MY PHOTOGRAPHIC “RULES”

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I received a very kind comment on this blog recently that really made me think.  The blogger said that, especially in my abstract work, I really push back what he calls the envelope against so many “rules” – the quotes are his.  When I read this I really didn’t know what to say.  But I was out in the country today, on the Somerset Levels, when I started thinking about this again.  What rules, if any, do I follow in my photography?  After a lot of thought, I can come up with only three.

FIRST, in some pictures, I think about the Rule Of Thirds, and try to site important compositional elements at visual strong points.  But this is only in some pictures – in more graphic compositions for example –  but by no means in all of my pictures.

SECOND, I think about the fact that human eyes scan images from left to right and top to bottom.  I don’t know whether this true of all human eyes, or just those of people originating in the western world.  However, in some cases, for example if a picture has light and dark areas, then I may try to site the paler areas over to the right, so that viewers’ eyes enter the (relative) darkness on the left of the frame, and move on right towards the light.

Here is an example of this kind of thing, a photo of stacked up mangrove poles on the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya.

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Since I wanted to have the group of four poles horizontal (as they were in reality), I was left with the choice of having the near vertical pole on either the left or the right.  I showed both versions to fellow photographers, and we all thought the version above the better of the two.  Our reasoning?  Our eyes started on the left of the image then moved right along the four horizontal poles, to be brought to an abrupt halt by the roped vertical pole, beyond which there is only darkness.  That the near vertical pole slopes down into the picture also helps to hold the eye within the composition. 

Flipping the image horizontally, i.e. having the vertical pole on the left, was nothing like so effective.  Our eyes started at the vertical pole, then travelled along the horizontal poles and straight out of the picture.

My THIRD rule is the one I use all the time – “Whatever works is good”.  The picture may be uncropped and exactly as it was at capture – or it may have been cropped and re-cropped ad infinitum, and have been sucked through and spat out of heaven knows how many bits of photo software >>> but as long as it looks good, that all that matters. 

Another way of putting this would be that “The end always justifies the means”.
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About Adrian Lewis
Photographer working in monochrome, colour and combinations of the two - with a great liking for all sorts of images, including Minimalism, landscapes, abstracts, soft colour, people, movement, nature - I like to be adventurous in my photography, trying new ideas and working in many genres. And I'm fond of Full English Breakfasts and Duvel golden ale, though not necessarily together.

22 Responses to MY PHOTOGRAPHIC “RULES”

  1. Love the fence image. I like the way you think and now understand why you’ve commented on flipping some of my images – I’m not sure that I agree with that principal. My experience is that one’s eye is drawn to the point of interest in the image not necessarily a left to right movement and moved around the image by the composition and subject matter…the rule of thirds is solid but not always the way to go….but really, I agree that there should be no rules, either an image is compelling or it’s not… 🙂

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    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Hello Sheila! >>> gosh, this post has provoked a lot of comment! I’m thinking of going into hiding … possibly by starting to live as a small sheep in North Wales …

      I totally agree with you about “left to right” and the thirds rule – they are not to be rigidly or constantly applied – but for myself, I find it useful to keep them at somewhere the back of my mind in case they are relevant to something I’m looking at >>> be that looking through the viewfinder, or looking at a photo.

      Thanks for liking the way I think!!! When I get some blood back in my alcohol stream things can only get better (I think I’ve told you that one before).

      From reading what you’ve written, I think that you and I differ on the following point. I think you are saying that you see compelling images and that you then photograph them. I’m saying that I do exactly the same as you with a compelling image that I see, I photograph it. But I >>also shoot images that appear to have potential and then, via software, look to see whether I can produce something compelling from them. What I produce may look nothing like the original subject at all but, to my eyes, it is aesthetically pleasing >>> this is my closing line on this post >>> “the end always justifies the means”. There are no rights or wrongs here of course, you and I are just doing things in different ways. Adrian

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  2. bananabatman says:

    After all that, what is there to say, other than that I find your posts both entertaining and educational. I hope I can learn from them.

