John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Breaking Rules in Photography

Why there are rules

In any discipline, artistic or otherwise, there are standards about how to do things well. After all, there has to be some kind of convention for any art form, otherwise there is no "form." These rules often are tried and true. For example, in photography don’t center the subject in the frame because it’s too static and predictable. Don’t crop people’s bodies at the joints, or they will appear amputated. Avoid objects in the background that jutt out of a subject's head. Avoid clipping in the highlights and shadows so that details aren’t washed out by total white and black. Generally speaking, these rules work quite well, which is why we have them.

Like everyone says, know the rules before breaking them

Even though we have those handy rules, many artists will tell you that creativity begins when we leave rules behind. A trained artist will add this caveat: understand the rules before you start breaking them.

Now why do they say that? In part, it might be because they went through all the time and effort to learn the standards, so they would like to see novices do the same before they start shooting from the hip. But there’s a more important reason. It’s hard to recognize why something is creative without understanding the rules that it bends and transcends. Tradition provides a platform from which the artist leaps. If photographers try something different that looks interesting to them, they may be reinventing the wheel without even realizing it - a wheel that maybe isn’t even as good as the original.

Be on the lookout for people who claim that breaking the rules can be creative, but then criticize the way someone broke a rule. They might have their own implicit rules about how the rules can be broken - which, of course, is just another rule. Once you break a convention, you enter a territory where some photographers will love the scenery, while others will refuse to follow you there, even if they also like to defy that convention. They just don't like the way you defied it.

Regardless of what some people might say or think, breaking the rules on purpose should be something that you find educational, exciting, and fun. It’s a good way to stretch your creative muscles.

Whenever you break the rules, ask yourself why. Really think about how your unconventional approach contributes in a productive way to the composition, emotion, and meaning of the photo. That kind of thinking will broaden your understanding of photography, your innovation, and your personal vision of what photography means to you.

The balance between norms and deviance

Creativity involves a delicate balance between norms and deviance. When you push the envelope a bit, knowledgeable people will see what you’re doing.  Some will appreciate it as unique. Some won’t like it because it breaks the rules. If you come up with a wildly different idea, you may need to tame it according to the norms, at least a little, before it can make sense within the art form and be acceptable to others.

Then, of course, there are those geniuses who completely transcend the tradition with ideas that are brilliantly new.  Sometimes they are admired for being the geniuses they are. Sometimes they are condemned. Sometimes they are long dead before anyone even notices. Most of them did master the conventions before they took flight.

When breaking rules becomes a trap

Breaking the rules just to break them can become a trap. It turns into as much a knee-jerk reaction as always sticking to the conventions. Persistently rebellious behavior of any kind is anything but a form of freedom. It's another edict. In photography, it’s not so much breaking the rules that leads to creativity. It's being willing and able to set aside the conventions in order to see and capture something new. It's simply forgetting the rules.

The creative personality

Research into the personality style of talented artists often shows that they are not particularly concerned about authority; they like ambiguity and complexity; they are open to new experiences; they don’t fear losing control; they like to be independent, to play and explore. They are not trying to break outside the boundaries of convention, they just venture to where their imagination takes them.

What are your rules?

So, what are your favorite rules to break? Why do you like to break them? On the other hand, what are the rules about how to shoot, process, and think about images that you consider sacrosanct? … What would it be like to break them too? What would it be like to assume everything you know is wrong?

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche