Breaking the rules

We’ve written before about rule breaking in photography, and how
that’s generally a good thing as long as the viewer knows it’s intentional. I was looking at a few photographs recently where there were obvious things that I thought were wrong, but I wasn’t quite sure if it photographer meant it.

It got me thinking if it’s harder to work out the intention with toy
photography than with other genres.

Toy photography is what I’d call a “starter” genre. Give a child a
camera and there’s a high likelihood that they’ll take some bad photos of toys. Adults new to cameras are probably more likely to take bad travel photos or family portraits, because that’s a popular grown-up excuse to buy a fancy camera.

Given the skew towards younger photographers when it comes to toy photography, does this change the balance of good vs. bad photos? (I’m making a generalisation here that younger, and less experienced photographers take worse photos than older, more experienced photographers, which is not always the case).

If the balance is skewed towards bad photos then we have to be a bit careful when breaking the photographic rules. If our viewers are used to seeing bad toy photographs, the probability is that they will assume our carefully orchestrated compositional anarchy may just be “another bad toy photograph”!

I’m not sure if my assumptions are true, it probably needs some scientific method applied to a bunch of photographs from different genres. Still, I thought it was an interesting question.

To end on a solution rather than an open ended question, I replied to
Kristina’s post with my thoughts: know the popular rules, only break
one at a time, and try to make the rest of the elements in your photos as good as you can.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

– Mike

7 Replies to “Breaking the rules”

  1. Part of my style as a toy photographer and a lomographer, is using cheap toy cameras. This helps challenge you, taking you out of the digital “camera does everything for you” style.
    I really don’t think there are “bad” toy photos.
    Everyone has a different style and compositional element in order to tell a story with their toys.

    1. John, I agree that photography is completely subjective and if a photograph fulfils all of the requirement that the photographer intended, then in those objective terms it is a ‘good’ photograph. As a mere viewer of the photograph I can only apply my own criteria for ‘good’ and ‘bad’. If elements of a photograph distract me enough from the subject, or message of the photograph (or worse, there is no message or subject in the photo!) then I won’t enjoy looking at it, and consider it bad.

      I think the use of film these days automatically puts you in the “I know what I’m doing” category of photographers :)

  2. Hmmmm, during the last three months I’ve heard about the rules. As you may tell by looking at my pics I hardly followed them. The advice to break only one at a time is a good one- still I’m wondering: What ARE the popular rules? Are they listed? Or how can I – an absolute amateur – be sure I only broke one and did my best to follow the others?

    1. Stefan, that’s an excellent point. There are many list of photographic “rules” online that will tell you what you should do, but not what you shouldn’t!

      These are some of the “dos and don’ts” I pay attention to (and often break):

      Balance a photograph. This is a more general version of the rule of thirds, if you have an important element in one area of your photograph, make sure there is something slightly less important opposite it.
      Don’t cut things in half at the edge of the frame.
      Don’t have subjects looking out of the frame.
      Don’t centre your horizon.
      Make sure the subject is in focus.
      Make sure the photo isn’t motion blurred.
      Make the sure the subject is the most obvious thing in the frame (otherwise they’re not the subject!).
      Make sure the subject is the most prominently lit thing in the photo.
      Make sure your subject doesn’t blend into the background.

      The “Visual Design of a photograph” video I mentioned in my “All Quiet” post ( was very informative in this respect.

      1. Thank you, Mike!
        This post and comments discussed sort of gave me an idea of getting to the core of this subject. (Which is quite a relief for me as often I fear I lose something in translation.) I’ll try to consider these ‘aspects’ (as an alternative word for rules) and may just make the stubborn kid in me accept that ‘planning’ is an important part of this game in order to achieve more satisfying results. We’ll see…

  3. TL;DR: If I had to summarize my whole point it would: “I think a good picture is one where there’s an interesting story supported by a strong composition, no matter whether it follows rules or not.”

    I would tend to think that if people can’t make a difference between bad photos and one where the photographer tried to intentionally break a rule, it means that it turns out that maybe it was not a very good idea and that the photo is not that good in the end. Of course it can happen that most people don’t understand it but IMO breaking intentionally a rule is only good if it supports what the author wants to say.

    It is because as a viewer I want to see something interesting that stands out. If I start to think about rules when looking at a photo it is because there is something that bothers me and that the composition could be improved to better support the picture. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned on Kristina’s post, I don’t believe there are such things as rules in photography. What we call rules seems to me more like patterns or guidelines that helps to have a decent composition.

    I don’t really have an artistic background, and overall I don’t have that much experience in photography, but I have the feeling that knowing whether a photo follows or brakes a rule tells me how the photographer achieved to tell the story he wanted to tell in that particular case. It can be interesting and useful but I feel more and more it is not sufficient. Indeed I don’t think it will help me to generally improve my creative process and utlimately my photography.

    I feel that to continue to improve my photography in an artistic way I need to go further. What I want to understand is not how to compose a picture in one particular case but how to come with a good composition that makes a story stand out. I try more and more to avoid overthinking about rules when I shoot. Instead of thinking about them, wich to follow and/or which not to follow, I prefer to think first about the story I want to tell and how my composition will support this story. In the end it should be that story which should drive my composition, not common rules or guidelines.

    1. This has turned into quite an interesting discussion. Your definition of the rules as “patterns or guidelines that helps to have a decent composition” is spot on. Most of the “dos and don’ts” of photographic composition are based on aesthetic theory and the philosophy of art, some visual forms are more appealing to our human eyes than others.

      The whole post can probably be rephrased in less “rule-based” terms: if I use unusual techniques in my photographs, is this more likely to be interpreted as a mistake because there are fewer people doing that sort of thing in toy photography?

      Than again, should I care? I’ve seen many photographs by very well-known photographers that I just don’t “get”, but many people think them excellent. I guess as we grow as artists and appreciators of art we obtain a wider visual vocabulary. Certain photographs that we’ve previously dismissed, yet encounter again later on, become interesting for different reasons.

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