Breaking the Rules

Why you are NOT the Rebel you think you are

The Rules

Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a fellow photographer proclaim: “I know the rules so I can break them” then they also add in “I’m a Rebel”. I mean, I see this so often it’s actually become an annoyance and it’s really turned into just group speak. Someone said it and then everyone just repeats it without actually thinking about what it means. Well, I have. So lets take a little trip and see, what what with this.

But first a note. This article assumes you make photographs as art. The “rules” don’t apply to other photographic genres. Photojournalism is about telling a story, Sports, about capturing the moment, Commercial, about selling the product. While they may possibly contain art, it’s not a necessity.

The Rules

First off what are the rules? For photographers as artists, people are often referring to the “Rules of Composition” and whether your photographic image contains those rules. So where did the rules come from? In 1852 the Société de Technique Fotographique Universelle or STFU, assembled and decided on all the Rules that photographic images must contain in order to be a quality photograph and “Amazing”…….. {Insert sound of needle being ripped across a record} Okay well, that never happened…at all.

So if that’s not what the rules are, what is? The truth is they aren’t really rules at all. Not in the true sense. It all comes down to if you subscribe to the philosophy of Aestectics. Aesthetics tell us what is beautiful, what is art. So from that viewpoint the rules are not rules at all but rather, Reasons. Why do we find this beautiful? Why is this art to us? But it’s an after consideration and examination and it may be made by you – afterwards. Or, it may be decided upon by viewers of your artwork. So if it’s an after examination, and an artwork is yet to exist, how can you break the rules of what isn’t even there yet? Well, you can’t.

So maybe we should understand what Aesthetics are and then maybe you will better understand. Now please note that while I do think a lot about aesthetics, I’m in no way an expert on the subject and I only have a rudimentary understanding of the subject and some expert could come along and rip me a new one for messing it up so bad. The philosophy of Aesthetics has been debated for centuries and continues till today because it speaks to the basics of “What is Art?  All that is so far beyond my brain. I’ve broken to down to it’s lowest denominator in the hope that it may clear some things in your head and give you  better understanding.

The definition of Aesthetics

Aesthetics, is the philosophical study of sensory – emotional reactions and taste as it refers to art. Or simply, why we find things beautiful. (What is Art?)

It establishes two things: That there is a senses driven emotional reaction to things. It’s not a conscious thought but rather the Eye sends a signal to the brain which releases chemicals to our pleasures centers and we go, Ahhh, that’s beautiful. It’s the “2 Second” reaction. The time when you have 2 seconds to stop someone in their tracks and make them look further. Without this senses driven reaction all hope is lost for anything beyond that. In other words it’s all over at that point, you have or you haven’t.

The second tenant is one of “Taste” this is knowledge and experience based so it is a thought process even if at times it is so second nature it doesn’t seem that way…it is. The more knowledge and experience you have in an area the better your Taste should be.

Now I’m sure more than a few of you at this moment are calling Bullshit. “My taste is just as good as anyone else’s and it’s my taste that matters!” well, the problem is you are confusing Taste with the first part, the sensory perception. In that way you are right, If you are a normal functioning human certain things will appeal to you and somethings just won’t because they don’t emit those pleasure chemicals. It’s why some like Broccoli and some don’t. But, that is not Taste.

Let’s describe it this way. You’ve never in your life seen or had a Hamburger. (For my Vegan friends substitute Grilled Portabella Mushroom for Hamburger) So you eat your first hamburger, your senses send all this info to your brain and the brains sends waves of happy chemicals to your pleasure centers. “Oh I like this”  you say ” This a Great Hamburger!”. While you definitely do like it,  how do you know it’s actually great? You have nothing, no knowledge, no experience to confirm that. You only have emotion, which as I said is the first hurdle that hamburger has to jump over.

Now you have a second person who has had hundreds of hamburgers from all over the world and has a much better sense of just what a great hamburger is. Doesn’t mean you didn’t have a great hamburger, just mean you have no reference. The second person does and is said to have “Better Taste”. We acknowledge  that some parts of Taste are elitist and societal based and they also change as society changes. This always ruffle people’s feathers but sorry, not sorry this is part of the Philosophy of Aesthetics. Which of course you can decide not to subscribe to but in reality most likely you do.

They are Reasons not Rules

As I stated earlier, Esthetics are an after evaluation and analysis. This is beautiful but why? Again there was no rules committee. We found it beautiful, why do I think so, what is the reason?

Now you are probably saying to yourself (and yelling at me) If they are Reasons then how the Hell did they become “Rules” Well, down through art history many have pondered this (why is this beautiful) and thought it out in great detail and they came up with things that while maybe not iron clad are generally accepted by humans  as being Aesthetic. ( While aesthetics were long thought about for many centuries it wasn’t until 1735 (0r 1750)  that   Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten coined the phase in it’s new application)

We can generalize, Most human don’t like the smell of poop and there is good reason, nature didn’t want you eating it. If poop smelled like bacon we could have a serious problem. And if you were making a Hamburger that smells like poop, you would have a problem… but I think you see where I am going…hmm bad choice of words. I realize that is a very disgusting way to describe this but I need something that is “generally accepted”, if I had said the smell of garlic that could be more highly debated. How this all comes around to creating a rule is; In general humans find groupings of odd numbers of objects more “Aesthetic” than even numbers. So that would be a rule, a Leading line to the subject rather than a horizontal that breaks the flow and cuts off…a rule. Again these are things we would confirm after the image is made but would prove helpful to know in advance…i.e “Knowing the rules”

So as  you see, the philosophers and scholars found there were some general rules…based on reasons… that if followed in the first place, may …I say may lead to a more successful image. Just having a leading line in an image is no guarantee that it is beautiful. In some cases that’s all it is, a leading line. So the rules are really just a guiding hand to help you along so you don’t have to sit around and philosophize and think for years “what makes something beautiful”. They did some of the work for you.

But that also means, there are always new rules (reasons) that are yet to be discovered. Someone may come along and arrange things in a way no one else ever has and yet we see it as beautiful. Some of my favorite artists are those that do just that. I’m like how in the heck did you ever see that, but that is  beautiful!

Okay, Okay, so why am I breaking or not braking the rules?

Most of the Photographer/Artists I know, want to create something “beautiful”. We do have to recognize that not all artists have that as a mission. Some artists seek to disrupt, disturb and even annoy. And that’s OK, it’s what they want to do, it’s their Mission. And those artists actually would be “Rule Breakers” because they go against aestectics which by definition define art as beauty. If that is your mission, then you are a rule breaker.

But I’m going to make a pretty big wager that that is NOT you. I personally don’t know a single photographer whose mission is not to create beauty. Not that they don’t exist, but I just don’t know any personally. But I do know many, if not all that proclaim themselves as “Rule Breakers” (fist in the air, Billy Idol snarl – 90’s reference). But are you?

BTW, Beauty can be defined many ways. If I say someone is beautiful, I may be describing physical features, their soul or even how they just treat people and the happiness they create around them. Same with art, it may be shear beauty, or the interest and wonder it evokes

The problem stands that people regard them as rules and not reasons. If they understood that they are a reason that something is beautiful (their objective) they would not want to disturb that reason or…break that rule. The second problem is how people regard the rules. They may think that every image has to have every rule in it or if they leave a rule out they have “broken” it. They haven’t. An image only needs a single reason that it is beautiful because if it is not beautiful they have failed completely. So if you are a rule breaker and you broke every rule, congratulations you are now in that other category of artist and you produced something that annoys.

People see a rule, say the “Rule of Thirds” ( I would be happy if I never heard that term again so from now  I declare that it should just be called “Fred”) But people understand the Rule of Thirds and they decide, I’m breaking the rule and heck I’m going to center the image. Nah nah boo boo, fist back in the air. Well all they did was leave out a rule and instead used a different rule of well say, Symmetry . The bottom line is, if they made a successful image – which I hope they would want to do – they followed a rule or they had a REASON the image is beautiful. Even if a person says “I don’t know why I like it I just do” there is a reason, an impulse was sent to the brain.

This is where what I believe the three core virtues of a good photographer comes in:

  • Artistic Vision
  • Knowledge
  • Experience

I recognize that not everyone will agree with the following. But a photographer starts with Artistic Vision. This is the ability to see beauty in things and possibly things that are not apparent to others instantly, or if ever. It may only become apparent (That it is beautiful) to the viewer when viewing the image that something they may not have seen as beautiful, is.

