RULES: An Enemy of Personal Expression

Please do… it is an “honest article” and I’m sure your readers will love hearing it in your voice.



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@Cole_Thompson I agree with John (I am a little surprised he said a nice thing to you!). I think it would be very worthwhile for you to write up your thoughts on this topic. Your insights and examples could be a quite valuable addition to the conversation.


You caught me at a good time… :). Cole has been quite nice to me recently. I feel I must be nice back. After all, he taught me all I know about B&W photography…

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The biggest issue with all these ‘rules’ is that’s exactly how they are too frequently offered up. Were they provided as ‘guidelines’, or ‘jumping off points’, or some other less restrictive/judgmental phrase, some of them could prove as useful as learning the principles of visual design. Some of them. Some are just bogus no matter how the pie is sliced.

Another aspect is that everyone needs to start somewhere. Very few new photographers are so naturally gifted that no direction/advice/words of wisdom from the more experienced is needed. For me, there is a lot of truth in HCB’s quote…“Your first 10000 photographs are your worst.” Undoubtedly, the number varies for each of us, but the point is well made. It takes time to learn what works for each of us. And it’s equally important to learn what doesn’t. ‘Guidelines’ can be useful.

I would absolutely love to see more online educational tools that addressed things like color theory, symbolism in photography, creating ‘projects’ (or ‘series’, pick your terminology), telling a story with photography…and probably others. Sadly, everyones asks about EXIF data, but hardly anyone ever asks…'What motivated you to stop…at this particular location…at this particular time…and raise camera to eye? What are you attempting to express with this image?"

Sarah, your article came at a great time for me. Before I knew all of the photography rules, my images were filled with “me”, they certainly needed refinement but I just photographed what I loved and the way I saw the subject.

When I became a member of a couple of photography sites, there were two sided compliments, a good photo but with criticisms and judgments that I wasn’t following the photography rules. So I set out to learn them and to realign my photography with the way I was supposed to.

In fact, my most recent photography related education was a series of lectures from a long-time National Geographic photographer. I learned a lot from him but I began to feel a sense of loss of my personal connections with nature photography. When I finished with the series, I felt confused, I was struggling to work though how to photograph the way I am most creative and apply all of the rules he laid out.

The recent posts by you and another photographer on nature photographers network have been enlightening and are helping me to sort through the challenges I’ve been faced with.

Thank you for your helpful insights.

@Alan_Kreyger Thanks so much for the kind comment. I hope that my experience helps others push through some of the obsession with rules and conventions faster than I was able to do so myself.

@Matt_Lancaster Thank you for the comment. I wish more introductory nature photography resources focused on visual design basics and learning about light instead of pushing conformity with the rigid conventions of the field. It would be a wider framework for experimentation from the very first stages of learning this craft.

@Igor_Doncov Thank you for the comment. I think your framing highlights one of the challenges with this topic overall. Many photographers start off as seeing themselves as camera operators rather than artists. This encourages an orientation toward rules and conventions from the very beginning. If photographers saw more of a mix of art and craft from the beginning, I think the field would benefit in terms of a greater openness to experimentation and alternative approaches.

@Thighslapper Thank you for the comment. At least with art school, someone is likely to encounter teachers who encourage experimentation. In this field, the first pieces of advice a new photographer encounters are “do this/not that” articles and videos. I think the field would be better off if photography educators would simply stop talking about practices in terms of right and wrong.

@luka Thanks so much for the comment, Luka. I think the hard part is the “leaving behind” of the baggage. It can take a lot of effort to establish new habits so I think this field would be better off if we focused less on indoctrinating the right ways of thinking (“good light” as a very simple example) in favor of basic principles that can be applied in a lot of different ways (learn to work with all kinds of light and see what you like best). That would help skip the re-programming step that trips up a lot of us. And, I agree about social media but that is a whole other can of worms.

@Ben_van_der_Sande Thanks so much for the comment. Yes, making images for yourself is so important to personal expression. It is a hard road given the pressures of social media but often a more fulfilling one.

@John_Barclay Thank you for the kind comment. I always appreciate your support, John. Also, I am glad that you and Cole have reached a point of peace and kindness with one another! :slight_smile:

@rjWilner I fully agree with your comment and hope my similar ideas came through in my article. Guidelines and a place to start are helpful. My issue is with the judgement that comes with advice for new photographers. It is so tiresome to see articles and tutorials about the right way to do photography. I think it would be more productive to start with basic principles and show how they can be applied in a lot of different ways. This allows more room for personal interpretation and application of ideas than calling advice the rules or the best approach. I am so glad that NPN is around to serve as a forum for these discussions.

@laurasputman Your post makes me so sad. I hope that you are able to find your way back to creating photos that you love. You could find it helpful to take a break from learning from photographers and just seeing where your own ideas will take you. Cole Thompson’s photo celibacy ideas are a great place to start with this kind of practice. I loosely used Cole’s ideas for about a year and it was space for me to find myself in my work. You might also find graphic design resources to be helpful - like learning visual design principles through the eyes of another field and then applying those ideas to your photography. I find this to be a much more flexible approach than what is taken by most photography educators. I wish you the best in your journey and hope you find what personal expression means for you, even it is all a continual work in progress.

@Sarah_Marino, thank you for writing and sharing this article. You did a masterful job of expressing, in words, the tension many nature/landscape photographers feel these days. Not only that, but you also offered up some great advice about how to move past the rigidity and move towards a greater freedom of artistic expression. I love that!

As someone relatively new to nature photography, if I’m honest, I often feel this pull toward bigger, brighter, and bolder, as that is generally what garners attention and feeds my ego. However, the more I learn and grow, the more I am drawn to photographers who have chosen contemplative photography, even if the consequences of doing so could mean a career of relative obscurity. To my mind, that decision to choose artistic integrity is an act of bravery. My goal is to approach my own photographic journey with that same courageous and adventurous spirit, as I’ve observed of those in this wonderful community.

@Sarah_Marino Agree 100% with your distaste for the judgmental aspect of how some ‘teaching’(?) is presented. It’s probably not fair to paint with an overly broad brush, but my internal suspicion meter starts ratcheting up when I see the ‘one true way’ approach being utilized.

Thank you very much for your thoughts. I am impressed with your sense of color, light and patterns thank you.
As a photographer and a painterI have often been challenged with the rule of thirds and golden spiral. I believe they are good guidelines. However! I will let this quote speak for my feelings about rules.

When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial cliches.

Edward Weston

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Hi Sarah, since your appearance on Matt Payne’s blog I have become a fan of your work as well as your teachings and overall photographic philosophy.
I enjoyed this article, (but I thought it was bit long, sorry) for all the reasons all ready expressed in previous responses. I would like to add that even though these “rules” are presented as hard fast rules I look at them as guides. After all, as is such in any profession, hobby, or endeavor, one should know the rules to know when, why and how to break them.
One thing I found long ago, in the dark ages of film photography :wink: , when I switched from a point and shoot to a TLR and later SLR is that my photography suffered because I got bogged down in rules of composition, best time of day and especially exposure. When I realized it I stopped being so concerned about all that and went back to just making pictures whenever I wanted, what I wanted and how I wanted. I started having fun again and I think my pictures showed it.

Sarah, this is a very well presented exposition on composition. As is routinely said in all kinds of art, from painting to performance, “first learn the ‘rules’ then proceed to break every one of them.” As others have noted, if we all observe the same “rules”, then there is no originality and no way to distinguish one of use from all of the rest.