Learning Photography Without Rules

"Those Who Believe In Telekinetics, Raise My Hand" by D. Travis North

“Those Who Believe In Telekinetics, Raise My Hand” by D. Travis North

The Rule of Thirds. The Golden Section. The Diagonal Rule. The Get Close Rule. Rules, rules, rules, rules…it’s enough to make your head spin. And then sometimes, you need to forget the rules? Where’s the rule for that? It’s no wonder there is a steep learning curve for beginning photographers. I say, forget the rules – for now, anyhow. As a beginning photographer, you should be focusing on learning how to use your equipment. The rules should come secondary to that. For that matter, you won’t need the rules for a while. You’ll want to learn them eventually, but don’t get bogged down by them now.

At this moment, many of you are scratching your heads and considering other avenues for advice and learning. The idea that anyone can learn photography without learning compositional rules is foreign. Learning them is certainly one way to do it, but I feel that it can be restrictive. It’s a lot to think about when setting up a shot, especially on top of all the other technical knowledge you must apply. But think of it this way: It is possible – daresay ‘likely’ – that you will be able to create great photographs on instict alone, even without knowing an ounce about the compositional rules. But it is next to impossible to take a great photo without knowing how to use your camera. It’s about priorities. And the rules come second.

Some History

In order to truly understand the purpose of the rules, it’s important to know where they came from. The compositional rules are not unique to photography. They actually date back to the Ancient Greeks (possibly earlier, but it was well documented with the Greeks). As the Greek art evolved, artists and intellectuals alike started to notice some common themes. Observations were made that some paintings or structures (the rules apply to architecture and physical spaces as well) were more aesthetically pleasing to the human eye if they were off center, or if key elements were placed just so. The intellectuals applied mathematics to these observations and the Golden Section was born. One could argue that this changed art moving forward, but that’s really not the case. In reality, it just made art more efficient. Artists and designers had a template – rules, if you will – that could be followed during planning stages. But let’s think for a moment. As intended, these rules would help an artist create art, a right-brained (creative) process, through a rules and calculations – a left-brained (logic oriented) process. That doesn’t make sense. Or does it?

The thing is that humans have an inner need to understand the world around us. We quantify and qualify every aspect of our lives in the way that is best understood by the masses: Through rules and templates. The average human is generally not creative. We are a species that is dominated by our logical left brains. Even those of us who are “creative” still require some level of training in order to really use our creative mind. Without things like rules, it is difficult for many of us to truly understand composition in art.

It is my belief that rules influence beginning photographers (artists) to try and answer the question: “How?” How do I frame this shot? How do I place the subject? How do I create the perfect image? The problem is that the rules were designed to answer the question: “Why?” Why is this subject placement so appealing? Why does the horizon look better a third from the edge than half-way? This is an important distinction: While the “How?” questions get asked before the shutter clicks, the “Why?” should be answered after your photo is complete.

Bringing The Rules Into Context

I would be lying to you if I told you that the rules don’t matter. They certainly do, and in order to become a truly great photographer, you need to have some understanding of the rules. My goal here today is to get you to think about your learning process as it relates to the rules. The fact is that you will have an incredibly difficult time trying to understand the rules before you ever pick up a camera. As you are learning, the “Why?” questions – the questions direclty related to composition – should be answered only after your photos are complete. Try to apply the rules to your proofs (even the ones you don’t like), and try to answer the why questions. By analyzing your photos in this way, you will begin to understand the purpose of these various rules.

In an exercise I wrote about earlier in the week, I asked you to take 20 pictures, and then immediately eliminate half without thinking, and then eliminate half again, and so on. You’ll note that we never asked you to think about the rules. I asked you to eliminate 75% of your photos based purely on your gut reaction. Without even acknowledging the rules (perhaps you weren’t even aware of all of them), you were able to do that. The thing is that you already know the rules at some level. You may not know how to define them, but the human mind is more than ready to determine what is aesthetically pleasing and what is not. So when you have your photos completed and sitting in front of you, the first thing you will want to determine is if you like each photo. Regardless of whether you like a photo or not, the next question you should ask is why? Why is a photo appealing (or not)? Learning a little about the rules may answer these questions. They won’t always apply. But in the cases where the rules would apply, you’ll start to notice patterns. These patterns will likely fit into the rules, and you will begin to understand. You are training your mind – your right brain – to focus on these patterns, to seek out and find good composition before you click the shutter. And one day it will click, and the rules will become second nature. Then, and only then, will you be able to think about rules before the shutter without your left brain to take over.


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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