    I certainly agree with everything you say in this post.

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    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Dave, thank you very much for those kind words – “entertaining and educational” sounds good to me >>> I only hope I can keep it up! There are now even more comments on this post, and another has just arrived – I may have to go into hiding! Thanks again, Adrian

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  3. Pingback: Colors on the Palette « When This Becomes There

    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Brandon, for a reason I can’t fathom, I can’t see this comment on my blog, so I’m replying from within comments. However I can only see the words starting “an infrared” and ending “aesthetics of” >>> so I don’t know all that you’re talking about! Adrian

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  4. Didn’t know my comment would have that impact 🙂 I guess to further add to that one, when I came across some of your photos, they were instantly arresting. So, as I usually do when I encounter anyone’s work in that manner, I look to see what is at hand, what makes it so appealing? What I found was often was what textbooks might have said not to do, what “doesn’t work.” I use some basic rules, some of the same ones you mentioned above. I think they are important, and played a large role for me. I’m about two years into developing my craft as a photographer. The “rules” helped me get going, but the problem with that, in my opinion, is that rules can become cliche, repetitive, or homogenize your work. And that’s why I’m down with your 3rd rule. I’m moving into the mind that every photograph taken with aesthetic intention, has an emergent moment when it is “good.” The amount of process, how little or how long, then becomes null.

    Great post….and dig the posts in the post 🙂

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    • Adrian Lewis says:

      No, I didn’t know your comment would have this impact either, Brandon >>> but it stimulated me to thought and everything seems to have mushroomed from there! And mushroomed productively I think – like you, I like the ensuing comments.

      That’s exactly the thing about rules >>> followed slavishly and thoughtlessly, they will tend to make any sort of genre look repetitive and predictable, and that’s the start of a very dull and creatively unrewarding road.

      So, as you say, an emergent moment when a photo seems “good” to our personal perceptions and aesthetics, which may be at any time from when we fire the shutter to much, much later as we turn it this way and that via software. As I’ve read somewhere, the Raw file, although by default in colour, has the same kind of function as negatives do in film photography – the Raw file is a starting point in the production of the image.

      Thanks for your input! Adrian

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  5. What a great insight, I’ve flipped shots in the past to get the look right, and sometimes it works, but I’ve never stopped to think why. Left to Right, Top to Bottom, same way we read a printed page, obvious really, but I’ve never worked it out before. Thanks Adrian this helps me a lot.
    I wonder if this works differently for Chinese, if text is printed vertically they read top to bottom, right to left, so maybe you need to flip your photos back again for a Chinese audience!

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  6. losangelas says:

    good clear rules 🙂
    and they work really good…. from what i’ve seen is that your photography is great and me and other photographers/bloggers can learn a lot from you.

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    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Thank you, losangelas, I appreciate your kind words. If you can learn from me that’s great >>> but I’m not sure I’m up to receiving all these plaudits >>> they leave me no alternative but to drink heavily!!! Thanks agin. Adrian

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  7. Shit Adrian, what a spot on post, something that’s been of concern for me for some time, not anymore you understand, but it used to be. I’ve been thinking about it today (again) before I had my daily few (plenty!) glasses of wine, and then I read this spot on post of yours. Yeah, to be honest with you, I’m not really into any technical positions about photography, I don’t care about equipment, about proficiency, about techniques used, rules of thirds etc, any of that. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the principals, I get what these “rules” are all about, and I suppose they are there for a reason, and they make sense. But, and this is a big fucking but, I see the art of photography as utterly personal, as portraying the world as you see it, maybe in a way creating the world as you might like to see it, or maybe imagine it. Excuse my language, but fuck it, I don’t go for all the technical bullshit – you know what I mean, photographers going on about their Leica’s, or the new Nikon mirror less. Seriously man, this raises the question of what photography means to you, to oneself, and that’s a big question these days, as everyone’s a “photographer”, these days. It kills me, and almost as much as these “techno junkies”. My question remains, What can you do better on a “fucking high tech, state of the art, bells and whistles, kick ass camera” that you can’t do on a point and shoot, I raise that challenge…Take all the technology away, and let’s go back to what photography meant to Brassai, Robert Frank, Capa, Friedland, Winogrand…

    Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed. – Garry Winogrand

    Cheers mate!

