Don’t Break The Rules

In Books, Craft & Vision, Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Thoughts & Theory by David89 Comments

New Zealand, 2010

While I can’t yet talk openly about the next book, my time in Jamaica brought me to finishing about 2/3 of the draft and as it slowly takes shape it comes closer and closer to becoming a real thing, a thing I can talk about and start getting excited about. And I am excited about this one – really excited. As I write, the book begins to suggest things to me, tells me what it is and is not, and what it is is a book concerned with photographs themselves, and what they say. It will, if it has to be pigeon-holed, be about composition. So last week on Twitter I asked a casual question: Do you have any questions about composition and visual language that you want discussed in the new book? Among the replies was one that kept coming up; it led to a few new paragraphs in the book and I’m bursting to expand on it.

The question, reworded, was essentially this: How do I know when to break the rules and when to follow them? After thinking about it for a while I started chuckling because what this question is asking is for another rule concerning when to break rules. So let’s back up.

We’ve chosen the wrong word.

There are no rules in art.

There are none in composition, exposure, focus, or any other element of our technique. There are principles of good technique, and there are many so-called rules that once upon a time had a known rationale behind them, but as with so many things those rules broke free of their rational moorings and started drifting. They come to us, washed up on the shores of our craft in so many well-intentioned books and magazines about photography and it’s high time we stopped following them. Art created in adherence to rules is art about rules, not about passion or beauty or any other thing about which humans have made honest art over the centuries.

That’s not to say there aren’t helpful principles, but they are only that. They’re guides to help us make our decisions, but divorced from the Why, separated from the reason they became rules in the first place, they’re more a shackle than a permission to experiment and express. I know the usual response to this discussion is that you have to know the rules first, then you can break them; I think that’s baloney too. Just knowing the rules is useless. We need to understand the principles of photographic expression, the reasons these rules came into play to begin with in the first place, then use or ignore them in the service of our vision as we need.

Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules isn’t usually art; it’s just anarchy. And following rules for the sake of following rules is just mindless conformity.

So by all means, keep the sun over your shoulder, your horizons level, and your centre of interest on an imaginary line along the thirds of your frame, but do it because those decisions get you closer to expressing your intent in this one photograph, not because you read it somewhere. Do it because it leads to an aesthetic you want in your image. Do it because it brings a sense of balance – or imbalance – or because it builds tension. Don’t do it – or not do it – just because it’s a rule. Because some of your best photographs will be made, not in willful defiance of  so-called rules, but in understanding the principles and chosing to use those principles to go in a different direction. When it works, shoot straight into the sun, skew your horizon, and put your centre of interest anywhere you please in the frame. There is no should in art.

No literature professor worth his salt would tell you that you should always use certain words and sentence structures in certain situations. Nor would a serious literature student ask when she should use metaphors instead of similes. Composition is about taste and unique expression and no book in the world can teach those. It comes through trial and error. You play with the concepts, find where they work for you and where they don’t. Like our spoken languages, you add to your vocabulary one word at a time, you learn to play with the order of words, and eventually to experiment with timing and juxtapositions as you tell, for example, your first joke.

Some jokes work because they’re great jokes, but even they can be destroyed in the telling. And some people will never learn comic timing any more than photographic balance or the ability to predict a moment. There are no rules in comedy that result in perfect jokes. There are no rules in photography that lead to “perfect” photographs, if “perfect” photographs are even desireable.

Some of this just simply can’t be taught. It can be learned, certainly, but even then it comes through long days of experimentation, frequent failures, and for some it will always be a struggle. That’s the hard face of it. It’s what makes us sigh a little when we see the work of the masters – if it were within easy grasp of it all, we’d simply replicate it and move on. That we have masters and masterpieces at all is a witness to the fact that for most of us it’ll be a hard-won battle to finding our voice. And as most of us are all too familiar with the frustrations of that battle, that’s good news. It puts us all in the same boat. Floating, but without a motor and having to figure out the damn oars all by ourselves.

Much of that stuff is going into the first bits of the new book. As I said last month, I’m moving on from discussing vision and taking the next step to discussing expression. I hope you’ll come with me, with your own healthy disregard for the so-called rules replaced by a curiousity about how photographs work, what they say, and how to better express ourselves through our photographs. We so often think of cameras and gear as our language, but they aren’t. They are our instruments and they’re beside the point. The photograph is what matters.


  1. Excellent post of the role of rules in art. I like how you explain that rules are guidelines and can be broken once we understand the underlying intent of them. I’ve written an article on rule breaking in design that also offers a perspective on rule-breaking based on ancient japanses wisdom. In nutshell, beginners should not seek to break rules while those competent must break rules in order to transcend competency and become experts. The post is about design but is widely applicable. Good luck with the book.

  2. Although I know people don’t always agree, I find that I seldom agree with someone who is telling me what I “should” do.

