The Rules of the Game


“There are no rules of architecture
for a castle in the clouds.”

G. K. Chesterton

As part of the second course in the Find Your Eye series, I have been thinking about rules and how they guide my photographic choices. And pondering the bigger question:  Do my internal rules serve me creatively?

By nature, I am a rule-follower. I don’t make waves or rock the boat. I rarely question authority. Rules make me feel safe. They provide structure and context and guidance.

But the problem with rules is that they often morph into laws and, from there, into inviolate truths. They become rigid, inflexible and stiff, doing more harm than good. They keep us trapped in a box of our own making and we no longer even see the walls we have built around us. And so, it is a valuable exercise to consider what rules we hold dear and to question their legitimacy in our creative pursuits.

Here are some internal rules about photography that I have since abandoned:

1. Real photographers use a DSLR

As I explained here, I made the conscious choice NOT to shoot with a DSLR. Equipment doesn’t interest me. In fact, thinking about equipment causes my eyes to glaze over – it’s just too much. I understand that there are shots that I will never be able to get because of the limitations of my equipment versus a DSLR. But I’m okay with that. My Canon G11 suits me.

What does interest me is working within the capabilities of my chosen camera and creating the best images that I can. For me, the eye behind the lens is the critical factor in producing meaningful photographs, NOT the equipment in use.

2. Real photographers shoot only during the “golden hours”

Photography is all about light. And, per common agreement, the best light is at dawn and dusk; the first and last hours of sunlight during the day, when the light is softer, more diffuse and warmer in hue.

And yet, I rarely shoot during these times. Since I retired, I have created a daily routine that works for me and supports the ebb and flow of my creative energy. And this means that I usually head out the door on my photo expeditions between 9 and 10am – well beyond the appointed hour.

So I work with the light available to me, during the time of day when my creative powers are at their peak. For me, these become my magic hours.

3. Real photographers limit their post-processing; SOOC shots are sacrosanct

For me, post-processing is a very important facet of the photographic creative process. I always edit my images. Sometimes a little; sometimes a lot. Like the sun, the computer is my partner in this artistic journey.

And then there are the guidelines that continue to serve me well:

1. Learn how to operate your camera

I have read through my manual numerous times so that I know how my G11 works and can take advantage of its attributes. Understanding my camera is critical to my effectiveness as a photographer.

I do tend to fall back on a set number of favorite features, sometimes failing to take into account other solutions to a particular photographic challenge. I need to commit to refreshing my knowledge on a regular basis until it becomes second nature.

2. The Rule of Thirds and a straight horizon

My camera has an option to display a “rule of thirds” overlay on my LCD screen. Therefore, composing an image following these two compositional rules is extremely easy for me. And when I choose to purposefully break them, I can determine with ease that the result is effective.

What I have to watch out for is that I don’t automatically compose ONLY in this way – that I look for interesting and dynamic alternatives. But in general, I find that these compositional tools help me create better images.

3. Avoid background distractions

This rule comes out of my perfectionistic tendencies – I don’t like photographic clutter. I am very conscious of what I include within my frame. Again, I have to make sure that I don’t take this guideline to the extreme by eliminating all context and interesting imperfections.

As Kat has made clear, this review of our internal rules is an ongoing process that requires much introspection and quiet thought. We often wear blinders regarding the hidden guidelines that we follow; we reach a point where we no longer recognize that we have a choice whether to follow them or not. Sometimes a rule serves us well when we are beginners but becomes restrictive as we grow. Therefore, it is in our best interests as artists to be aware of the rules of our own game.

What rules do you follow that no longer serve you well? What will it take to let them go?


Posted on August 17, 2011, in Photography and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Oh, you are making me think now! Like you, I tend towards perfectionism and I am a rule and schedule person. I’m sure I have a wealth of unwritten “rules” that have wormed their way into my brain, both in my role as a mom and as a writer. I know I push myself to write everyday, even if I’m sick or tired or plain done in. That’s one I’d like to uproot. I also have some sort of weird belief that I need to move faster in the writing journey because I am older (tick tock, tick tock). Hmm. That one doesn’t serve me well either. Looks like I have a lot of rule “weeding” to do! Thanks, as always, for the wisdom and beauty.

    • Lisa,
      I failed to realize that there was a “writing success” clock, similar to one’s biological clock 🙂 Definitely sounds like a rule to abandon by the wayside.

