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10 Informal Photography Rules You Can Break

February 19, 2014 by Christina Harman

Rules tend to get a lot of flak, but deep down inside, most of us know that rules are designed to make life better. With photography, it’s no exception. The rules of photography are based on general principles that create great photos. Sometimes though, the composition calls for the rules to be broken.

Of course, breaking the rules accidentally doesn’t count! You have to learn the rules, in order to break them effectively; otherwise you’ll just end up with amateur and chaotic results. Purposefully composed photographs are the most powerful ones.

Olympus and Canon 1.4
image by 55Laney69

Here are ten informal rules of photography, and tips on how to break them – effectively!

  1. Rule: The Rule of Thirds

    The rule of thirds says to position the main subject off to the side of a photo for maximum impact. This guideline is designed to combat the boring and very amateur mistake of placing the subject dead center in every photograph.

    How to Break it: While the rule of thirds can be a great compositional aid, sometimes the composition calls for something different. Survey the setting, and take into account lighting, elements, and contrasting colors. Position your subject wherever they are most balanced. Subjects that are prominent should be center stage. Other times, a composition will be more interesting if the subject is slightly off center. Visual balance is key.

  2. Shooting in Manual Creates Better Photos

    Shooting in manual offers more control over the lighting and depth of field than auto does, but some photographers assume that shooting in manual is a prerequisite for good photos.

    How to Break it: Manual allows you more control when you need it, but it isn’t a requirement for great photos. In situations where you need to work fast to get the shot, or in quickly changing lighting conditions, shooting in AV or aperture priority mode may be a better option.

  3. Rule: Fill The Frame to Draw Focus on the Subject

    Filling the frame eliminates unwanted distractions and ensures that your subject is the center focus.

    How To Break it: You don’t have to fill the frame to draw attention to your subject. When composing your image to draw emphasis on the subject, make sure the background elements are not competing with your subject for attention. A simplified background, or even negative space can also work to draw focus onto your subject, and can dramatically enhance your photo.

  4. Rule: Shoot With the Sun Behind You

    Most of us are taught to not shoot into the light. Shooting with the sun behind you helps to ensure the subject is illuminated from the front, eliminating unwanted shadows.

    How to Break it: While shooting with the sun behind you is an effective way to get great results, don’t be afraid to try shooting with the sun at different angles. For landscapes especially, shooting with the sun at your side can create dramatic and bold images, illuminating the ground and showcasing beautiful shadows. Or try shooting into the sun! Make sure the sun is blocked by an object to prevent the lens from being flooded with light, and meter off of the brightest part of the image to create a beautiful silhouette.

  5. Rule: Avoid Shooting Portraits at Midday

    The midday sun can create unwanted shadows in portraits and close up photography. Morning and late afternoon are considered ideal times to shoot since the sun is lower and less likely to create harsh glare and unwanted shadows.

    How to Break it: The bright midday sun creates bold, distinct shadows that you can use to create unique and beautiful results. For bold and brave midday portraits, bring along some gear: external or pop up flashes to fill in the shadows, reflectors to bounce the light back onto the subject, and umbrellas to softly diffuse the midday rays. Or let the shadows take center stage! Rather than trying to eliminate them, experiment with incorporating them into your shots.

  6. Rule: Blurry is Bad

    Blurry, out of focus subjects are the bane of every photographer. With so many books, classes, and tutorials dedicated to the art of creating sharp images, it’s easy to assume that blurry photos are something to be avoided –at all costs.

    How to Break It: Intentional blur can create a beautiful and abstract photo. Creative motion blur can add a sense of interest and movement to your photographs. To blur your subject, focus on an object closer or further away than your subject. Or slow the shutter speed down to create an intentionally blurred photograph.

  7. Rule: Keep Your Camera Straight

    In landscape photography, keeping the horizon line straight is an important rule of composition.

    How to Break it: Tilting adds a sense of excitement or movement to a composition; it also works well for close-ups. Tilting the camera works best when there is a strong horizontal element to add stability and anchor the composition. Just take care to avoid overdoing this technique though; tilting should only be done if it improves the composition.

  8. Rule: Never Shoot From Behind Your Subject

    When shooting portraits, shooting your subject’s face is obviously very important. But who says you can’t shoot from behind?

    How to Break it: There is something to be said for the photographer who can capture the essence and spirit of a person – without capturing their face. Combining the surrounding environment, with the body language of a person can lead to some very powerful photographs, and some compositions that you wouldn’t normally see.

  9. Rule: Customize White Balance Before Shooting

    White balance removes unwanted color casts. Understanding how your camera’s white balance works allows you the freedom of shooting in less than ideal lighting conditions.

    How to Break it: Choosing when to use the white balance is a matter of personal preference. While white balance is necessary for situations where color accuracy is important, in nature shots, adjusting the white balance is not always necessary. Certain color casts can add a beautiful tinge to the photo. Setting the white balance during evening light will often remove the beautiful quality of light. Shooting in RAW is another alternative, as this allows you to set the white balance during post processing.

  10. Rule: You Can Always Fix Your Photo Later

    Post processing photos is an important part of any photographer’s job. Many award winning photographs wouldn’t have been the same without a few edits.

    How to Break it: While post processing is a helpful tool, learning to gauge an image through the viewfinder is better than relying on Photoshop. Assuming that Photoshop will fix all of your woes can negatively affect the composition of your photos. Taking photos without the intention of fixing them later will lead to stronger compositions, and better images.

Rules are helpful guidelines that can help you to improve your compositions, but sometimes going against the grain can produce amazing results. Just remember, your goal isn’t to break the rules; it’s to create amazing photography with depth and meaning!

Breaking the rules intentionally, to improve the composition, can result in exceptional photography. Learn the rules, so you can learn how to break them – effectively.

Christina Harman

About the author: Christina Harman

Christina is a part time blogger and full time photography enthusiast living in Southeast Alaska. She enjoys travel photography and has taken pictures in countries such as Mexico, England, France, and China. She likes sunny days, new lenses and drinking good coffee. You can visit her at My Falling Leaves or on Google+.

  • EnriqueMorenoTent

    Thanks for the ideas. Shame there isn’t an example for each point. It would have made it much more demonstrative.

    • http://contrastly.com/ Contrastly

      @EnriqueMorenoTent:disqus Thanks for your comment! And yes, good point – I’ll add images for each point shortly.

  • http://af-images.com Angela Ferguson

    Good post. Nowadays, it seems that all photographers want not just a sharp focus but what I call “laser sharpened eyes”. Sharpening is meant for print output, but also keep in mind that classic soft focus shots are also considered acceptably sharp. You’re right that it is all about intention.