  3. I know that not everyone agrees with someone all the time, but I seldom find myself agreeing when someone it telling what I should do…..

  4. Although the photo looks good because of the minimalist look it would look a lot better if you’d respected the rule of the horizon. You should crop out some of the boring foreground. This would give the trees more of a striking and distant feature.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with you, David, because to me it seems like you put too much emphasis on expression and not enough on reception. If someone puts a lot of effort into expressing their vision, then that implies that they think that vision is a good one; if it is generally rejected then it is much more difficult for him to believe that the vision is, in fact, good — the very familiarity of the trope of the ‘frustrated artist’ shows how important reception is in expressive art.

    Someone’s taste in art is formed through exposure to, and interaction with, many pieces of art. Where those artworks conform to generally-accepted rules then they will form part of what that person considers a ‘good picture’. Someone may reject those rules (‘rules’ as in ‘as a rule’ rather than ‘laws’), but they form part of the composition of the *viewer*, so they are something to be taken into account in taking a photograph.

    By the way, I think you could have chosen a more appropriate photo to illustrate your point. I read the photo not as being primarily a horizon but as two equal rectangles of white and black(ish). Equal quantities of black and white seems to be the conventional rule, used in applications from chessboards to the Daoist symbol, and the application of this conventional rule is a large part of why the photo works, to me — I don’t think it would work if the sky was the same colour but the land was, say, green.

  6. I am looking forward to your next book about our thoughts about composition and visual language especially because I am reading right know the book «Pictorial composition in photography» published 1920. 90 year old thoughts but still valuable to me. The author Arthur Hammond writes:

    «Today the artist’s aim is to make it record his impressions of facts, and to express his personal feeling» [p. 9]. «With the aid of composition we can convey impression, and these impressions will be more clearly and more convincingly conveyed if we make intelligent use of the mechanics of suggestion – the recognized formulae known as the principles of pictorial composition.» [p. 13]. «Every human being has many moods, and a clever and competent artist can make a picture that will be so characteristic of one particular mood that others will be able to recognize it. The artist does this by emphasis, by elimination, and by suggestion; and a knowledge of composition will tell him what to emphasize, what to eliminate and how to suggest.» [p. 13/14].

    I fully agree with that. To express something is why I use composition. I’m not interested in breaking rules just to break rules. I put one object above and to the right of an other to emphasis power and the relationship of them to each other and not because I want to break the rule of thirds.

  7. Hi David,
    Thanks! I chuckled also a bit when I read your post… because I recognize so much in it myself.

    I tend to think in gear, I tend to think in rules and composition. because it makes me feel safe, and guided. but it doesn’t really express my feelings or meanings. that only happens when it is flowing. You are the first one I met(well not in person ofcourse) who dares to disagree with the idea of “knowing the rules, before you break them”. I totally agree. At least in the beginning and for a certain type of people.
    But if you want to progress, get further, and more tools to express, maybe that is the time to see what others do.

    Is that following the rules… or just inspiration 🙂
    Don’t know…

    I do find you inspiring.

  8. Pingback: Rules Are Made To Be Broken | Darin Rogers Photography

  9. What a great post to start the year off. I love being surprised when I check your site for new postings and I’m never let down.

    What I think is interesting about the “rules” is how often they trap or mis-lead people. It’s like you said about being forever staying in the rules and ever truly evolving and the compared with people who break the rules with out much intention and just flounder along. I think when people finally make that step within themselves, to have the self-confidence to see the rules as suggestions and instead trust their own voice, that truly great things happen.

    Anyway, wonderful post and lively discussion as well! Keep em coming…can’t wait to see the new book

  10. Author

    Steve – Thanks for the comment and for participating in this community. The avatars you see next to some posters is automatic once you’ve registered for one at

  11. This is the first blog discussion I ever subscribed to via email despite participating in many. First, I am in the middle of David’s books ImageMongers and think it’s cool to have artistic discussion with the author of a book I am destroying with a yellow highlighter and blue ink, and second because I have been willing participant in the “rule v art” discussion for over 30 years.

    When a new photographer picks up a camera, rules can the building blocks that allow photographers to learn and expand technical skill (and operate the camera,) and later, the rules of exposure, framing, rules of thirds etc., are helpful tools for photographers when seeking to take their vision from an image in their head to an image on the camera. But, the rules did not create the vision, they simply assist the photographer in creating the image.

    Photographers using rules of composition to express why an image appeals to them often say “the image would be better if it followed this rule , , , , “ This type of comment leads to an argument about the rules, not artistic vision. If someone can produce a set of rules that will allow any image appeal to all people (heck to some people) all the time I encourage them to write the book – they will be very successful.

    The really fun discussion is when people say “this image would appeal more to me if , , , ,” Then a creative discussion can be had about art and vision, and, people may walk away with new artistic ideas to try rather than a set of rules to follow.

    Who knows why, how and when one artist’s vision satisfies the soul of another? Certainly we know when it happens, but can we really predict it by looking at an mage we just finished creating by apply a set of rules?

    Steve Loos

    ps; thanks for the great discussion David! How does on post a face photo in a blog discussion? I would like to have that in my blog also Thanks!

  12. I just got introduced to this site several months ago and really appreciate the value of insight offered here; by David and others contributing. The economy of writing style is fresh with debate and offers seeds of genuine wisdom to share in areas of living beyond the aspect of photography. Thanks for all the effort – looking forward to the next book release!

  13. David, thanks again for a great post and Happy New Year. Happy New Year to all the readers too. Yes…you have eloquently described what I’ve been trying to share with my friends: In art there are no rules. …the “rules” are just guides that provide an artist some form of baseline. …example: Who says I have to make sure my histogram always curves in the middle like a bell…I want a dreamy “fairy ethereal look?” So I blow out the highlights and leave some essential details!! (just an example of breaking some “rules” so I can more clearly express what I want visually). Same thing with putting the horizon on the middle…sometimes it just works better than way.

    So, THANKS again for a great Post, David! Thanks for sharing your stuff.

  14. John,
    I didn’t totally dismiss outside influences. What I meant was that all the books that you read, all the advice in the blogs are there to start you off on your journey. But it is your journey, which you’ll have to go through by yourself. That is if you want to achieve something in photography. And, again, it is my opinion. and not absolute truth. It is honestly what I think at my current stage of my evolution as a photographer (or photographer wannabe 🙂 )

  15. Author

    John – Isn’t the act of learning about having one’s understanding altered? But more than that, I’m not sure where the quote you referenced came from – heck, I might have said it for all i know, but without context it’s pretty hard to know that the author of the quote really seriously was implying that the input from external sources – like books, and looking at great photographs – are irrelevant. That’s just plain goofy! 🙂

  16. “It is only through ones own struggle (that word doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun), and thinking, and listening to yourself, one can begin to understand photography.”

    Doesn’t the act of writing a book on the topic or reading advice in a blog, kind of mess up that philosophy ? Outside influences always alter someones understanding of any topic.

  17. Hi David,
    I think the main point here is that eventually to become good photographer (what is good is not for me to decide 🙂 ) one will have to walk through a lot of thinking, trying, failing, thinking again, trying a lot more, failing again etc… until something starts to emerge from deep inside. All this talk about rules / no rules it is so much the beginning, it comes even before the letter ‘b’ in the word ‘beginning’.
    I think this is something that can’t be stressed enough, and more I get into photography, more I think about it, more I try to photograph, the more I understand the whole depth of it.
    One can read a thousand books (even yours, though as owner of all your books I must say that they are quite different from most of the material out there), and still not get this feeling, or understanding of real good photography.
    It is only through ones own struggle (that word doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun), and thinking, and listening to yourself, one can begin to understand photography.
    Anyway, it is my opinion, or more correctly my thoughts.

  18. Another great post, David. It’s funny, I had a high school English teacher who, decades ago, told me much the same thing. It stuck with me and continues to resonate today. Thanks again, and looking forward to the book. Safe and exciting travels to you, sir.

  19. David, this was a breath of fresh air for me as a photographer who had a background in fine art, and was constantly being reminded about the “rules” when I first translated that artistic training into my photography. I dare say I even let it intimidate me… you’ve hit the nail on the head when you mentioned shackles… thanks for being so honest about such a murky topic. Happy 2011, God bless.

  20. David,

    Thanks again for another wonderful post. I’ve very much enjoyed your inspirational musings and am looking forward to much more during the upcoming year.

  21. To me there is one useful “rule” in composition:

    “If it doesn’t look right, it isn’t right.“ (Malcolm Armstrong)

  22. Wow David, I love it, love it, love it! Great post. And SO true. We need to know the whys of the rules! Looking forward to your new book. I’ve already bought and read your first two! Blessings to you as you set out on your journey!

  23. Oh man, I a soo dizzy, , , I almost fell over looking at that photo. My left / right brain could not handle the horizon running perfectly horizontal through the framne. . . OUCH 🙂 You know I jest; that is a beautiful image David. I love talking about rules, and talking with the folks that force themselve to view art only through a set of rules. I write an article on Photoshop v Photography after one such chat:

    Hope is ok to post links in your blog. Travel safe David. I am new to your post but will shortly send you a note; we are starting some programs to help families stay together using photography andI may ask a huge favor and bounce some ideas off of you.

    Steve Loos

  24. Happy New Year 2011,

    I wish you well, but anyway …

    Rules are made to be broken, what else ?
    It’s like a reflex, comes automatically, if it’s said thta such and such a way is right, i ‘m always thinking “ok, but what if …”.

    No rules, no creativity in not breaking them

    Thomas Wilden

  25. Great post David. Love this …”Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules isn’t usually art; it’s just anarchy. And following rules for the sake of following rules is just mindless conformity.”
    The picture is fabulous. Love the lines of the branches and the negative space that is layered in clouds.. (precipitation?)