      As far as the writing every day rule – I am curious as to why you feel that is one to eliminate. For me, with photography, the act of shooting every day, whether I feel like it or not, has been crucial to my growth in this art form. It’s not to say that I always succeed in shooting every day – but it is now built into my daily routine. Of course, I no longer have a job or young children to care for so my current life situation is quite different from yours and much less complicated.

      The important thing is to see if the rule works for you, regardless of whether if works for anyone else or is the commonly accepted wisdom for “how to be a writer”. If it no longer fits, then it’s time to throw it out on its ear.

  2. Well thought out & nicely said. It is good to think about these things isn’t it?

    • Leanne – yes, this was a great exercise. Difficult but worth the effort. I think I still have some digging to do to hunt down those pesky rules.

  3. Brenda,
    I love your photo gallery, all the light and the colors in those structures. You have quite the eye for capturing such beautiful images. And your exploration of rules is so well done, giving me more to think about in my own quest. Your comments about the camera you choose really got my attention. I’m sure you’ve probably read or heard that the best camera is always the one you have with you. Kudos to you for determining to understand and use the camera you have!

    • Deb,
      You know – you captured one of the best justifications for why I chose the camera that I did – I know myself and I would never carry a DSLR. Wouldn’t capture many images without a camera, now would I?

      Reading what everyone else has struggled with in terms of rules and which to break and which to abide by has been very enlightening. I am so glad that my post gave you some further ideas upon which to reflect. I don’t think we are done with this exercise.

  4. Brenda,
    I think the writing every day rule is good, but there is always a day here and there where I’m too sick or too busy with the kids, and, instead of taking a break, sometimes I’ll just sit at the screen, trying to make it work. I’m realizing that it would be more productive, at those times, to read a good book, or play a game with the girls, or take a nap!

    • Lisa,
      Ah – that makes sense. I think it takes great wisdom to understand when we need a break – to re-fuel, to heal, to connect with those we love. Routine and habits and rules are good taskmasters – they help us accomplish our goals. But we have to know when to walk away – when our creativity and inspiration will be better fed by a needed respite.

  5. You did some really deep thinking and you expressed those thoughts so well!! I’m glad you wrote the paragraph about your equipment. I wrote a similar paragraph on my journal, but then deleted it. I couldn’t get it to say exactly what I wanted!! I own a Sony, it is a DSLR, but i’ve run into several who think it’s a “lesser” camera, because it’s not a Nikon or a Canon!! I love my camera, just as you do yours. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s the one who holds the camera that makes the shot. I also still use my Fuji Finepix point and shoot on a regualr basis. A lot of my favorite images come from that little camera!I Sorry, I’ve now journaled on your journal!! Thanks for listening and thanks for your words of advice and encouragement on my blog.

    • Cathy,
      Thanks so much for your kind comments – as is usually the case, I really struggled to get what I wanted to say in writing. So it is wonderful to hear that perhaps something real came through to others like yourself.

      Equipment is such a huge part of photography. I greatly admire those who understand and utilize their equipment to the maximum; who understand lenses and what they do; light meters, filters, flashes and the whole subject of lighting. And, at times, I have to admit to feeling “less” because I personally don’t care about any of these things. Really, how can I call myself a “photographer” when I don’t lust after the latest and greatest thing-a-ma-jig?

      But I think the practice of photography is big enough to encompass all of us – those who utilize equipment to technical perfection (and make my jaw drop in awe of what they accomplish) and to those of us, like myself, who don’t care about the equipment side When it comes down to the core of it, we all just want to accomplish the same thing – capturing what our heart loves.

  6. Brenda, your are as good at expressing your thoughts as you are at finding beautiful photographic objects. I really love your image which I think is excellent and enjoyed reading your thoughts. Like you I am absolutely a rule follower and it is so good to think about them and be aware of that. I am a bit of an equipment lover though, one of my rules I have realized through your writing, is that the image needs to be perfect to be any good so that includes things like sharpness, nice bokeh and creamy out of focus (for the technical side). But as you said, it really is the eye behind the camera that determines the message or emotion that is going to be in the image.

