F/ The Rules

In A Beautiful Anarchy, Pep Talks, The Life Creative by David23 Comments

Several years ago, we were enjoying a lively dinner in Oaxaca, Mexico during the Day of the Dead festivals, a small group of us together on a workshop, when the table across from us got up, all of them photographers, all of them hung heavily with gear. They fumbled with their stuff, excited to get out to make photographs in the falling dark and growing crowds, when I heard one woman say, quite adamantly, to another, “Now, remember, your F should be 5!”


My F?


My lens doesn’t even have a 5.

There may well have been a context for this advice that none of the rest of us heard, but it has since become a bit of a mantra to me.

Photographers are very keen on prescriptive advice, formulae, and recipes. At the beginning, as we learn, they might not even be that harmful. But they sure do stand in the way of getting to something better: understanding. Understanding tends to put us into a place where we can flex our creativity. Understanding helps us problem-solve and trouble shoot. It’s understanding that allows us to “know the rules then break them,” though I still contend there are no rules. Formulae and recipes have a nasty way of confining us, pushing our expression into a narrow template, encouraging homogeny and mediocrity. They can be helpful, for a time, but they must be transcended.

It’s why I die a little inside when a student asks, “what lens should I use?” I know what they mean. I know it’s meant well. But far, far more important to our work than using the “right” lens is the ability to choose, to play, to experiment, to fail, and to learn. My answer is meant gently, and with respect: you tell me. But consider striking the word “should” from your vocabulary.

Art is about possibility more than about propriety. It’s about creativity, not conformity. “Rules,” as my friend, colleague, and hero, Freeman Patterson has said, “do not give a damn about your creativity. It is not how we make our photographs that is important, but that we make them.” Indeed.

F/ the rules. It has always been, and will always be the ones that break the rules, ignore them, or deny them outright, and find a new way, an authentic way, of doing things, that will make interesting art, tell great stories, live amazing lives, and change the world. We do this, not for the sheer defiance of it, but in celebration of the human spirit that has always longed to exceed its bounds, to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” as King Lear’s Edgar so poignantly reminds us. We do it because rules, at least in art, have always been so heartbreakingly unable to express the best of what we are, and the fullness of the things we long to say.

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  1. There are no rules! And there’s no damn box to think outside of either… Learn how to use your tools & go make a photograph the best, most inspired way that you can.

  2. I have been in both camps. I studied to figure out the “formula” , then I found the joy in taking my photos and was no longer critical of myself if I forgot the “formula”. It is a process and we need to hear from professionals like you to reach beyond the basics. Thank you.

  3. Throwing all the rules straight in the trash allowed me to develop a style entirely unique to me, to the point that I now have people paying me to create in that style for them (say whaaaa?!).

    I think play is ABSOLUTELY #1. We were born to play. If we’re not having fun, what’s the point?

      1. Totally agree with the sentiment, but I don’t believe there is any special merit in breaking the rules, just that you know when and how to do so when it makes your image or story stronger or more impactful.

        1. Author

          Agreed, Tom. There is no special merit in it. Which is why I argue, ultimately, that there are no rules. Understand how things work, obey your vision, find the best and most authentic way to express that vision. The point is the making of photographs that connect and compel, not obedience to rules, breaking of rules, or denial of the existence of rules. But to make those compelling images I think the rules (if they exist, which they don’t) would bind us where we ought to be free. Again, I encourage people to understand the principles and the whys, and then follow the muse and work hard. But I can’t for the life of me think of a single, actual, rule. Focus? Expose for highlights? Thirds? All are better explained by exploring the underlying principles and ideas and leaving it at that.

          1. David, I think you are a hybrid of styles. On one hand, I sense that you tend to think along the lines of a photo-journalist, where the photographer is are after the story, the emotion, the drama. There is no time for any rules. Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!!!! There are no rules with this sort of style. Here is where it gets interesting for me, because while I truly believe you have the the sole of a top notch field photo-journalist/war corespondent, you also retain the stylized thought pattern of a landscape photog, where you work the scene, and work it, and work it, and work it. You have created, perhaps, a whole new genre. LOL

            …now that I think about it there was “one rule” of photo journalism: “F9 and be there” F Whaaaaaaa?????? LOL

  4. My favourite quote on the subject: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso
    And still the pigeon is 100% compliant with the rules of thirds… 🙂

  5. David I love your stories and photos and think of you as the Zen master of photographic expression. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  6. Ha! I remember that moment vividly. And it still makes me giggle.

  7. PS: This isn’t really “winning” as I do get my work out on a consistant basis, it’s just a bit of frustration with the small mindedness one encounters, at times.

  8. I totally agree with what you are saying, however having been in the creative world for more years than I care to remember I have constantly come up against gallery owners, curators and judges that what all you work to be “of a piece” i.e. the same.
    They will tell you that then they know what to expect from you. Trouble is, I don’t want them to “know what to expect.” I don’t even want to know “what to expect.”

    If the creator wanted everything to be the same, the universe would be about the size of a dime, we’d all look and think the same and there would be no mystery in existence. If I were to give in to their expectations I would feel like an ocean in a bottle!

    One can’t help but have somewhat of a style, but that comes from personal preferences and one’s way of seeing, not from limiting your vision of the universe. So much of this world is facinating to me and I will continue to caputure whatever catches my interest.

    Now, the only reason this is important to me is that I enjoy having my work in galleries and shows so as to be out in front of the public, and it becomes tiresome sometimes in dealing with the folks between me and said public. 😉

    That said, I have always appreciated the diversity in your work, David. It really shines through.

    1. The thing about having a recognizable style is that for me, at least, my style varies greatly according to subject matter, mood, and the gear or medium I happen to have on hand.

      When it comes to shooting digitally with carefully placed studio strobes, my photos usually have a certain look, and I aim to keep the subject’s eyes razor sharp. But when I’m out shooting some oddball film emulsion with a toy camera (that, by definition, has few if any exposure controls), I tend to shoot from the hip and do wildly experimental shots. I’ll deliberately point a plastic lens in the direction of the sun to add extravagant flares to the image. Sometimes it works well, and I come away with photos I love – full of imperfections and in violation of practically all the “rules.”

      So, yeah – F the rules.

  9. I don’t often ask ‘what lens should I use?’ For me it’s a matter of having to use what I have. So I learn and hopefully manage to do well and improve within that and I have a great group of friends who are more than willing to help. Again your words of rules and creativity strike a cord with me as the more I shoot the more I realize that I like breaking the rules and I love being creative. I was recently in Point Pelee (on the best day they’ve had in years apparently and my first birding adventure, what luck) and as exciting as it was to see all those species in one place in such numbers, I was still more drawn to the color of the water as it met the sky and the formations of the waves as they hit the beach. I almost felt guilty being with all those photographers who love to shoot birds and I’m shooting something else. 🙂 So thank you for the words of encouragement for they’re helping me to discover what it is I love to shoot.

    p.s. I also recently saw you at LATOW in Mississauga (and got up the nerve to introduce myself…lol) That was a wonderful day as well and your presentation was fantastic.


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