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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Thinking About It

Since the post "Great Photographers on the Internet" the other day I've gotten a number of comments (public and private) that assert some variant of the phrase "you've got to know the rules before you can break them." I just have a small question about that:

Why?

Seriously. I try never to insult specific individuals on this blog, and I don't have anybody in particular in mind here. I'm not trying to start an argument. But this has just stuck in my mind for a couple of days now, and my thoughts seem to keep going back to it. I honestly can't think of a single rational reason why you should know the rules before you break them.

It's not that it's a disreputable idea, just that it's nonsensical. Taking a photograph is for the most part a non-invasive act. Judgement Day never comes; you don't have to account for yourself with anyone. Taking a photograph in complete ignorance of the "rules" hurts no one, costs nothing, and might even be more fun.

The more I think of it, the more convinced I am that you don't ever need to know any rules when it comes to composition. Guidelines might help you to organize yourself (your thinking, your visual reactions) while you're out shooting, so they might aid you in making a conventionally "well composed" photograph if you need to. But what about all those times that photographers have missed great shots because they're too busy thinking about "rules" to see?

You could go your whole life without ever once knowing a single "rule" and who would it hurt? You probably wouldn't even be any worse as a photographer for it. You might even be considerably better.

Think about it.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Featured Comment by Ken Zirkel: "Ooh, man, you're messing with my head.

"I think with anything, you either have natural talent (inborn, or from the gut), but if you don't you can learn it. Rules are just to help you learn something.

"An analogy: Some folks can make a great meal without consulting a cookbook. They just put things together that they "know" works. Me, I can't boil eggs without looking up how long, and do you put the eggs in first or boil the water first.

"In other words, some folks like to (need to?) codify everything to be able to do it. Some folks just go by their gut and get great results."

Mike replies: This comment resonates for me because I can't cook worth beans. In fact, I can't cook beans! I seriously used to buy two cans of condensed mushroom soup at a time because the odds were better than even I'd burn one of them. I used to say that one of the things I liked about darkroom chemistry was that it was exact—none of this "throw in some hydroquinone until the mixture looks right."

22 Comments:

Blogger carpeicthus said...

There is a different feel to consciously breaking rules, or getting so comfortable with the composition that they are entirely malleable, to not knowing them in the first place. *Maybe* not better, although for obvious reasons most of the best photographers will have picked them up along the way, but probably, by putting another level of conscious shaping into your image, or, from an artiser point of view, seeing your art as part of a community of vision, and reacting to it. Maybe not better than the feral boy picking up a camera, but different.

It's the same in a lot of art forms. T.S. Eliot wanted to break down walls of poetry, but he wanted you to darned well know what walls he was breaking. The same with, say, Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman in Jazz.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Mike, I could not agree more. I've been a bit preoccupied this week and unable to catch a moment to remark on the earlier post.

The "rules" so often cited regarding composition derive entirely from painting and drawing instruction, not from photography. They are also far from stone tablet engravings, having been amended, rescinded, and invented largely in response to changing tastes (and aping others' unruly successes) many times in the past several hundred years. That is, they are not "rules" at all, merely suggestions for the un-anchored artist, points of departure. During the course of my studies as a youngster I spend countless hours in art classes, mainly drawing and painting. I cannot remember ever having these guidelines presented as rules.

While knowledge of compositional formulae can be helpful there's nothing more powerful in photography than a talented keen eye unencumbered by obedience of rules. I submit, as an example, the work the late Harry Callahan. He had no formal photographic (or art) training yet he managed to record some of the 20th century's most significant photographic works and to become one of the worlds most celebrated photographers. Better still, he proceeded to teach photography at the venerable Institute of Design as well as at the Rhode Island School of Design for decades. He was a man of relatively few words but I've seen/heard a few interviews with him in which he repeatedly states, "I don't know what a good photograph is or what makes a good photograph." and, "I don't think you can teach people to be creative. It has to come from within." (Paraphrasing.)

Every time I hear or read that "learn the rules before you break them" mantra I want to scream. It's such an empty, reflexive remark. Learn to use your camera and its medium. Look critically at as much photography as possible to determine what clicks with YOU and YOUR EYE. Learn to visually reverse-engineer lighting and to dissect the elements of images YOU like. But don't, don't, do not start confining your creative ambitions with "RULES". They do not exist. Take the pictures that you like to take and let your own frustration be your guide to developing your own set of best practices. You may, indeed, find that, say, the "rule of thirds" works for your own eyes, or not!

