Photography is not Like Writing

November 09, 2014

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Writing has rules.  

 

Spelling, perhaps, is the most basic.  Although it is possible to break the rules of spelling for effect, there is a limit of what you can do without making your writing incomprehensible.  If you spell anything badly enough, tice mobes mipsbelsteun stiadmae rgni (it becomes impossible to understand its meaning).  I do not consider the rules of spelling to be rules, but rather laws.  You can bend the laws of spelling in some situations, but your words become impossible to understand if you stray too far from these norms.

 

On the next level, the rules of writing entail basic punctuation and capitalization.  Already, we're getting into rules that some of the most famous authors of all time broke.  Faulkner, for one.  Read some of his eight-page, punctuationless sentences, and you'll see that they're still very understandable, albeit a bit convoluted.  

 

Next, we have grammar.  Grammar has formal, MLA-style rules that authors must understand somewhat before breaking.  Proper grammar makes it infinitely easier to read some sentences, but it isn't necessary in others.  Like, for example, in sentences without verbs.  We all know that these rules are meant to be broken, but the author must know that the rule exists in order to break it.  Hemingway knew that his one-word sentences went against the rules of writing, but he still used them for emphasis because he could.  

 

That's the key of all of this: you can break whatever writing-related rules that you want, so long as you know what you're doing.  Often times, strategically misusing language can make a statement stronger than it would be otherwise.  If you don't know that you're breaking a rule of writing, though, chances are good that you're not breaking it well.  

 

You know how this relates to photography?

 

Photography has no rules.

 

One of the biggest lies that you'll hear in photography is that you need to know the rules in order to break them.  Yes, this is true if you're an author.  But for photographers, it's different.  Tell me this: what are the rules of photography?

 

At the most basic level, the only rule in photography is that your photos have to have something; they cannot be too dark or bight to see anything, and they can't be unidentifiably blurry or out of focus.  (Of course, your something could be the out-of-focus blur or extreme darkness of your scene, but then that would still qualify as a visible subject!)

 

Just like with proper spelling, though, this is less of a rule and more of a fundamental law.  A photo is not a photo if you can't see it.  If your goal is to create an all-black image as an avant-garde statement, then that goal is still visible in your final photo.  See the contradiction?

 

Just like with spelling rules, you can bend this a bit.  Feel free to blur your photos, or go ahead and make the photo extremely underexposed.  The point is, though, that your photo has to have something to be understandable, be it a crisp landscape or the empty gradient of the sky.  You can mess up a photo to the point where it is no longer recognizable, just how you can mess up the spelling of a word to the point that you can no longer udfdasuiblfis it.

 

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Beyond this fundamental law of photography, which isn't truly a rule by my definition (Wittgenstein would love me), there is nothing concrete in photography.

 

There are no rules.

 

There are not even guidelines.

 

There is nothing that you can or cannot do in photography; in fact, there is nothing that you should do, in any situation.  Scary thought?

 

Wait, you say!  What about rules for using the proper ISO or shutter speed in a situation?  

 

I respond: proper for what?  If your goal is to get the sharpest possible photo, then yes, you could argue that there is a "best" way to do so (more on that later).  If you want a photo with the right amount of motion blur, there's a way to do that, too, like in the photo above.  But you're the one who chooses whether you want a sharp or blurry photo, and there's no rule saying that you should do one or the other.  The popular convention is for sharp photos in most situations, but conventions aren't close to rules.  

 

If the above paragraph reminds you of the punctuation and capitalization paragraph at the top of the page, you're very attentive.  So what makes capitalization and punctuation a rule, whereas shutter speed usage is not?  Well, just think about it.  There is actually a set of agreed-upon ways to use punctuation properly.  No one, though (at least not anyone official), has written anything about the rules of proper shutter speed usage.  When authors break rules of punctuation, they're doing it consciously.  However, there is not a rule of what shutter speed to use; instead, there is a "best shutter speed" for your intent in a particular situation.  

 

Next up is composition, and it's a biggie.  Quick, what are the rules of composition?  The rule of thirds is first to my mind.  Heck, it has "rule" in its name.  But does it really deserve that title? 

 

Of course not.  The rule of thirds is completely arbitrary, alongside the golden ratio and every other "rule" of composition.

 

In fact, I'll take it one step further and say that these "rules" aren't even guidelines.  You should base none of your compositions on the rule of thirds.  You shouldn't even be thinking about the rule of thirds while you take photos, or about the golden ratio.  

 

If you don't believe me (and for now, I don't blame you), have a look at the photo below:

 

Eiffel Tower at night"Beacon"My camera rested on a concrete ledge a few feet in front of me, and I could barely reach the shutter button. If it had fallen off the ledge, a 150-foot drop would have been its fate. I waited for the Eiffel Tower's spotlight to shine directly upwards, and then I quickly took this photo.


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- Finalist in Travel Photographer of the Year competition.

 

Does this photo follow the rule of thirds?  No.  Is it a good photo?  Feel free to decide for yourself, but I sure like it.  Here's the kicker: would the photo be better if it coincided with the rule of thirds?  In my mind, absolutely not.  In fact, it would be completely imbalanced if I composed it any differently.  (I actually did compose the photo with the Eiffel Tower off to the side in one frame, and it has none of this photo's power.)