This vision is not a conscious thought (this is the point many will disagree on but hear me out) It’s innate. It’s what we call the ability to …See (yes that is my tagline for my portfolio) People vary in that but it starts there. If you can’t see (visualize) what is beautiful there’s not much hope in moving forward. This is also why it varies in people. It’s why people starting out in photography shoot flowers and sunsets/rises.  They take something that is already beautiful and make a photograph of it. They simply may not have the ability to see beyond the obvious or they don’t yet know that it is necessary (to See) because no one told them. I’m telling you now.

In fact, you don’t necessarily have to photograph something beautiful – in itself – to make a beautiful photograph.



One of my most successful images is of a dilapidated chair sitting in the middle of the Salton Sea, a polluted and vile body of brown water. Yet people found it beautiful because of the way it was photographed. Now I will caution that you do run a risk here. If you photograph something that evokes the pain center or the lets say, the Eww center of the brain, you may have a very hard time bringing the viewer back to a happy place to find the beauty in the photograph. I know this from experience because while a lot of people enjoy my Salton Sea Photographs, people have come right out and told me they don’t like to view that part of my portfolio because it disturbs them. But I still stand by them because I believe I am making a beautiful photograph… of a desperate place

Getting back to the necessary virtues, The second part is where knowledge and experience come in – just like knowledge and experience matter in Taste it also matters in making a photograph. While a photographer may have artistic vision and some have an amazing ability, without knowledge and experience, they may not be able to bring that vision to fruition because they don’t have that knowledge and experience to. But ,yes, I will always prefer more vision than knowledge, the later doesn’t drive the former.

But here is how “I” think it should be. If vision is innate. Knowledge and Experience must be close to innate. Of course they can’t be but while they can’t be First Nature (innate) they can, in time, become Second Nature and in my opinion they must be. If your mind is busy “Thinking” about the rules or composition or lighting or exposure, it is not free to …See. Quite literally the computer has run out of RAM.

How knowledge and experience help, is to craft that beauty and refine it make it more instantly visible to the viewer which is our hope. Remember we just have those two seconds for the visceral reaction, taste of the viewer will come in at second 3


So have I convinced you? Have you come over to my side? I’m not even sure I’ve convinced myself with this explanation… It’s just that I see people every day getting hung up on stuff. Whether it’s Newbies screaming “RULE OF THIRDS, RULE OF THIRDS!!!”  like it’s a panacea  or fix for everything. Or “The Rebels” Who, if I asked, “Just what rule did you break that makes this a beautiful , interesting and compelling piece?” They wouldn’t have an answer  for me.

People get hung up, It’s about talent – Sorry it just is, you’ve never heard someone say “That person has no talent, what amazing things they do!” – It’s about the ability to See. People ask me, “What do you think about when you shoot?” and my answer is: I don’t think about anything, I’m not thinking about Rules of composition, I’m not running through a checklist, do I have this this and this?, I can’t. I may do some pre-analysis of the situation and be prepared for that but at the moment my eye goes to viewfinder, my mind must be open and free to just see what is beautiful and interesting and compelling, even if it may not be obvious to others. Then I use my second nature knowledge and experience to craft that image into something that makes it NOW obvious to the viewer that this is; Beautiful, Interesting and Compelling.

It’s like being a chef. If all it was about was just ingredients. Then you would just gather them, throw them in a  bowl and “Be Amazing” But that’s just not it at all. It knowing all this ingredient intimately and  crafting each, knowing their order and how to use them so that you know it will taste great before you even taste it. AND then, afterwards, you can taste it and say, “This tastes great because…

In the end, if we look at rules instead as reasons we see we really don’t want to break them. We want a reason that an image is beautiful, interesting and compelling to the viewer and hopefully to yourself too because nothing feels better than self-satisfaction.

So I ask you this, now that you know you’re not a rebel for breaking the rules (if everyone does it then you are not a rebel but rather the d’facto standard) But if you really want to be a rebel, why not just make it your mission to: Find beauty and make it interesting and compeling because in this world today, that’s REALLY being a Rebel…Fist in the Air, Billy Idol Snarl

Note, I am not allowing comment on this piece. Just take it for what it’s worth and either use it for good or throw it in your internet trash. I have no desire to debate, it’s what I think and always will so I don’t really want to be annoyed cuz someone thinks differently and wants to tell me I’m wrong. I am very open to others having different thoughts, allow me that too. Besides I’m too busy singing Rebel Yell