11:30 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

I suppose that one reason you may want to know the rules is to save time if you're learning on how to make pleasing - to most people anyway - art. There are things that people generally find more appealing (say, the rule of thirds). Not to say that there certainly are cases where the rules don't apply, because there will be, but if you can keep some rules in mind, you may end up happier at the end results.

Of course, you can argue that the journey is as important as the destination and that the best way to learn is to make 'mistakes'. I certainly have fun learning from my own less than successful attempts. Usually.

12:10 AM  
Blogger aizan said...

that's so true! some people want to know the rules so they can "be rebellious" when they break the rules, except in an understandable and reputable manner, being skillful enough that they know just what to do. what a bunch of baloney.

then there are cases when people get caught up in which rule to follow and lose sight of the picture. that's the worst.

12:41 AM  
Blogger PatrickPerez said...

On other topics, I've been ruminating recently on similar thoughts as the 'need to know the rules before you can break them' axiom. And I come down firmly in qualified agreement and disagreement with the thought, as well as Michael's excellent response.

I personally think that one can only benefit from knowing the canonical techniques of any art/craft. In photography, it would of course include composition, but also lighting, perspective, color (even if only working in monochrome) and for that matter any kind of art history. Being adept at the processes and techniques makes it easier to then create the end product desired.

It is said among writers that no one can teach you how to write. You sit down and write. Feedback from peers can help you to understand how well what you were attempting was received, but the learning comes only from the doing. So too with photography. You can be tought exposure, focus, etc. But those do not in and of themselves make you the photographer that you want to be. Only considered practice (that is, study what you did and how well it worked towards resulting in the desired photograph) can do so.

So in summary, knowing 'the rules so you can break them' is a worthwhile goal depending on what you consider 'the rules' to be. But if you don't understand the tools of your art, then you will never get anything but happy accidents (and as the 8th of 8 children, I consider myself to be such a happy accident from my parents' perspective).

Of course, there is no one harmed from this, as Michael points out. but growth in one's art will be stunted.

2:01 AM  
Blogger db said...

I know what you're saying, but the so called rules are simply a notional list list under the topic: ''good pictures will tend to have these things in common.'' They didn't become established without good reason.

No you don't need to follow these rules, but then your pictures probably won't be that memorable either. Lots of people who don't know the rules will still instinctively apply them because they have good innate visual skills

If a successful picture breaks a few of these big rules, deliberately or accidentally, you can bet that it conforms to a bunch of the others.

Nor should pictures obey all the rules either. If they do, then they usually are so predictable and safe they will likely be really boring.

db
http://dessabel.livejournal.com/

3:16 AM  
Blogger b said...

I think you are right in one way and wrong in another.

If you are a "regular" photographer you don't need to know the rules to break them because you don't want to break them to make a statement. Mabye you want to make a statement but then you do it with the things shown in the pictures, not the way they are reproduced.

If, on the other hand, you are an artist, you might very well try to say something by breaking the rules, but you can only do that if you know them.

So I think that there are times when "you've got to know the rules before you can break them." but the phrase will only be valid when you actually want to say something about the rules themself.

5:11 AM  
Blogger jedrek said...

I was one of those people. *waves*

We have to remember, most people who take pictures (and I'm don't mean just Photographers) don't know any of the rules and the overwhelming majority of that photography is what it is. It's red eye, obscured faces, people out of focus with sharp backgrounds, portraits with loooots of sky. Let's ask ourselves honestly, are these people better photographers?

Now, does knowing the rules make you a better photographer? A resounding YES! But it's technique, and all the technique in the world won't make you a great photographer.

If nothing else, The Rules make you think about composition, lighting, subject matter. Without those elements, photography is as hit or miss randomly throwing together things from your cupboard, hoping to make a tasty dinner.

From personal experience, I know most people taking pictures, even Photographers, prefer to come home after a day of shooting with a lot of 'keepers'. And while many artistic photographers may prefer to get one incredible shot ever 500 frames, almost everybody else prefers to get a decent shot every 5-10.

