Thursday, December 06, 2012

Rules? We Don't Need No Steenkeeng Rules!

Famed artist, Pablo Picasso, once said: "Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist."

Whenever I hear a photographer disparage "the rules," it usually tells me one or two things about them: 1) the person bad-mouthing the rules is either a new-ish or less-experienced photographer, and/or 2) the person is making excuses for the aesthetic quality of their work.

Picasso often defied the conventions of art but he knew when and how to defy them. He understood when and how to defy the rules because he knew and understood the rules. And he knew and understood them well. You know, like a pro.

These days, these digital days, it seems more than a few less-experienced photographers believe or subscribe to the notion that the rules are old fashioned, unimportant, are yesterday's rules, or they're simply not worth learning and practicing.

If you're a photographer who believes the rules are unimportant and not worth learning and practicing, you're flat-out wrong. Or, as the French politely say, "Au contraire, mon frère!"

It might be true that photographic prodigies occasionally come along and routinely snap killer images which often defy conventions, regularly break the rules, and seem to do so without said photographic prodigies having much understanding or knowledge of the rules and conventions, but the truth about photographic prodigies is that they are extremely rare and might even be mythical.

In my e-book, Zen and the Art of Portrait Photography, I devoted one of its twenty chapters to rule-breaking or, what it's sometimes called, "Shooting Outside the Box." In it, I don't come down on rule-breaking or shooting OTB. In fact, I endorse it... but with a few caveats about learning the rules before breaking them and having plenty of knowledge about that "box" some people might think they're shooting "outside of."

One of the most important elements of rule-breaking, leastwise successful rule-breaking, is knowing when and how to break the rules effectively or artistically. The only way you're going to do that, as Picasso tells us, is by learning the rules (like a pro) and then breaking them. (Like an artist.)

The gratuitous eye-candy at the top is Yurizan from one of my twice-weekly, 5-minute-session gigs I've been shooting and that I've recently written about. (Click image to enlarge.) No rules broken by the photo. It's not an outside-the-box image. It's simply a decent pic of a hot and sexy woman. And I'm all about photos of hot 'n sexy women! And yes, they're real.


Bill Giles said...

I think in terms of reasons rather than rules. They don't force behavior, they just describe how look at things. The rule of thirds doesn't force an image to be good, but it tells us that an image that follows the rule is more likely to be perceived as good. There's a reason why people like certain things and that's how we develop the rules.

jimmyd said...

@Bill G: I agree. But understanding rules and things which are rule-like goes way beyond the most well-known like the Rule of Thirds. For instance, all photographers should be aware of the Elements of Design and how they work: Line, Color, Shape, Space, Texture, Value, Form. Knowledge of these elements and how they can work together (e.g., promoting symmetry) or be juxtaposed or in contrast (which is sorta like breaking the normal uses or rules of those elements)often contributes to good photography and can make all the difference to a photo. Example: Lines are the strongest elements of design. Diagonal lines are the strongest of the strong. When you're composing a photographic image, you're (in a sense) designing the image. When you include or use elements like lines, especially diagonal lines, they can make more powerful photo images. Shooting glamour, I often direct the models' poses so various parts of her body create diagonal lines. Or I use elements in the environment I'm shooting in to make lines in that environment work in positive ways for the photo. That's not to say all good photos include diagonal lines, they don't. But having knowledge of how design elements like lines work is a must for photographers, whether they're conforming to the rules and conventions or breaking them.

John said...

Great follow-up to the "Portraits Aren't Made in Cameras" entry. Another side of the same coin, I think.

Rick said...

Picasso aside, the question is, "Do begnning photographers even want to know the rules or where to find them?" Buy a camera-become an artist syndrome with all its egotistical components included is on the rise.

Being self taught photographer can be a bitch with a long learning curve. I hadn't heard of the Elements of Design until I had been shooting for about two years and had to reasses my work within the "new" rules. It took almost another year to incorporate them into my thought processes before I could use them without consciencly thinking about them.

jimmyd said...

@Rick: Obviously, most new photographers want to flatten the learning curve as much as they can. But doing the right things to help flatten the learning curve or move more quickly along it aren't the same as thinking one can simply ignore the learning curve. "Buy a camera become an artist syndrome" is more prevalent today than ever. There seems to be a feeling amongst many new-ish photographers that perceives time-honored and oft-proven aesthetic conventions as being lame, old fashioned, and not worth learning about, much less practicing at. Their loss. Few if any of them will discover their own potential and, instead, be content to mimic the work of others even tho they'll try to pass it off as unique.