    • Monique,
      Rule followers unite! 🙂

      I greatly admire your commitment to having the best equipment and learning how to use it to maximize the quality and technical perfection of your shots. . I am in awe of the bokeh and creamy backgrounds that you can achieve (and slighty envious as well). I completely understand how my decision limits the kinds of shots that I can reasonably expect to create

      But I think we have to know ourselves. And I concluded early on in my photography pursuits that the whole equipment side of photography is not for me. So I will continue to cheer on the rest of you who tame your DSLRs and achieve amazing shots. You inspire me with your brilliance and technical know-how.

  7. great list. I was just telling hubby how I so don’t follow the rules and probably never will especially number 2. in reality life happens when it happens not in the golden hours and while I love traveling only shooting in those hours just isn’t an option. work with what you have and be happy that you are holdng a memory.

    • Laura,
      Yes, I am in complete agreement here on the “golden hour” rule. It’s one of those “shoulds” that I read about everywhere – “no self-respecting photographer will shoot in the middle of the day”. And I really would like to experiment with shooting during these times just to see what all the fuss is about 🙂 Maybe I would be converted to a dawn-and-dusk photographer.

      Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll keep you posted.

  8. I love what you have written Brenda! You have really thought through the rules you come up against, and how you have dealt with them. The important thing to remember, for all of us, is that how we approach our art is completely up to us. We can take the wisdom of others who have gone before, explore it from our own point of view, and then decide whether or not we want to apply it to our own life and art. Thanks so much for writing your insights and sharing this with us.

    • Kat,
      As you have said before, I don’t think I am done with this exercise. It is so easy to lose sight of our internal rules as things that we have chosen – and, therefore, that we can choose to ignore or abandon them. But to do that, we have to recognize what they are and whether they serve us in a positive or negative way. In addition, over time, our need for certain rules may change – things that worked for us as a beginner we may outgrow as our technical and creative skills mature. Through awareness and self-knowledge we can eliminate those things that now hold us back.

      This has been an illuminating exercise.

  9. your responses are so thoughtful & well written! were you a teacher or editor?
    your comment about taking pictures in the “golden hour” made me laugh! my golden hours are spent getting off to work & then coming home from work.
    What this also reminded me of – shooting in natural light… I’ve realized I don’t have good light in my condo. I’ve moved all over my condo, taking pictures here & there, blinds up, afternoon light, morning light, overhead light & I just think my condo doesn’t have enough “natural light”…. thanks for making me think about that!

    • Christine,
      Thanks so much for your comments on my writing. If you knew how long it takes me to compose a post and how many times I consult my thesaurus, you would no longer be impressed. While being a teacher was my childhood dream, I spent my career in information systems – about as far away from any creative pursuit as you can imagine.

      I don’t have much in the way of good light in my house either. Which does not bode well when winter makes its appearance here in northeast Ohio and my photo options are limited to “around-the-house” shots. And I’ve already been kicked out of the mall – no photography allowed.

      I’m glad to have provided you some additional fuel for thought on the rules of the game.

  10. Brenda, what a perfect quotation for this exercise, and what a perfect illustration for the quote! You are so clear in your thoughts, your writing, and your images, which is perhaps why I am so struck by them. You know yourself well and appear to be very confident in that knowledge.

    As for the “golden hours,” I doubt you’d get all your wonderful shadows then! Your schedule seems perfectly suited to your graphic photographic style.

    You have given me much to think about on several fronts.

    • Lee,
      The confidence thing – it’s all a ruse! 🙂 Believe me, I am struggling with writing these posts and thinking about all the things with which Kat has challenged us. But I am so grateful if my words and images have provided you with food for thought. Isn’t that the best thing about these classes – the collaboration that occurs between the participants? We learn together.

      And yes, I imagine that my choice of shooting times has had a direct impact on my photographic style. And vice versa. It is certainly easy to take note of interesting shadows when they are so much in evidence.

  11. This is such a thoughtful and interesting post….very helpful for me in my own thinking about rules in photography. You do seem to have a deep understanding of your own style and preferences. I agree with the other comments — you write so clearly and well. Thanks for sharing!

    • Gina,
      I am so glad that my rule review was helpful to you. This was a difficult exercise – I think I have only touched the surface of the thinking that needs to be done on this.

  12. Aaaah yes! I’ve often bumped up against those rules that have been set up for me to follow..and those I set up for myself. And – what I’ve learned – is that even the best-intentioned rules are made to be broken. You grow – when you’re taken beyond your comfort zone!

    Wonderful post. Lots and lots to consider here…

  1. Pingback: Camra rulebook | Sekyu

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