  26. David – yes yes. Perhaps my smiley face wasn’t strong enough to say “that was (supposed to be) a joke.” 😉

    BTW, the joke stemmed from these two sentences: “Some of this just simply can’t be taught. It can be learned, certainly, but even then it comes through long days of experimentation, frequent failures, and for some it will always be a struggle.”

    I know you said “Some,” and that was only one small part of your post. And I agree with what you said, and will eagerly await adding your book to my collection of all your books (and eBooks)…well, and maybe I’ll read it too. 🙂 I really do value your introspective contributions to the pursuit of the photograph, and I do respond to your teaching style. So let me state clearly that I did enjoy the post very much.

    The idea that “there are no rules in art” is of course not new, and actually seems to be quite the vogue today, at least in photography discussions, or the blogs/articles I’ve read. People will reference the “Rule of Thirds” just because “that’s what it’s called,” though they will be quick to point out it’s not really a rule, but a suggestion. I remember McNally bringing this up and alluding to the Pirates of the Caribbean, when the pirate said the code was “really more like a set of guidelines.” However, I look forward to what you will have to say about it, as I know it will have come from much thought, experience, discussion and insight.

    (Though it just occurred to me, the “there are no rules” statement borders on the problems of the “there is no truth statement.” Is it true there is no truth? Is it a rule there are no rules? 🙂 One can try bypassing it by saying the statement is a fact [or even a truth], not a rule, but I don’t think that works. But you know, to discuss it I’d have to, like, think and stuff and I try not to do too much of that 😉 I’d also have to actually care about the self-referential integrity of the statement as opposed to the thrust of the statement, which I agree with…)

    But you know (um, joke alert [and jocose-tone warning] :)), since you were a comedian and you didn’t get my original joke, I can only assume that you are, by implication, saying I’m not very funny. 😛

  27. David, I’ve always felt uncomfortable when people talk about rules in music. Harmony, for example, might look like sets of rules, but really it is a way of describing relationships, patterns and a history of understanding and composition.

    So, I enjoying what you’ve written here and look forward to the full exposition in your new book.

  28. Author

    Duluk – Hope not. Concepts can be explained without creating rules out of them.

  29. It sort of sounds like a long disclaimer as to why the book you’re writing can’t be written. 🙂

  30. Pingback: Finding Your Composition Part 2 |

  31. Wow a great post and a great discussion, at least for my head to wrap around. Looking forward to the next book!

  32. Wish we had edit option after posting.

    I was trying to say that following the principles we see others use successfully does help us. Yet, if we focus on following these “rules” and never let ourselves freely explore by shooting with abandon, with the daring to set aside rules, seeking to uniquely express when shooting what moves us, we may not reach our fullest individual, artistic potential

  33. Powerful post.

    I think the denotative and connotative distinctions between the words “rule” and “principle” (specifically “helpful principles” as you call it) should be rather clear but from the comments maybe not? I clearly see a difference in the terms and I don’t think it is semantic warfare or anything.

    I’ve never read a post where someone even suggested that the rules are not rules. Everyone quotes Ansel Adams on that but to date, I have not seen a post that went beyond telling someone to break the rules into suggesting that these theoretical rules are not rules at all. Thanks for this perspective.

    Also, I will need the following on a t-shirt: “Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules isn’t usually art; it’s just anarchy. And following rules for the sake of following rules is just mindless conformity.”

    LOL! 🙂

  34. Pondering now on which came first: great photos or “rules/principals” on how to make great photos?

    I am inclined to vote that some are gifted in connecting spirit, vision and craft intuitively. We study the works of these “photo-savants” and note certain recurring “principles”.

    Then attempting to follow in the footsteps (perhaps rather than forging ahead “blindly”, we carefully try to apply these principles when shooting.

    And yes, we may not be totally lost.

    However, learning to express our unique,
    individual nature is always more essential than following rules/principles.

    At least that is what I think after contemplating your provocative post.


  35. Author

    Torsten – Probably best we agree to disagree before this spirals into more misunderstanding. If you were here we’d be able to speak clearly to each other and you’d hear that there’s no reproach in my voice, nor am I putting myself on a pedestal. I’m far from being an art snob, all I argue for is the expression is important and rules are less helpful than understanding the reasons behind them.

    I am sorry you’ve understood my comments as reproachful – they weren’t meant that way at all. I apologize if I’ve offended you; that wasn’t my intent. You have communicated your thoughts on the matter and perhaps I’ve read things a certain way, but it sounds like you’re defending the use of rules because they lead to pretty pictures, I’m simply saying I don’t think that’s enough, and for those for whom it is enough, that’s fine, but doesn’t make it expression.

