Rules in Photography No Longer Apply

Rules in Photography No Longer Apply


“I didn’t write the rules — why should I follow them?” Eugene Smith


It is curious how photography, even when is considered to be an activity with such a high creative component, is plagued by a series of rules about how an image “must” be done. We’re constantly told that the subjects of our images must respond to the rule of thirds, and that it is not appropriate to use certain points of view when working with specific subjects. But the truth is that photography is enjoyed more when these rules are surpassed by understanding them. However, these rules are not entirely wrong, but just out-dated.

We must be careful not to fall into rigidity, and the first thing we have to understand is that these rules are more suited to be called as “aesthetic parameters” that have historically helped visual artists to create pleasant images for their viewers. We as authors must make the final decision after understanding these parameters. Therefore, these legacy guides shouldn’t be the one behind the wheel of our own voice as photographers. The inherited nature of this guides suppose past and antiquity, and some of the rules that have been considered like old fashioned are the following ones.


The Golden Ratio Rule

The golden ratio is not a rule, but a pleasant ratio that happens when comparing two areas of an object. The golden ratio or “divine proportion” was applied to the arts, but ended up being used in objects of daily use. Formulated rigorously by Luca Pacioli in his work “The Divine Proportion”, was already well-known from ages before him. It was defined by Euclid as “the division of a segment in its mean and extreme length.” His definition may seem a little bit confusing, but luckily we have many videos explaining what is exactly the golden ratio (I do like math, so sorry if I picked a boring one for you) and how it can be applied in the arts in general.


The Rule of Thirds

This rule is perhaps the most popular of all the ones ruling the world of photography. The big problem I see with this one is that it has contributed to the popular myopia of thinking that “composition = rule of the thirds”, and this is way far from truth.


Composition is a much broader subject, loaded with topics that go beyond a single rule used for arranging elements inside a frame. This rule tells us that we must locate the subject of attention in any of the 4 points of intersection resulting from the 4 imaginary lines with which a frame can be divided. This leads us to the next rule fallacy “not to place subjects in the center”.


Never center a subject

We are constantly invited not to focus a subject on the center of the scene. This fallacy has been so popular, that is even preached by those that have been inside photography for a while now. Reality is different, and we should not simply limit ourselves to this rule. By centering a subject on the scene we can achieve a higher level of attention from the viewer, and the story is told quicker and in concise way. We should only have the fine-tuned criteria to know when to center the elements of the composition, and when to avoid it, simple as that.


Not Chopping Heads

Is becoming more common to see how photographers are accepting the bold risk of avoiding this rule. Results are extremely surprising when done consciously, and is very fun to practice too, especially on the streets and fashion, as it gives a very intriguing cinematic feel.


Not Overexpose on the Highlights

This is perhaps one of the most curious rules of all. Why? Because it shouldn’t be applied at all when working with digital photography. Long ago, when film was the standard, negatives were proner to recover detail and information in the shadows, ergo, photographers were invited to underexpose to achieve a richer tonal range. Nowadays, we have digital sensors as the standard, and they work completely on the opposite way. Sensors are able to recover more information in the highlights zone. Just try it for yourselves, and you’ll see how noise appears quicker in the shadows and in the dark areas when developing your RAW files than in the highlighted areas. Unfortunately, many photographers (who have never even worked with film) believe that they should underexpose rather than overexpose their photographs, and is hard to make them understand this fact. My hypothesis is that they see a more pleasant result on their LCDs when underexposing a scene.

When working on a photographic series, our aesthetic decisions will have a greater value when presenting them with consistency. It’s easier to justify a decision when presenting several images that have share a common aesthetic than when showing an isolated photograph and to say that it was taken like that because that was the intention for it.