And who does it hurt? No one, except the photographer themselves. They'll shoot hundereds of frames before they realize that their portraits are a little more interesting when the eyes are 1/3 from the top. That the flying bird looks cooler when it's off to the side a bit, with some space to breathe. All these guidelines came about through natural evolution, and they are grounded in reality in a pretty major way.

It's really easy for anyone who's comfortable in their art to talk about 'throwing out the rules'. They forget how they used such guidelines in their past to get stable footing themselves.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...

Why "rules" even when you don't need them?

After living a little over 5 decades now, the conclusion I come to is that it's because there's lots of people who love telling others what to do.

6:59 AM  
Blogger pau said...

Well, I think the phrase is incomplete. It should be something like: "You have to know the rules before you can break them consciously". If you don't know the photography rules you can't break them (there are no rules for you, that's all).

Also, I don't know what "hurting anybody" has to do with photography. When I think about photography rules I think about the picture itself. The outside (real) world has different rules.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Ian Rees said...

I think learning photography through any kind of formal process makes for boring photographs. People should learn what makes a great picture by studying great pictures. You're right. Rules are for people who like to paint by numbers.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Leonard Metcalf said...

Gotta say I have to agree with you on that one Mike. I often hear people refer to the rules, and at one forum even asked people what they were. Suddenly it was hard to people to state them.

8:57 AM  
Blogger kickstand said...

Ooh, man, you're messing with my head.

I think with anything, you either have natural talent (inborn, or from the gut), but if you don't you can learn it. Rules are just to help you learn something.

An analogy: Some folks can make a great meal without consulting a cookbook. They just put things together that they "know" works. Me, I can't boil eggs without looking up how long, and do you put the eggs in first or boil the water first.

In other words, some folks like to (need to?) codify everything to be able to do it. Some folks just go by their gut and get great results.

9:15 AM  
Blogger chantal stone said...

I was once told by a teacher that we should learn the rules, allow them to become second nature so we don't have to think about them, then to shoot without fear of breaking them.

Didn't make much sense at the time, but I understood what he was trying to teach...that in order to break them purposely, we need to understand what they are.

But my thought has always been this: if photography is an ART form, then rules become arbitrary. There are no rules when it comes to ART. And for someone to try to apply 'rules' to ART, then he takes the joy and spontaneity out of the creation.

9:20 AM  
Blogger dmpbyrdwatcher said...

Concerning the preoccupation with rules - you may be interested in my "Official Forum Rules for Posting Photos".

I posted these several months ago in response to several weeks of heated debate in a popular forum - folks were complaining constantly about the "quality" of posted photos and the "quality" of comments to the photos. One of the Rules addresses specific complaints that "lady posters" were getting more than their "fair share" of comments.

I should have included a satire alert - but it was fun to see how many people seriously approved of my Rules...

Official Forum Rules for Posting Photos

1. Required photo quality for posted photos: only photos of technical merit may be posted.... do not confuse "technical merit" with artistry, experimentation, excitement, fun, learning, etc......

2. The following types of photos are expressly forbidden:

-- photos of persons related to the photographer..... children and adults who are not related to the photographer may be posted (as long as they follow the other rules re technical merit, etc.). Such photos are considered "street photography" and are therefore permitted.

-- no household pets or zoo animals

-- no sunsets or sunrises

-- nothing from the photographer's backyard or inside the photographer's house

-- nothing that has personal meaning to the photographer --- remember we are after technical merit only

-- no photos that would get the rating "good" or "nice"

-- no snapshots (see rule #6 below)

-- "first photos" --- the first 3 people owning any new camera models or new lens models may post - but only if the samples are technically perfect..... no other first photos are permitted

-- landscapes -- generally discouraged, but those with technically perfect OOF water may be posted

-- photos using flash are strongly discouraged as "natural lighting" is always better

3. The following types of photos are encouraged:

-- single flower specimens that are technically perfect (but see rule #2 concerning backyards/inside homes)

-- attractive female models (these photos do not have to be technically perfect)

-- B&W (these work well since technical flaws are hidden to most observers who believe "if it is b&w, then it must be artistic")

-- any type of bird photo taken with a very long lens is permitted

-- action photos but only if without flash and at least ISO 1600

-- car photos are welcome

4. Comments to posted photos must never imply that you simply like the photo or the poster --- YOU MUST HAVE A WRITTEN LOGICAL RATIONALE before you can state anything that might be construed to be a positive comment. Gut response is not sufficient (except, of course, photos of female models where you need only grunt your liking.) No bland encouragements are permitted. For every positive comment that you make, you must include at least 3 official criticisms, and you must quote the official composition rule that supports your official criticism. At least one of your official criticisms must quote the official rule of thirds. Particularly helpful are comments to crop or clone out items of nature that you believe are mucking up any landscape photo. Also, posters should remind all photographers of people to "soften, soften, soften" and "blur, blur, blur" - realistic portraits of real persons with real pores, wrinkles, freckles, etc. are forbidden.