    But what is clear to me is that we’re mis-firing on this conversation. I still believe rules are unhelpful, even harmful, even for the youngest beginner, without a sense of why these so-called rules were established. Understanding is always better than simple mimicry, and if a 10 year old can understand the Rule of Thirds he can also understand why it’s been used for so long.

    You beleive that the connection between subject and photographer is important, so do i, but that doesn’t get into the photograph through magic. It gets in through the elements and decisions made by the photographer.

    Anyways, listen, the point isn’t how you define the word “rules” nor is it how you define “composition” – my initial point was that rules don’t lead to art, and it’s more helpful to begin with principles and understanding and a sense of why people respond the way they do to photographs in order that we better create photographs that both express and communicate our intent.

    You are free to agree or disagree, but I think the discussion’s gone far enough off the rails to keep hammering away at it in hopes of one person conceding the point. I don’t write what I do to change minds or to be right or to create a pedestal. I write to inform and inspire people that learn in ways that jive with my teaching style. Mine is not the only school of thought, not ever the “right” one. Just one of several that I hope adds texture and richness to the photography community.

    But again, my apologies if you felt slighted or insulted, it was not my intention.

  36. BTW, David, the “Welcome back…(Change)” link isn’t working. (Mac, 10.5.8, Firefox 3.6.13.)

  37. I think there is certainly a place for guidelines or rules or suggestions or what ever you want to call those tid bits of info that make a photo more interesting than the run of the mill snap shot. What makes one picture work and another one look boring is hard to understand, but most of us know it when we see it. It would be less helpful to simply say, ” that photo lacks balance ” and leave the person trying to under stand what you said and what that term means, than to give them some common compositional guides, even if you call them … rules. As long as you inform the listener that these rules are not hard and fast. Just a place to start.

  38. “Rulebreaker” is my middle name 😉 Great post! IMHO, if one has a “good eye” and likes a rule breaking composition–go for it. Why not? Rules are arbitrary, especially in a creative endeavor. Breaking the rules is what makes for fresh perspective. Looking forward to the book!

  39. David: I think it’s not fair from you to put yourself on the pedastal of art and to put me down to kitch. That’s not a productive way for a discussion on ideas.
    You’re a better and more experienced photographer than I am and your points of view are probably more solid than mine. Still that makes you not perfect or puts you in the place to talk down to people. I feel your accusations are unjust. I don’t know what made you read the stuff you think you’ve read in my comment.

    What is “harmony” other then “pleasing to the eye” (or ear)? You can have harmony in kittens and rainbows and you can have harmony in “The Last Supper”. And never ever did I argue for anything you’re accusing me for.

    Did I say one should take a “compositional template” and make things pretty? No. I said I take a so called rule and judge it and see, if it does something for me. And when it does, what I can accomlish with it and than utilize it for expressing myself. Thats the complete opposite!

    I think you’re taking everything backwards. If you were honest to yourself you had to admit, that you started out using one or the other so called rules to begin with. Even you used “rules” when you didn’t understand all that there was to it. Everybody does at some ponit. The “knowing of how exactly” for everything one uses is important at YOUR level of photography. And it would be nice for lower level photographers, but it’s of a totaly different importance. I think you’re ignoring the way you took to get to your pressent point. Usually one takes something and works with it and then discovering what it does and then figuring out all the stuff that’s behind the scenes. Taking “your” approache would mean before you use a new lens you have to sit down and learn all there is to it BEFORE using it. I don’t think that is how humans work.

    “What else is there other than the elements in the frame and the way we chose to arrange them?” Well, in my point of view there is for example the photographer that has to make the connection to the subject. When you photograph people or animals and fail to make the connection with your subject then you can compose all you want and wont get the kind of connection (between photo and viewer) another photographer gets, when he connects with the subject (even with the exact same composition).


  40. Wow Matt, that is certainly disappointing – I have to agree with you – I view it more as a suggestion as well, and it’s sad that other judges would limit their view by something like that!
    I would feel suffocated if I had to apply the Rule of Thirds to every photograph that I take – there are many cases where I don’t feel the image would benefit from that rule at all. If I think about something like that as I take the picture, I would be so focused on staying within the confines of these so called rules I don’t think I would be able to focus on my composition. White Balance, and other technical aspects such as aperture and shutterspeed, focal length, surely I think about those things, but not a laundry list of compositional rules. I don’t know, maybe I’m missing the boat, but I take pictures of things that capture my imagination and stir something inside, and I find my photographs are a tool for my own self expression, and I can’t be shackled by “rules” – I have to agree that I don’t feel like there are rules in art that are concrete. Some of the worlds most intriguing painters throughout history broke many “rules” of their trade – and thank god they did because we were blessed with many amazing creations as a result. I think art is intuitive and your soul on some level has a play in what you create. Like I said earlier, the local photographer that creates images that stir something inside of me is amazing, with no “professional” training. Are his images perfect? No. There are times were I look at a photograph and think it would benefit by straightening his horizon – but I’m sure all of us have room for improvement. The most important thing for me is his pictures can be hauntingly beautiful. He went to Haiti after the earthquake with his church and produced some amazing images – they captured the environment at the time so well – beautiful – not “pretty” – not conventionally attractive – but beautiful in the sense that his images captured his version of the truth, and raw emotion…

  41. I have been invited as a guest judge for several local camera clubs, and The Rule of Thirds appears to be almost a law with the submissions the members make. I get a lot of chuckles when I refer to it as merely The Suggestion of Thirds. The chuckles turn to grumbles when I rate highly something centered, like a single flower bloom…they don’t know what to do with themselves!

