In photography, always use techniques not rules

Photo of author

Words/photographs: Tony Eveling

Part 5 of 8….Don’t straightjacket yourself with absolute rules…those so-called rules are just techniques. Use them – or not – as you see fit.

There is no real problem in applying compositional rules as rules. But once you are more experienced you will improve your photography by working more intuitively

Eventually all those do’s and dont’s will not seem so set in stone any more

People often say something like ‘when can you break the rules’, but there are no rules to break. There are merely techniques to use or not to use depending on what you are trying to achieve with your photograph.

Lone sandcastle on the beach
Lone sandcastle on the beach

Part 5 of a series of 8 articles that are non technical, that describe my own attitude to photography. My aim is to reinforce the fact that photography in all its forms and formats is fun, highly creative, enjoyable and rewarding. From HDR to smartphones to instagram to large format black and white….Find a little corner that fits your personality and lifestyle…and allow your unique creativity to flourish

Rules sound far too serious when talking about something creative like photography. People can learn to resent rules too. And others can dictate rules.

As always I am talking more about composition than anything else.
If you apply a technique like the ‘rule of thirds’ as an actual rule,
then you may grow to resent it, or you may apply it to everything,
sometimes inappropriately

But the rule of thirds is a technique. It’s not a rule. It is called a rule I think partly because it rolls off the tongue easier than saying the ‘technique of thirds’! I have written an article on my blog to explain my take on this so called rule.

Standard compositional techniques do work, when applied correctly they work, there is no doubt about that. So in a sense they are rules. But you choose to employ them. They don’t work for every situation.

Rules come about because somebody piled up a whole load of their favourite images and ‘reverse engineered’ the images in terms of composition , and the technical aspects that cropped up time and time again got distilled into a set of rules.

So, it turned out that in a lot of those images photographers and painters placed objects a little way in the frame, and maybe a little way up. Then someone said…’hang on a minute…that’s about a third in and a third up…hey, let’s call that the rule of thirds’ But in reality objects were being placed in an aesthetically pleasing way in the frame, not one third up or in.

Very rarely are any objects precisely one third in/up/down and that applies equally to the golden ratio. Elements in a photograph being placed using intuition rather than dryly employing rules.

To a beginner though, I would definitely advise playing with the rules and sometimes even blindly employing them, just to see what happens, then have a go at shooting completely intuitively just to see what happens. Eventually you will get a feel for what will work and what will not work.

Practice will improve photography, and coming back home noting a catalogue of missed opportunities and mistakes is a good thing, because you then get a chance to resolve those issues before you go out again. And that is a process that will allow you to create your own techniques

Anyway, here are some handy techniques….

leave physical space around objects of interest, that way we can see what they are…..

Be very careful amount placing objects that leave the frame, you don’t want the viewer’s eye wanting to wander outside the frame….

If you have an interesting sky and dull landscape then place more sky in the frame, and of course more land if the sky is dull…

Always decide what the subject of your photo is. Then place that subject in the most important part of the frame

build elements into the composition, e.g. if the sky is whitewashed out due to those really bright white clouds you get, then use that as an element in your composition. So you can set branches against a blown out sky which will allow you to correctly expose the branches. Or set a city skyline against a washed out sky to emphasise the outline more, which will help create a more dramatic image.

Let’s have a look at the techniques in this photo…

The lady taking the photo was one of a stream of people walking along the Dubrovnik city walls. As there was a lot of activity along here, I set up my camera on its tripod and composed the city wall against the sky as you can see.

The wall architecture was very geometric, so I placed a ‘L’ shaped chunk of it in the corner of the frame. I wanted more sky in the frame because the sky was nice and clean and fresh.

Tourist taking a photo on the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia
Tourist taking a photo on the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

I wanted less architecture in the frame, because it was busy and dark. Too much of this dark and the viewers eye would be too much drawn to it.

I wanted the eye to be drawn to the sky. Therefore more sky than architecture. However these two elements were always to be my background.

In my mind the subject of the photo was to be whoever walked past or stopped, so in this case the lady taking the image.

Then I waited for a person to walk past, and my patience was rewarded by this individual who stopped to take a photo.

Now having positioned the sky and architecture as previously described, neither overpower the subject, and so the completed composition appears balanced.

No rules, just good technique.

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