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    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Now the, JP, just how many glasses of the electric sauce did you have before you wrote this short story – I mean, comment? And what happened to paragraphs??? And as for the language, well you should know that I’m trying to run a high class operation here … or not … as the case may be …

      I’ve always liked and enjoyed your comments, but this has to be in a high enjoyment class of its own – wonderful stuff!

      I agree with your thoughts entirely. Photography is utterly personal – and we are all different, thank goodness! I value photography enormously as a means of creativity and self expression – and I have reached the very happy stage when I regard my photographic gear as a set of tools by means of which I create my images – nothing more. I look at a page of adverts in photo mags and play the old game – “If I could have any one of the cameras shown here, which one would it be?”. And I come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t want any of them as I’m entirely happy with what I’ve got and, if I did for example get a Hasselblad, then I know full well that it wouldn’t get used a lot.

      Now I have to be fair here and point out that what I’ve got works like a dream. First the full frame Nikon D700 (with its incredible quality at high ISOs) and some Nikkor lenses. And second the Canon PowerShot G11 with its marvellous, fully articulated screen, and its excellent quality. So I’m not sitting here thinking “If I only had camera X or lens Y I could take better pictures”. The D700 is one of four groundbreaking, full frame Nikon cameras, and it was a tremendous innovation when it appeared. If Nikon can produce a D700 upgrade with even more groudbreaking features, then I’m here waiting – waiting just to throw money at Nikon! Well, we’ll see what happens and, meanwhile, I’ll wait.

      It is of course true that buying some set of super expensive photo gear will not make anyone a better photographer – being a better photographer reflects the evolving mind processes of the person, as the person becomes more visually aware.

      But if we’re talking about the help that technology brings, there is one area where I’m certainly aided. I’m getting older and, always myopic, my eyes are starting to downgrade even more. If I’d been trying to catch the little girl beckoning to me to come and see her toys with a manual focus camera I’d never have achieved the picture – but with fast autofocus the shot was in the bag. But then, I suppose, this is only technology making up for my physical ineptitudes.

      Well, a short story back from me! Thanks again for your thoughts – excellent! Adrian

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      • Ha ha, yes well, what can I say. Hope I was entertaining at least!

        I completely agree with you concerning the points you made regarding the use of technology, even though I must have sounded like a real hypocrite in my ravings (as I make use of Photoshop reasonably extensively in my photography). It’s like you said, if you didn’t have the fast autofocus available you wouldn’t have been able to capture that truly remarkable shot of the little girl beckoning. Very good point that.

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  8. Graham says:

    Interesting and enlightening. I do tend to use an approximate ‘rule of thirds’ principle, but I hadn’t really thought about the ‘left to right, top to bottom’ principle. Looking again at some of the photography I admire, I can see this idea in practice in a lot of effective work. Thank you for the insight.

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  9. Mike Moruzi says:

    I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of the whole left/right orientation that way. I find I often prefer an orientation that has my subject off to the right. Perhaps this post sheds a little light on why. Thanks!

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    • Adrian Lewis says:

      That’s good, Mike, glad its useful. I’m quite interested in art – especially the images and sculptures of Modern Art – Degas, early Picasso, van Gogh, Lautrec, Manet and so on – and I picked the left to right thing up at one of the classes I attended. Adrian

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  10. chameleonic says:

    that photo is beautiful… i love the composition!

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