  42. Can’t wait to read the new book. It’s always good to see things through new eyes. If we are receptive to different ways of thinking then we grow. I never tire of learning.

  43. Torsten – I would make the case that composition is everything within the frame of the image and that if a photographer makes a connection – or fails to – it’s because his composition failed to do that. It doesn’t make the composition wrong, afterall not every masterpiece is seen or appreciated by everyone the same way, but what else is there other than the elements in the frame and the way we chose to arrange them?

    I look at all this as visual language and, again, would argue that to speak clearly and express yourself, you need to know the language. Rules aren’t relevant to good expression, but principles are. We’re going to have a hard time agreeing because we’re using similar words to describe different things. But this discussion is a good illustration of what I’m arguing for. I argue that rules themselves do not bring us closer to expression and more than rules of grammar without an understanding of why those so-called rules exist, and how they aid in communication and expression.

    Of course, there are rules in grammar, but the best literature, and the most powerful poetry, routinely ignore those rules, chosing to place a priority on expression, not on conforming to rules.

    No, it’s not enough to apply a formula without knowing why. That approach words for beginners, but doesn’t lead to expression. Sure, you know it’s pleasing to the eye, but do you know what it SAYS? How it will be read?

    Making a photograph that is pleasing is not the goal of most photographers. I don’t give a damn if my images are pleasing. I want to express something, not make people necessarily feel like the world is full of kittens and rainbows. You’re arguing for kitsch and eye-candy, I’m arguing for expression and communication and understanding concepts like balance and tension and harmony, and knowing what leads the eye and why, is infinitely more useful than knowing where to find a good compositional template to make something pretty. Pretty is not the same as beauty, nor is a limmerick the same as a sonnet.

  44. Melissa: I feel exactly the same way. 🙂 Rules don’t make a good photograph.
    I’m not quite sure if that connection thing has something to do with composition – i myself think that this has something to do with the photographers personalyty. [I use the expression “only an interesting person can make interesting photographs.” but thats an other topic].

    David: So we do talk mainly about the same thing 🙂 And yes – I’m uncommon [which is neither good or bad] and it’s not easy to find out where other people think likewise.

    But what about that: Some artist in history have taken their hole lifes to figure out their way of doing things. And after all that seeking put those findings in … well some sort of formula. The real understanding of this “formula” comes only with a lifelong experience – but it can be used by the half-knowing anyway. One does not have to spend all theire life to get to the points where other human beings got to just to use their knowledge.

    Isn’t it enough to know what apliying that “formula” does and what is acompished by it instead of knowing exactly why? Like with the golden ratio – I know it can give some sort of classical feeling to a picture and is pleasing to the eye. I don’t have to know why it’s so pleasing. It’s mostly only a small piece to the picture and it rarely is so dominant, that the picture is about the golden ratio.

    I take principles like that – I see if they make sense to me or if they feel right. If they do, I try what they do to me and my pictures. And if that doing fits my point of view I use them as I please. Never allways. And the few occations I force them into the picture – they don’t work anyway. I’d say they do apply themselfs more often than I do apply them. 🙂

  45. All that negative space, but first you have to know what negative space is to make it work for you.

  46. Brilliant post! And if this is the glimpse of the new book, I can’t wait to read and try to understand the mind of a wise man.

    I, myself am on a journey to find my own ‘voice’ in photography. Hopefully, it would be an interesting journey.

  47. I have to somewhat disagree with Torsten – I think some people either have the artistic ability to create great compositions or not. For example, we have a local photographer that has lots of schooling and knows the “rules” – but his compositions lack connecting the viewer with the images in some way. There is another local photographer with no schooling, and his images are spectacular and have much feeling and engages the viewer to “feel”. I think some people focus too much on the rules – crutches as you may. Of course they are important in the learning process, but I do believe they are not always necessary. I would much rather view a photographers work that is aesthetically pleasing and evokes emotion and thought, as opposed to a photographer that sticks to the rules and produces images that lack feeling, that are “technically” correct, but have nothing to say. Of course, that is just my opinion…

  48. I always find ‘rules’ too strong a word and that guideline fits much better. I also think that the guidelines are very useful as a starting place for anyone interested in photography. Like most things you should eventually at your own pace discover a world beyond them but I think you have to understand them fully before you can dismiss them. Its all like exposure, its far easier to progress from auto once you understand its limitations to your own vision, than to jump in twiddling knobs before you understand the whys.

