The Rules of Photography – Follow Them or Break Them

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By Steve Russell

Wait! Before you hit the back button, I’m not going to list all of the rules of photography – just a few of them.

Many of the rules, especially those regarding composition have been around longer than photography. For example, the rule of thirds appears as early as 1797 as a rule for proportioning scenic paintings.

The Golden Mean (also called the Golden Ratio, Golden Section and Divine Proportion) is even older than the Rule of Thirds. Application of the Golden Mean can be found in the ancient pyramids, the Parthenon, da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Notre Dame in Paris. I could add more but I did promise that I wasn’t going to list all of them.

These and other rules or techniques help photographers capture images that are pleasing to the eye. Because it makes for good composition, experienced photographers tend to follow these rules without taking time to consider them.

Application of the rule of thirds frequently results in an image that is interesting, exciting and elicits oohs and aahs from the viewer. On the other hand, always centering the main subject, other than portraiture, frequently renders images that are boring, dull and uninteresting. Tiffany posted an article on The Rule of Thirds in April that you may want to go back and review.

Rivertree 1 md

While doing some research for this article, I discovered this image taken in the Thousand Islands Region of the St. Lawrence River. If you place a 3X3 grid over the image you would see that the center of the tree is on the right vertical third line and the horizon is on the bottom horizontal third line. A very good image and one that “perfectly” displays the use of the Rule of Thirds.

Sue Centered

Sue ROT

I took these images expressly for this article. The first image makes you wonder if the photographer was trying to capture a photo of the woman since she is centered in the photo. If that was what the photographer had in mind, then the photographer should move much closer, take a photo of the woman and get rid of all the clutter.

In the second image, by moving the woman to the right third of the photo, it becomes apparent that the photographer was trying to capture an image of the scene that included the woman trying to see something in the distance.  In other words, the woman was a player in the scene but she wasn’t the only subject.

This approach is like the image shown above of the Thousand Islands region. Had the photographer put the tree in the center of the image it would appear as if the photographer was trying to capture the image of a tree. However, the way it’s presented makes it clear that the photographer was capturing a scene that had a tree in it.

One of the keys to being a good photographer, however, isn’t as much about knowing when to use the rules, but knowing when to break them. To capture an appealing image by breaking the rules, you, as the photographer have to know what you’re trying to accomplish and what you want the image to say. You have to know what story you’re trying to tell, what emotion you’re trying to evoke from the viewer, and you have to be able to do it in such a way that the viewer knows what you’re trying to do. When you accomplish that, you can sit back and smirk and bask in the knowledge that you did it. Remember the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

The obvious question becomes, “How do I do that?”

57th st

In this image, taken in the late 90’s in New York City, the photographer broke at least four of the rules of photography – the man is beyond the rule of thirds line, he is facing the edge of the image, almost out of the image instead of having the open space in front of him, the horizon (in this case the sidewalk) isn’t level and the image is under exposed. Yet this image works on so many levels.

When I first saw this image, the photographer and my instructor, Brian Becker, said to me, “You probably don’t like this photo, do you?”

My immediate reaction was, “No, but it really tells a story. I looked at the image and immediately know what the photographer was trying to do.”

Of course, since we were in class he then had me verbalize what the image was saying to me.

I see an old man, probably not in the best of health and with what appears to be osteoporosis, shuffling along toward his destination. The darkness of the image, or underexposure, gives it a sense of sadness or gloom – or another way of looking at it, near the end as in the end of the day. He is walking downhill towards the edge of the photo. Taken all together, to me the photo is a metaphorical representation of the coming end of the man’s life. Brian was correct, I wasn’t crazy about it when I first saw it, but as the image “spoke” to me and I learned its story, I became fascinated with it.

If I could be as successful at breaking the rules as Brian was with this image, I would always break the rules. However, the rules usually work and are valuable tools in our photographic endeavor.

When you’re new to serious photography or in the early learning stages, it’s important to learn the rules and follow them. As you become comfortable with the rules, you’ll know when to break them as well. To a certain extent, the ability to know when and how to break the rules is the “holy grail” of photography. The when and how is important. It isn’t about an attitude of rebelling against the rules, it’s a practiced skill.

In the end, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s your image and it’s important that you like it, whether you followed the rules or not.

”There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
- Ansel Adams

Photo Credits
Rivertree by Moondigger on Wikimedia Commons
Woman Centered-in-Photo by Steve Russell on Flickr
Woman Rule-of-Thirds by Steve Russell on Flickr
Elderly Man by Brian David Becker on Flickr

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  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Morgan

    you know…i didnt even know i was following the rule of thirds when i started taking pictures…i would see something that i thought needed to be in a picture and i just took it at what i thought look great…turns out i have been using the rule of thirds haha

  • Brian Becker

    Couldn’t have said it better myself Steve. Great tutorial!

  • Brian Becker

    Couldn’t have said it better myself Steve. Great tutorial!

  • Brian Becker

    Couldn’t have said it better myself Steve. Great tutorial!

  • Brian Becker

    Couldn’t have said it better myself Steve. Great tutorial!

  • Brian Becker

    Couldn’t have said it better myself Steve. Great tutorial!

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