5. special rules for "lady posters" -- in order to correct for the troublesome and egregious piling on of comments to bad photos posted by "lady posters", the forum has determined that no more than 3 people may comment to any photo posted by a "lady poster". All "lady posters" must identify themselves as such...

6. new users/newbies/owners of ghetto cams --- don't post anything. Period.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"It's the same in a lot of art forms. T.S. Eliot wanted to break down walls of poetry, but he wanted you to darned well know what walls he was breaking. The same with, say, Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman in Jazz."

I don't think the analogy holds, because neither Parker nor Coleman were playing synthesizer. The camera creates the picture, not the photographer. The way photographers work--with 35mm but ESPECIALLY with digital--it to take lots of shots and then look at them all and choose what works best. This is not an act of literal creation. Again, it's the context in which I don't see any NECESSARY advantage to knowing "rules of composition."

--Mike

10:40 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

Besides hardly any nonartists know what the rules even are. My sister-in-law's first comment on seeing one of my photographs for the first time: "It's not quite centered."

10:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I know what you're saying, but the so called rules are simply a notional list list under the topic: ''good pictures will tend to have these things in common.'' They didn't become established without good reason."

db,
Once again we're talking about these "rules" as if we know what we're talking about, which is I think what I objected to in the first place (I'd have to dig back through the blog to find it). My question is, WHAT rules are a notional list of the things "good" pictures have in common? (You just know that the Red Baron is lurking in the clouds waiting for this). (g)

--Mike

10:53 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"But my thought has always been this: if photography is an ART form, then rules become arbitrary. There are no rules when it comes to ART. And for someone to try to apply 'rules' to ART, then he takes the joy and spontaneity out of the creation."

Chantal,
So are you saying that this may be an art-vs.-something-else kind of question? Where "something else" is some other kind of purpose for the photograph? I can see some real merit in that. We might then reformulate the aphorism to say something like, "When you're shooting to please someone else, it helps to know what most people find pleasing," or "when you're shooting just for yourself is when you throw all the rules out the window." Correct me if I'm putting words in your mouth....

--Mike

11:12 AM  
Blogger Joe Decker said...

I see a lot of the "rules" as being really a litany of the types of mistakes made by beginning or unthinking photographers.

Not all "middle horizons" are bad photographs, but many novice photographers will naturally tend to put a horizon there without thinking about the emphasis on the sky, or the ground, an asymmetric horizon can provide, and without thinking about the sense that often an asymmetric choice simply "feels" more interesting.

Half-half compositions often are interesting, of course, but many of the examples that come to mind use it to emphasize a symmetry of the subject.

It's also possible to use this rule against itself, using the "half-half" symmetry of a photograph as a "sign" in the semiotic sense suggesting that the photograph be read as a "snapshot" even if the image is in reality quite carefully constructed.

A better rule might be "what are you saying?" "Why are you saying it?", but even there, many photographers manage to say something interesting with their photographs without conscious reflection on the specfics of what they're saying. From a teaching perspective, some analysis seems helpful.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Wade said...

check out Nitsa's site, no rules street photography http://www.nonphotography.com/
and especially what she says here: http://www.nonphotography.com/Gallery/ohlife3/OL3026.html

2:01 AM  
Blogger chantal stone said...

Mike...you wrote: "So are you saying that this may be an art-vs.-something-else kind of question? Where "something else" is some other kind of purpose for the photograph?"

Don't worry, you weren't putting words in my mouth, however I never really thought of it as an art vs. something-else kind of thing. But since you put it that way, then perhaps there is merit in that case.

For me, when I am attempting to create ART, I'm not thinking about rules of composition, or anything like that, it's more of a feeling, and how I feel about the scene I am trying to shoot, how can I translate what I feel to the image on film.

Like you, I don't see the NECESSITY of the 'rules'.

9:56 AM  

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