  49. Author

    Torsten –

    First, I’m glad you feel free to discuss ideas here – that’s the point. The last thing I want is people coming here for mental food that they don’t chew on and digest themselves.

    I think the problem in discussing words is that if two people being with different definitions, you can both argue for hours only to later find out you were arguing the same point from different perspectives and I get the sense we’re doing that here. I see the common use of not only the word “rule” but the idea that such a thing even exists in art as detrimental to art itself, and would rather see people seek principles. You see the word rule and skip straight to principles, but I think you’re uncommon in that sense.

    As for whether you need to know the Why behind the golden ratio in order for it to “work”, we may again be using different language but I don’t think it does “work” unless you understand why. For me the only satisfying definition of “work” in this case is whether the golden ratio helps people get closer to a composition that expresses something. It’s a tool, not magic, and it’s no more universal in design or art than it is in nature. The golden mean is given too much weight and if my desire is to create something that only works in defiance of the golden mean, then that golden mean does not work, whether I understand it or not.

    However, you’re right. We can’t learn it all at once, and that’s why I’m writing the book. This whole discussion is merely foundational because I’m trying to encourage people to make the connection between vision or intent and composition that expresses that vision or intent. There are certain principles that may or may not be helpful, but I think long-term the most helpful is to do away with the rule entirely and look at why it exists in the first place, what kind of aesthetic it leads to, and then – and only then – deciding whether that aesthetic is the right, or desired, expression of our intent.

    While it might not be “nice” to kick out crutches, it is also unkind to give people crutches that don’t work, and lead to long-term disability. I’d rather encourage different approach and discuss the Why behind the principles, so people can decide on their own if the resulting aesthetic works or doesn’t. We should be talking about tension and balance and harmony, not the Rule of Thirds.

    But there are all kinds of ways of teaching this stuff and some students will learn better from you than me. it makes neither or us wrong. In the end the proof is in the art created by the student, nothing more.

  50. david: i’m not sure if your fighting against the word “rule” is the right battle. because where it seems as you read “rule” and understand “commentment” or “law”, i understand “hint” or “helpfull guidance”. maybe we’re some different personalities in that matter.

    when learning anything complex you need rules to start of and get developement. when you’re on your own while learning, clear and easy rules are the only help for not stumbling through the dark. and when you learn to find your way you’re not a beginner any more – so the rules are not needed any more, but are still in place.

    the rules (or principles) are needed by the ones who have not developed a natural feeling for how pictures work and are useless for those who have. when your out in the field and try to make something and you’re overwhelmed with the complexity of the process – easy to remember “rules” will help you to get some ground under your feet again. when you’re knowing what you’re doing and have no problems to keep up with the situation you can start to call the rules principles and write books about it 😉 but if you’re trying to break the crutches of the ones who can’t walk yet … well that’s not nice.

    what i’ trying to say: i think its a matter of perspective (in time; or for what purpose you’re working (craft or art)) whether a “rule” is a harder rule or a softer principle. and whether you need to know the reason behind the idea of a principle is also a matter of perspective – because one can’t learn everything at once. the golden ratio doesn’t work more if you know why. it workes best when it workes for what you want to show with the picture.

    [i hope nobody gets offended by me trying to dicuss an idea – if so, this was not my intention.]


  51. Sometimes I feel like the “artists” that critique other artists stating they didn’t follow certain rules, like, say the rule of thirds, fails to see the greater piece of the picture and the artists intention. I don’t think about rules at all when I create my photographs – I think of what I want to express through that particular image, the feeling I want it to portray, and if I follow some rule, fantastic, if not, so what! I truly would love to see something more on cropping to make the composition stronger…I know I struggle with that sometimes, and it can make a huge difference in the finished product, and it would be great to hear how David tackles that issue…Can’t wait for the new book!

  52. Thankyou David for your insight into creative expression through photography. That is why I enjoy trying to be a photographer and why I choose to go out and shoot all the time. While I definitely learn from the masters when I read photography books and when I read blogs, I most certainly learn through my experiences shooting different subjects in differing light conditions and with varying equipment. I have so much fun doing it as well. You are so “on” with your comments, and I WILL read your new book, and combine it with my own thoughts and beliefs. You write wonderfully as well. Thankyou.

  53. David, I absolutely love this post and this excerpt in particular: “Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules isn’t usually art; it’s just anarchy. And following rules for the sake of following rules is just mindless conformity.” I suppose I may well be on the path to becoming an artistic rebel 🙂 I look forward to your next book!

  54. as usual when I read your posts I find myself nodding my head in agreement and bursting to get out and express my own vision my own way. you have many gifts David, but that ability to stir the soul of creatives in a few paragraphs, to me is the greatest!
    happy new year, hope all your visions come true!

