules, and we always want to break them. It’s in our nature. But things are a bit more complicated than you might think. It all depends on the situation, and the guidelines should change based on your goal.
For example, we should shoot in golden/blue light if we’re trying to create some artistic masterpiece, but if we get a picture depicting a famous travel destination in the middle of a bright summer day, it will sell well because most people will see it that way. Similarly, we should shoot in manual mode if we’re shooting in a controlled environment and understand the exposure triangle, but we can sometimes use Shutter/Aperture priority because, when things change quickly, it’s better to have an interesting shot rather than one that’s technically correct.
Image by Mike Pellinni.
There are many cases like these two. We should use rules if we are in the process of learning or want a safe and guaranteed result, but we can cater them to our needs. In other words, try to replace the word “rule” with “advice.”
17. “Feelings, intuition, and your own perspective are the things you should listen to rather than any strict rules.”
Image by RomanSlavik.com. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon 17-40mm F4.0 lens. Settings: Focal length 19mm; f9; ISO 100. HDR from 5 exposures: 7,5s; 15s; 30s; 60s; 120s
Every time I take a picture, I look for angles, light, focus, and extraordinary objects. Feelings, intuition, and your own perspective are the things you should listen to rather than any strict rules. Sometimes you’ll follow them naturally, and sometimes you won’t.
Don’t think about how you can break the rules so you can take revolutionary pictures; instead, let your imagination guide you. The goal of the professional photographer isn’t just to make technically perfect pictures but to create something that stands out.
This image, for example, is from a spot in Hong Kong that is now very popular. I this shot four years ago. This city full of contrasts between the old and the new. The colors are what caught my eye. With limited space to take a picture, I pointed my camera upwards towards the stars. Using HDR to get all the colors and angles, I was able to capture all the beauty of this place while still respecting its symmetry. Rules are to be broken and respected at the same time, and I feel like I did that with this image.
Image by RomanSlavik.com.
Top image by Michal Durinik.