As a photographer, it pays to know the photography rules–but it also pays to know when breaking photography rules makes sense.
Because here’s the thing:
Photography rules are made to be broken.
You’re often going to be confronted with situations where the rules work. But there are plenty of times when the rules won’t serve you well, which is what this article is all about.
So when should you break the rules in photography? And what rules should you break?
Let’s get started!
1. The Rule of Thirds
It even comes with a set of helpful gridlines, like this:
Now, the rule of thirds is all about creating balanced, dynamic compositions. When you use the rule of thirds, it prevents you from centering your subject–which is discussed in the next section!–and so you tend to get a more creative image.
One that’s still balanced, but that includes some visual flow.
And the rule of thirds works very, very well.
But the rule of thirds does have some drawbacks.
For one, it doesn’t allow you to create intensely minimalistic compositions, full of negative space, like this:
The image above violates the rule of thirds by positioning the horizon line below a rule of thirds gridline, and the subject beneath a rule of thirds power point.
And yet the image is still strong!
This is because breaking the rule of thirds can create atmospheric, airy images. So whenever you have a simple subject to work with, don’t be afraid to toss the rule of thirds out the window!
The rule of thirds can also be broken for beautiful symmetrical images, by the way, like this:
Where the subject isn’t placed along a gridline or an intersection point, but simply smack-dab in the center of the shot.
Which is the subject of the next section!
2. Don’t Center Your Subject
Beginner photographers tend to center their subjects.
And then more advanced photographers argue that the subject looks better off-center, and that beginners should try using something such as the rule of thirds or the golden ratio to determine subject placement.
Generally speaking, this is good advice. Centered compositions tend to be very static and dull, because the viewer has nowhere to really go.
But there is one particular time when it makes sense to center your subject:
When you’re working with symmetry.
You see, symmetry changes all the rules. When your subject is symmetrical, you can place them smack-dab in the image’s center, as long as the center of the image lines up with the reflection point on the subject.
You’ll get a very in-your-face image, one that’s powerful, eye-catching, and well-balanced (all at once!).
3. Fill the Frame With Your Subject
If you want to create more powerful compositions, you should fill the frame with your subject.
This is a common piece of compositional advice, and it works well most of the time. The idea is that it’s easy to include too much in your composition, and therefore distract from the parts of the shot that matter most: the main subject and the areas that support it.
So instead of including pointless content at the edge of the frame, you zoom in, cut all the extraneous details out, and get a better image.
There are times when you actually want to zoom out all the way and include more of the scene, such as when you’re capturing stunning environmental portraits that show a connection between a person and their surroundings.
Imagine, for instance, photographing a farmer. Sure, you could photograph them on their own, where you fill the frame with them–or you could include a farmhouse off to one side, a field off to the other side, etc.
The farmhouse and field would add much-needed context, and make the shot more powerful, not less powerful.
Which is why filling the frame with your subject isn’t always a good idea.
4. The Rule of Odds
The rule of odds isn’t especially popular or well-known among photographers, but it does have its adherents.
It goes like this:
Whenever you include a group of items, you should have an odd number, such as three, five, or seven, rather than two, four, or six.
Supposedly the odd number of items keeps the mind more engaged (the human brain tends to group subjects found in pairs, foursomes, etc.) and, generally speaking, I think this is good advice. If you’re going to be working with a number of similar items, keep the count odd if you can, not even.
But there are times when you can create strong compositions with an even number of items. For instance, putting the same items, reflected, on opposite sides of the frame can create a powerful image. Or you can put a large item in the foreground, balanced out by a small item in the background (which is a trick that landscape photographers often use).
Plus, there are also times when it’s not feasible to shoot in groups of three, five, or seven. If you’re photographing an engaged couple, you definitely don’t want to grab a third person just to keep things odd. Instead, just figure out a way to create a dynamic composition–one that prevents the eye from grouping, assuming that’s your goal–while using two subjects. You might create interesting poses, a powerful overall shape, and more.
5. Avoid Blur in Your Photos
This one’s straight from the beginner photography textbook:
You should always create a sharp image.
Well, it’s true that you often want a sharp image. The sharper the image, the more your viewer will be able to understand the scene and focus on the subject, generally speaking.
And if you’re aiming to create detailed images of sports players, birds in flight, or landscapes, you definitely don’t want to go blurring your subject left and right.
But there are times when it makes sense to deliberately create a blurry image–or at least make part of your image blurry.
When am I referring to?
For one, motion blur in a scene can help create a sense of movement, which will guide the viewer along.
Check out this image, which is very blurry, but still manages to captivate the viewer:
Blur can also create an interesting artistic effect, such as when you’re using soft-focus techniques to focus the viewer in particular areas of the frame, or when you use intentional camera movement to simplify the scene and make the overall image more powerful.
That’s the power of blur!
Of course, you have to be careful about when you use it (there are plenty of times when blur is not going to work), but when applied judiciously, you can get some stunning images.
6. Create Depth Throughout the Frame
Photography is all about depth.
And that’s why it’s important to use leading lines, which give the illusion of depth by drawing the viewer into the frame.
The same is true of layers, which give the sensation of depth.
And using frame within a frame techniques, which can also improve depth.