 

Okay, you say, I broke the rule of thirds for this photo. But that just means that the rule of thirds does not work for every photo, which you already knew!  The rule of thirds is a guideline that works for a lot of compositions, but not for every single one.  

 

Well, that's what I used to think.  But then, looking through my favorite photos, I realized that the number that happen to coincide with the rule of thirds is low to the point of randomness.  I mean, I'm sure you could throw a tic-tac-toe grid across some of my photos and make yourself see a few intersections, but the majority of my best photos simply do not follow the rule of thirds.  I have come to realize that there is in fact no "rule" that I break for each of these photos, either; I simply took the photo so that it looked as good as possible.  There is no guideline for your composition except what the composition itself dictates.  

 

Below are four of my best photos, two of which happen to coincide with this erroneous "rule" and two of which do not. 

 

Yosemite Tunnel View sunrise"Dawn in Yosemite"When I saw this scene, I was looking over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. I was awe-struck by the way the morning sun sculpted the valley, igniting it with color.


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- Finalist image in Outdoor Photographer of the Year competition.
Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock"Motion"As the waves spread in front of my tripod, they created patterns that reminded me of a desert sand dune. I waited for a slow-rolling wave to engulf the foreground, then I tripped the shutter.


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"Pangea""Pangea"The maddeningly beautiful city of Paris looked back at me as I stood at the top of Notre Dame cathedral. I stared at these jigsaw-like buildings in the distance, and I realized how to capture the complex layers of Paris in a single frame.


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- Finalist in Travel Photographer of the Year competition.

 

These photos just go to show that I composed my best photos how I did simply because that was how those photos needed to be composed.  I followed no rules of composition, and any connection to the rule of thirds is entirely coincidental.  The rule of thirds gives itself so much leeway with its description ("place your subjects roughly along the one-third lines, or along their intersections") that it is probably possible to stretch the definition and find some connection to almost all of my photos.  Like, for instance, the photo below:

 

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Technically, yeah, the rule of thirds grid aligns with some of the horizontal lines in this frame.  The trouble is, there are about a dozen strong horizontal lines in the photo.  Almost by necessity, the one-third lines will intersect with something.  (This is how a lot of sample photos in rule-of-thirds-touting articles are, too.)

 

To me, the difference between photography and writing is that writing has official rules which an author truly must learn before breaking.  Photography has no rules whatsoever, and it can be devastating to your photos if you get caught up in conventions (or even myths) about composition.  If you try to learn these "rules" before you start creating your own compositions, your work will lose its uniqueness.  And if you try to look back on your photos to see what "rules" you subconsciously applied, you'll see things that aren't there.

 

It is a great power to know that there are absolutely no rules whatsoever in photography.  We all know, of course, what comes with great power.  

 

You still need to work on composition.  All photographers do.  If someone sees your work and says that they'd like the frame shifted slightly downwards, you can't ignore their advice just because there are no rules of composition.  If people say they'd like your photo better if it were composed to fit the rule of thirds, remember that they are not inherently wrong.  Beginners are generally not good at composition, but that is because they are refining their skills.  In the same way, they'll get better over time at knowing which technical settings to use for each situation.  The only rules for your photos are those which make the photo look its best, and experts can usually tell when a beginner composed a photo in a way which does not reach the scene's true potential.

 

I am still refining my composition skills.  There are strong compositions, and there are weak compositions.  There is not, however, a ready-made way to make a composition stronger in every case, or even in most cases.  I chose the group of four photos above because I believe that they are some of my strongest compositions, but clearly they are all made very differently.  The first photo's subject (the sun) is right in the middle.  The second two place the subject on opposite vertical thirds.  The final photo follows a more abstract, diagonal-based composition.  These compositions are relatively obvious; take a look in my galleries, and you'll see that most of my images aren't so clear-cut in terms of which composition style they follow.  This isn't because I consciously combined different styles of composition for a photo; it's because I composed the frame so that it would look its best.

 

What most people see as things to avoid in photography (blurry subjects or under-exposed images, for example), I see as tools that can help my photos.  Of course, I almost never use some of these tools, simply because they usually make my photos look terrible!  However, they still comprise a very small part of my photographic toolbox.  

 

I have some composition-related tools in my arsenal, too.  They are subconscious more than anything, but they still exist.  Strong diagonal lines can be dynamic, and it is true that bright items (or red-orange items) stand out well in front of darker (or bluer) backgrounds.  Balance is probably the most important part of my composition toolbox, simple because it is something I think about in every photo I take.  However, these tools are not rules in and of themselves; they are simply methods which can help me make my photo look how I want.  Conventions like the rule of thirds have no place here.  

 

 

Aside from having something to your photo (in the same way that a writer's words must be identifiable to make any sense), the only rules in photography are rules on how to improve a certain tool in your arsenal.  For example, now that you're done with this article, you may want to learn how to improve your technical skills in landscape photography by reading my landscape photography article.  Or maybe you want to learn about balancing your compositions so that you can frame your photos more strongly.  

 

In the end, it's just important that you know that photography is not like writing.  You don't have any formal guidelines to learn and then break, simply because the best photo is the one that is the best.  A "correct" photo does not necessarily need to be in focus, and it certainly does not need to follow any pre-arranged compositions.  And, just like using a lot of "improper" sentences can make a photography article more understandable, everything you do to your photos should be about making them look better.  

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