  55. I’m curious as to how your next book will be different from the dozens of books about composition that are already in print. One of the reasons I gravitated toward your existing books is because I felt they discussed topics and ideas I had not found in existing books. I have to say that I’m a bit skeptical about another book about composition but at the same time curious to see how you approach the subject.

  56. Well said David. I am still in the process of getting in the mindset of shooting for me and your writings are really helping me with that.

  57. I’m always encouraged and motivated here, David. Thank you so much. Your perspective is so refreshing. Looking forward to the new book, as I’m sure it will offer so much.

  58. Can’t wait to read your new ebook! I’m ready for something new after all those visionbooks 🙂 Good luck writing.

  59. “Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules isn’t usually art; it’s just anarchy. And following rules for the sake of following rules is just mindless conformity.”

    That quote will stick with me. Looking forward to your new book.

  60. I may be totally off my rocker here, I am often but… as I was thinking though your words I was also wrestling with something that I have been struggling with for a while. My own “why”. Why do I even feel driven to make/take photographs? What is is about this “thing” in me? Why is it there? I think it finally clicked and this post helped. Maybe this is obvious to most people just not to me. I think we create because we long to be known. Who we are, what we think, what we like, love and find amazing. We create to express our soul and the very core of what makes us… us. Rules give us the hope of a way to communicate. If I line this up here, make that fit there and never have my subject centered then everyone will know what I am saying and they will see who I am. But… if we just “follow the rules” were only expressing the vision and heart of the ones that made them and called them rules. You end up just repeating the same sentence said by another. And when were stuck in a place where the rules don’t fit the location or lighting or subject… we lose our voice. Knowing the principals that created the “rules” will help us find our voice, our own words, to express who we really are with others.

    Guess that was a little more than $.02. 🙂

    Really, really looking forward to this new book David.

  61. Author

    Torsten – Thanks for the note, but I think you’re missing my main point – that there are in fact no rules. Looking at principles as rules isn’t helpful; it’s systemically destructive. We need the principles, we do not need to perpetuate the idea that there are rules in art.

    Asking when to break rules and not break them does 2 things. It gives further credence to the idea that there are rules to begin with, and it suggests that anyone but the artist herself can know that. The answer, if it must be worded like this, is: you break the rules when so-doing allows you to best express yourself. The problem then is that I have to answer the inverse question: when should I follow the rules? To which I must reply, there are no rules, and if there were you’d have to break them as soon as that rule stands in the way of expressing yourself.

    There is math, certainly, but it doesn’t define a rule so much as suggest a rational for our foundational principle. But even the math falls short. Sure, there’s the golden ratio, but that’s only a descriptive idea, not prescriptive – it doesn’t being to suggest WHY we find pleasure in that ratio, or the spiral that’s derivative of the ratio.

  62. very nice. with one exception – the question “how do i know when to break the rules and when to follow them” is not the question about another rule but about an understanding or feeling. so thats different.

    in my opinion the rules are like training wheels. they give you guidence and help you develop your skills. and one day you don’t need them anymore. and you can drive freely – but mostly you’ll be driving upright and well balanced. sometimes you fall anyway and then you realise your own rules (and maybe even can jump or make a wheely or that kind of stuff).

    the well hated “rules of third” for example – this is an importent guide to help beginners to learn more about balance and not keep on making centered pictures. there is a mathimatical background to that rule, but pictures are not about math and so it’s a gentle push in a direction for more expressional freedom.


  63. Wow – thank you David. Perfect timing. Today I am going walking to Caulfeild Cove in West Vancouver. This is where I spent my childhood growing up. I looked at the dock, wharf and cove from my bedroom window every day. Another daily view was Lighthouse Park. First time back since into photography and will think in lines of expressing my memories. Can’t wait for this new book.

  64. After reading this I realized why I love to read your books and blog. Most of the stuff you talk about is not necessarily new or groundbreaking stuff, it’s more like the wiser older brother guiding you through the tough parts of life. Your words have helped me out on more than one occasion. From the strength of this post, the new book will be a great read. Thanks for sharing David.

  65. Love that you listen to what the book tells you it wants to be … I do that, but I absolutely don’t tell a lot of people (the ones in my normal life, anyway)!
    Thanks…. looking forward to seeing the book.

  66. Very interesting topic – I remember learning the “rules” in design school and being taught that, while following them may not produce art or anything groundbreaking, it will always produce an aesthetically pleasing final product. Good for when you’re producing commercial/client work but perhaps not terribly interesting, fresh or artistically satisfying. You’re right – it’s very much a learning process!

  67. you wrote in the text above very important sentence: “There are no rules in art.” It’s so true, the photography is a part of visual arts. Art can be killed by rules and principles, imagination hates rules and prescriptions about how to make a perfect picture. Sometimes even imperfection can be some value, perfection concerns technics rather than creation, in my opinion…
    waiting impatiently for the new book 🙂

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