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10 Photography Rules You Should Break…And Have Fun Doing It

©istockphoto.com/MarioGuti

©istockphoto.com/MarioGuti

Photography is full of “rules”. Here’s a secret: nobody’s ever been fined or arrested for breaking the Rules of Composition. Photography is about fun, creativity, and art, not compliance.

Like all “rules”, the rules of photography exist because they work most of the time. But there are plenty of times when breaking away from convention makes for better images.

Don’t Put the Subject In the Center
This is the first thing beginning photographers are taught about composition. True, a photograph with the subject dead center can be boring and static. But it can also create an intense, direct interaction with the viewer, like this image of competitive youth kayaker Isabel Taylor.

The Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds dates back to Greek architecture around the time of the Parthenon. While it’s a generally pleasing set of ratios that allows subjects to move in the frame, it doesn’t always apply. In this image, putting the horizon in the middle of the image works because symbolizes the equal relationship between river and land.

Don’t Shoot Into the Sun
Shooting into the sun will cost you shadow detail and some color shifts. But in exchange, you’ll get, dramatic light, emphasis on shape and form, and some great optical phenomena. It takes some practice to get the exposure right, but it’s worth it.

Keep the Horizon Level
Horizons are flat lines. In visual language, flat lines imply stability and restfulness; diagonal lines are about motion and are far more dynamic. Flat horizons work when you’re shooting a peaceful scene, but if you want to evoke, motion, drama or uncertainty—which is often the case in travel and sports—let the horizon tilt.

Don’t Shoot At Midday
Midday light can be harsh, contrasty, and tough to manage. But it’s when things often happen. It also can deeply saturate warm colors, create dramatic contrasts, and give you mysterious inky black shadows. It won’t look soft and soothing, but you can make it work for you.

Use “Proper” Exposure:
There’s no such thing as “correct” exposure any more than there’s the “correct” amount of pepper in food. While images can definitely be too dark or too light, intentional underexposure adds mystery or danger.  Slight overexposure creates a luminous inspirational feeling. Make subtle adjustments.

Subjects Should Move into the Frame
When a subject we perceive as moving is heading into the frame, it gives it room to move, and the viewer tends to relax. If you want to create stress, have the subject moving or looking out of the frame. It creates tension—and tension can be a very powerful emotion.

Don’t Cut off the Edges
When I’m shooting sports, I’ll often use the edges of the frame to chop off people’s heads or arms. It creates a tight feeling of motion, constraint, and, stress, and evokes the high-demand world of competitive sports where there is little margin for error.

Keep the Main Subject Sharp
If I’m photographing something moving, I want to show the motion. And sometimes that means letting everything get a little blurry. It can also be used to evoke a dreamlike state.

Don’t Shoot The Back of People’s Heads
I love shooting subjects as semi-anonymous representations of something larger. If this image of competitive C-1 racer Ryan Bahn had been shot from the front, you’d be focused on his identity and his face. Shot from the back, we focus on his athletic, dance-like body position, his relationship to his environment, and the texture of the water. The story becomes about the sport, rather than the individual participant.

Go outside and shoot. But recognize that the “rules” of photography can also squelch creativity.

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