Break the Rules

Photography ‘rules’ can help us to create more balanced, visually pleasing images but they can also stifle creativity so it is important to know when to break them.

When we first start out in photography we all find that adhering to a few basic rules has a dramatic effect on the quality of our images.

But adhering to those rules religiously can stifle creativity.

In this article I take a look at three common ‘rules’ and share occasions when it helps to break them.

Foreground ‘Interest’

All landscape photographs need a foreground. Something to create depth in order to give the image a 3 dimensional feel.

Poppycock!

It is certainly true that many images benefit from having a strong foreground but in my opinion there are just as many where it is unnecessary. I often find a strong foreground to be districting drawing attention away from the main subject.

The view of the Langdale Pikes across Elterwater
In this image of Elterwater the rocks in the foreground are too dominant drawing the attention away from the main subject which is the Langdale Pikes in the distance.

One of my pet hates in landscape photography is the use of a ‘lazy’ foreground. When the photographer includes something like a rock simply because it is there and is convenient. This is something that I have been, and continue to be, guilty of. I never claimed to be perfect!

Many of the ‘rocks’ that I see in landscape photographs are not interesting, more like foreground boredom!

Generally, when I remember, my approach to photography is to try to eliminate as many distractions as possible from my images. I try to only include foregrounds on occasions when they compliment the main subject.

Dawn over Ullswater from the beach at Glencoyne
I generally try to eliminate all distractions from my images. Dominant foregrounds often draw the attention away from the main subject.
The Rule of Thirds

I love the Rule of Thirds. I use it all of the time to help create more harmonious and balanced compositions.

In most of my images I am looking to create a feeling of serenity and calmness. Look through my photographs and you will find that most of the time I place my horizon on either the top or bottom third and my main subject on one of the four intersections.

The concrete jetty at Isthmus Bay on Derwent Water
This composition adheres to the rule of thirds. The horizon has been placed on the top third and the jetty has been placed on the righthand third.

However, there are couple of occasions when we want to break the rule of thirds.

The first is when shooting reflections. Instead of placing the horizon on either the upper or lower third here it is often far more visually pleasing to run it right through the middle of the image.

The island at High Dam near Finsthwaite
Shooting reflections is one time when you might want to consider breaking the rule of thirds.

The second occasion when it is useful to break the rule thirds is when you want to grab the viewers attention. Placing the subject in the middle of the frame creates discord and if used effectively can draw the viewers attention to precisely where you want it.

This can be a very hand technique if there is little seperation between the subject and the background particularly when combined with a vignette.

A typically pastoral scene at Glencoyne
Placing the subject in the middle of the frame can help to pull the pull the viewers attention to precisely where you want it. In this example I can’t help focusing on the tree even though it blends into the background slightly.
Protect the Highlights

Whilst not necessarily a rule as such one of the first things that we learn as photographers is not to clip the highlights.

Generally, for 99.9% of my shots I try my hardest to protect my highlights particularly in the sky. This has led to me investing a king’s ransom in ND graduated filters! But in some circumstances ND grads can lead to an unnatural, muddy looking sky which isn’t to my taste.

Occasionally, in order to get the mood and feeling that I am after, I like to blow out the sky completely. Sometimes, particularly when shooting into the sun, it is impossible to avoid clipping the highlights. At such times I like to exaggerate the effect rather than fight against it.

Cherry Holm on Ullswater silhouetted by the bright sunshine
When shooting into the sun can often be impossible to protect the highlights. On this occasion I chose to completely blow out the sky in order to create a visually striking image.

There are many rules that can help us to create better composed images. As our experience increases these rules can become ingrained in us so that we follow them almost subconsciously.

But knowing when to break the rules can help us to create more visually stimulating images and who doesn’t want a bit of that!

16 thoughts on “Break the Rules”

  1. Intersting article Chris, I especially like you attitude to blowing out the sky at the end – the image looks great so maybe I’ll be a lttle less ‘ND grad happy’ next time I’m faced with the same issue.

  2. Just watched your video on YouTube and now just read this blog. I can relate so much to this cause I have these exact doubts in my head all the time! If everyone followed the same rules, it would all get too boring and become the same thing, so I agree completely! So nice to hear someone speak so much truth for once in photography. Thank you so much for this Chris, it’s really gave me a different perspective on things!

