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  Rules and when to break them.

Lots of the tricks I’m going to suggest will take the form of “rules”, and I realise that’s a word that causes some people a bit of resistance. Photography is about expression, and creativity, I hear you say, “Why should I have to fit my images into some strait-jacket that society demands?” Well, the thing is, yes, Photography is about expression and creativity, but it’s also about communication. Above all, you want whoever views your images to see what you see, and be interested in what you are interested in.

To make this easier, over the centuries, a visual language has developed that allows us to communicate ideas visually very easily, and lots of these “rules” are just parts of this language. If you learn the language, you can communicate better, just as you would with any spoken language. If this idea sounds weird, I’d highly recommend doing just a little bit of reading on Art History - follow the progression of art through the ages and you’ll see how the way things are represented visually has changed and evolved continually, but that there’s always been a common visual language at the back of everything.

Periodically this language gets shaken up and people discover a new way of seeing - the impressionists in the 19th century were hugely controversial in their day, but in the early 21st century their work probably seems very middle of the road. I’d suggest though, that before you chuck the idea of “rules” totally out of the window, you appreciate that it’s far better to know the language, and then consciously reject it, than just

Having said all of that, here comes the big “but”. Learning the visual language is really important, but not every image has to conform perfectly to any or all of the shortcuts I’m about to describe. In fact, on a number of occasions I’ll be suggesting tricks that directly contravene the one I’ve just described! The precise point when you need to go your own way is impossible to define, but just remember that Photography is about expression - if it feels right to you (and you’re not being commissioned) then do it. No-one is likely to get hurt if the image doesn’t come out how you’d hoped, and it’s not like you have to pay for film and processing these days!

One last little point about rules. I’ve been a photographer for a very long time, and my learning has been a mix of formal and informal training - night school, college, assisting and lots of learning on the job. Just to reassure you that knowing the rules isn’t essential, I should give you the example of something called “Rembrandt Lighting”. Around the mid-2000’s, when internet forums were becoming increasingly vocal and active, I often heard people talk about “Rembrandt lighting” and referring to it in almost reverential, religious tones. By this point I’d been making a living for a decade or so, and used lighting all the time, but had never come across “Rembrandt Lighting” - either at college, or out in the professional world, and I was a bit mystified. On investigating, I found out it refers to a specific way of lighting someone’s face, with particular reference to where the shadows fall on their cheek. It’s an incredibly precise and pernickity way of lighting, which seems to be very popular amongst people who learn photography according to a set script. I’d managed to earn a living for quite a long time, and still do to this day, without ever using “Rembrandt lighting” - I’ll admit it might happen by accident once in a while - but it’s not something I consciously work towards. I still understand the basic principles behind how light works, just not the specifics of how to create a “Rembrandt” look, and I get along just fine. Don’t feel that “The Rules” are the only way to make great images!