A few days ago I read the following Twitter post:”There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” Ansel Adams. I tweeted back “this is coming from the man who invented the Zone System.” I was struck by the irony of a man who followed photography rules and invented rules himself would say there are no rules.
There are two basic types of rules for photography: the technical rules and the rules of composition. Technical rules are not very forgiving if they are not followed. For example, if you want a sharp background for your image, shooting at f4 will not allow you to capture a sharp background no matter how many times you try.
Adams here is talking about the rules we use for composition. Each photographer uses elements and principles of design to create an image that is visually pleasing to the viewer. But these rules of composition are almost the complete opposite of the technical rules. You will get the same results every time you shoot at f4, but you may or may not get a good photograph even though you use the rule of thirds every single time. There are just too many variables that go into a composition to guarantee a consistent result.
When I taught composition in my class, I would have a list of 9 or 10 rules of composition. The last rule was “All of the above rules are meant to be broken.” I wanted my students to understand that once they had learned the rules that they were free to use and bend and disregard in order to get the image and tell the story.
I had a student once that one a Best of Show at an exhibition. The image was of her 83 year old grandmother, wrapped in a blanket on a couch, staring at the camera. The technical quality was poor at best. The photograph was too gray. The subject was right in the middle of the picture, surround by lots of useless background that didn't add much to the story. Yet she won best of show. Many of the other photography teachers had wonderfully technical images that followed the rules of composition, yet my student won. Several of them asked the judge as to why my student's picture won and their's didn't. He basically agreed that the photograph wasn't very strong technically or compositionally, but that the subject spoke to him, that my photographer had captured the soul of her grandmother in the image, that as he judged, he was always drawn back to the image of the grandmother.
We commonly call that the “Wow” factor.
This is not to suggest that we as photographers should ignore the rules of composition. These rules separate what we do from snapshots. What Adams is saying, I believe, is that following rules is no guarantee that the image will be good. Think of your own experience as you look at other photographer's work. How many times have you looked a contest winner and said “I don't get it.”? The winning photograph must have made the judge or judges say “WOW!”
For more information on the Zone System or rules of composition, check out these links:
Tim Poole retired from high school teaching and coaching 2 years ago. In his 31 year career he taught English, business, reading, physical education, art and for his last 15 years black and white film photography. Since retiring Tim is in his early stages of his second career as a wedding photographer. His Poole Photography blog can be found here www.poolephotographyblog.com