But should you always create depth? Is this always important?
While most photos do benefit from depth, there are times when you want to do the opposite, and actually create a more two dimensional image. This results in an abstract shot, like this:
Sure, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly creative, and it can be very impressive when done well!
7. The Rule of Space
The rule of space states that you should always put space in front of your subject–space for your subject to move into, space for your subject to gaze into, etc.
And this often gives good images, because it gives the shot a level of resolution, like there’s somewhere for the subject to go.
But you don’t always need to create a complete shot. Sometimes, the goal is to increase tension–and this is what you get if you ignore the rule of space.
So instead of putting space in front of your subject…
…put it behind your subject, where the subject isn’t looking and isn’t moving.
You’ll end up with an unusual shot, but not necessarily a bad one!
8. Keep the Horizon Completely Straight
Take at your photo collection, making sure to examine the horizons carefully. Are they straight? Or are they crooked?
My guess is that at least a few of them are crooked–it’s certainly true for me!–and that they need correction.
Because here’s the thing:
Crooked horizons just don’t look good. They disorient the viewer, while also making the photographer seem like they failed to do proper editing.
So it’s often considered a rule that you should straighten your photos so that the horizon is perfectly straight.
There are times when you actually want a crooked horizon.
Now, I’m not talking about situations where the horizon is slightly crooked. In those cases, I highly recommend you straighten the horizon, because it really will look like a mistake.
Instead, I’m talking about situations when you want to convey a sense of tension or disorientation. You can tilt the camera at a 45-degree angle (or thereabouts) to achieve this, and it certainly won’t look like a mistake!
9. Only an Amateur Crops Their Photos
I’ve heard this “rule” from a number of seasoned photographers, but it’s just plain wrong; there are plenty of professionals that crop their photos (and who even use crops to completely recompose their images).
Sure, it’s a good idea to get it right in camera if you can. But there will be times when you just couldn’t get close enough (in the case of wildlife photography), or you just couldn’t get the right composition (in the case of landscape photography and street photography, etc.).
When that happens, it makes sense to crop, even though cropping will degrade image quality.
(Fortunately, sensors these days are high-resolution enough to allow for significant cropping without much image degradation.)
This is why I recommend you consider possible crops as a fundamental post-processing step. Of course, don’t force yourself to crop if your image doesn’t need it–but be ready to crop if need be.
10. Shoot at Eye-Level for the Best Perspective
If you want to create a more intimate image, shooting at your subject’s eye level is often the way to go.
You see, by getting down on your subject’s level, you can give viewer’s a window into your subject’s world.
But even though an eye-level perspective works well…
…there are times when you’ll want to avoid it for a more unconventional shot.
For instance, you might get below your subject and shoot up; this will emphasize the subject’s height and make them loom over the viewer (especially if you’re using a wide-angle lens).
Or you can get above the subject and shoot down, in order to make the subject appear tiny.
The point isn’t that you should always use a high or low perspective.
But they’re useful techniques to keep in your photographic toolkit. You never know when you might be able to whip them out for a nice image or two!
Breaking Photography Rules: The Next Step
It can be difficult to start breaking photography rules.
After all, everyone talks about the rule of thirds, the rule of space, and more.
But if you are willing to break the rules, then you’ll quickly find that your images become more impressive–and much more unique.
So don’t be afraid to do some rule-breaking!
Not really. There are so-called rules, such as the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, the golden ratio, and such. But these are really just guidelines, and need to be broken on occasion for the best possible images. I recommend learning the rules and using the rules as you need them. Keep them in the back of your mind–but don’t let the rules overpower your artistic instincts!
I recommend breaking the rule of thirds in at least a couple of situations. First, if you’re faced with a symmetrical subject or a symmetrical scene, breaking the rule of thirds will allow you to emphasize the symmetry and create a very in-your-face shot.
Second, you can break the rule of thirds if you’re after more empty, atmospheric images. Here, the rule of thirds will give you an image that’s rather conventional. But by positioning your main subject above the top gridline or below the bottom gridline, you can emphasize negative space and get a beautiful, atmospheric image.
Nope, not always! This is one of those rules that should be broken on occasion. Because while it’s a good idea to fill the frame most of the time, there are certainly going to be compositions that benefit from showing more context–such as when you’re capturing an environmental portrait. And there will also be compositions that require more negative space; for instance, if your aim is to create an empty, atmospheric-type image, lots of negative space will only help you!
Absolutely not! While some photographers claim that cropping is only for amateurs, there are plenty of photographers who crop their photos. It’s true that cropping degrades image quality–for one, it leaves you with fewer pixels, while also magnifying lens imperfections and noise–but sometimes it’s worth losing image quality for a better composition. I recommend you always try to get your composition right in the field, but don’t be afraid to crop afterward if you notice a better option.
The rules in photography are useful, but they’re not hard rules, rules that you have to obey no matter what. Instead, the so-called “rules” are actually guidelines. And while they will help you create stunning images in many cases, there are also times when it pays to break the rules. For instance, by breaking the rule of thirds you can create an interesting minimalist composition; by breaking the rule of space you can add a lot of tension into a photo; and by breaking the rule of odds you’ll end up with a very stable, static image (which is sometimes a good thing!).
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.