    1. Hi Ross, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, I really appreciate it. This has struck a nerve with quite a few people. When I first started out I saw a huge improvement in my work when I started to following some of the rules. The rule-of-thirds (still a favourite), foreground interest, leading lines, the rule-of-odds. Over time these became ingrained in me so that I did it almost without thinking. My fear is that this has had a negative effect on my creativity. Breaking the rules has been so liberating I hope I continue to do it more often.

  3. I think composition rules are a bit like style. If you develop one style you restrict your options to do something appropriate to the scene in front of you. I remember going to a Charlie Waite exhibition and seeing fantastic rich lakeland scenes next to ‘blown out’ white images of boats in the far East. Great examples of breaking rules and not slavishly sticking to one style. The rules often work but sometimes they don’t and you need to shoot based on your gut instinct. Good video and blog Chris.

    1. Hi Steve, I love Charlie Waite’s work. I remember the thrill that I got when he left a comment on one of my Instagram posts earlier in the year. At the moment I am still trying to develop my own personal style so I read your comment with great interest. I hope that by developing my style my work will one day become instantly recognizable (ha! fat chance) in the same way that say Michael Kenna’s is. But I can now see how that has the potential to limit creativity in the same way as always sticking to the rules.

      1. Chris
        I have just downloaded Charlie’s e-book and the variety of styles and treatments is one of the delights for me. All stunning but in very different ways. And a true gentleman.

  4. Hi Chris, I share your sentiments on requiring foreground interest and how it can detract from the image if one is just “thrown in”. It seems whenever I feel obligated to find a foreground interest it often leaves me frustrated and as a result those images seem to lack the excitement I felt at the time.

    In looking at your Elterwater example you can definitely see how the rocks going horizontal across the image seem to say “stop” and don’t showcase the peaks. Whereas if they lead towards the Langdale Pikes it would be a natural foreground interest.

    Great topic as always, keep up the good work!

    1. Hi David, probably the photographer who has most influenced me is Michael Kenna. His minimalistic approach has inspired me to seek to remove as many distractions from my images as possible (when I remember to that is). The first to go is usually any element of foreground but it also encourages me to use longer focal lengths than you might otherwise expect; recently I’ve been getting more use out of my telephoto which obviously limits the opportunity to include foregrounds considerably.

  5. I so agree. Especially rocks or logs in the foreground on a lake seen. It’s been done to death and I just find myself saying… there goes the bog standard foreground interest again… yawn
    Great read and great channel you have.
    All the best from NZ

    1. Hi Nick, did you like my comment about foreground boredom? 🙂 What’s worse for me is that I often see photographers here in the Lake District using wide angle lenses to get right up close to those rocks, filling the frame and pushing the primary subject away into the distance. I get it that a strong foreground can add depth to a photo but that’s completely over doing it.

  6. Chris,

    I really like both of the photos that feature the island. So many other great possibilities there depending on the ever-changing light. You make some good points about rules and when to break them. I have a bad habit of breaking an even more basic rule which is to get things in sharp focus. I often get carried away with a composition and ignore shutter speed assuming that as long as I’m on the tripod, it’s not important! Bad habit.

    1. Hi Jeff, I rarely consider shutter speed too, unless I am going for a long exposure. I am not a fan of shooting in windy conditions. I recall one occasion this year when I climbed up High Rigg to get a shot of Blencathra. It was so windy at the top that I could get a sharp shot no matter what I tried. Other than that I don’t usually struggle to get sharp images. Am I missing something?

  7. Well, the biggest misunderstanding is that there are rules in photography to start with. There aren’t. Photography is a form of art and it’s up to the artist to find a way to communicate their message. These so-called rules are recommendations, they shows us what has worked in the past and works today, and as such continue to be a great help.

    Then again, there’s no rule stating you need to go to work everyday either. You’re free to decide. There may be consequences following your own free will, but no one makes you go to work.

    That’s the thing about freedom, you’re free to fail, too.

    1. Personally I like to follow the rules (or recommendations as you quite rightly call them). Certainly the rule of thirds helped me when I was just starting out. How about you, do you have a favourite?

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