Breaking Rules of Photography - Artfully

Rules can be broken when they become limiting

By Inexorable in Articles and Tips on Jun 10, 2014
Breaking Rules of Photography - Artfully

Photography is replete with science-based rules and guidelines that help you take good pictures, but being an artform it is not bound by them.

Rule-defying compositions and out-of-focus, blurred, or partially-visible subjects create tension in a viewer's mind and should normally be avoided, but sometimes they can have the opposite effect, making for a beautiful picture!

The two essential ingredients of a good picture are subject and drama. Their impact on the viewer depends on your treatment and it is subjective, regardless of whether or not you follow the rules!

Finding a compelling subject and drama is the first challenge for a photographer. The second and bigger challenge is to effectively convey the drama to the viewer.

The classical approach to photography is to pick a subject, discern the drama and then compose a scene using guidelines to highlight the subject and drama.

Drama most often comes from light, but there can be drama in just about anything - precarious positioning, unfathomable expression, context, etc.

The point of this article is that your treatment of the subject and drama can ignore compositional rules and still create a visual delight. Indeed, your composition can even ignore the fundamentals of photography, with the subject blurred, out of focus, or inelegantly-cut and depicted only in part. When it comes to capturing mood, a color smudge can work more effectively than delicately-interlaced colors and tones.

When artfully done, anything goes in photography.


Delightful as they can be, photographs don't speak. The only way a photographer can communicate his or her thoughts and feelings is through the composition.

An interesting subject and high drama can get completely lost in a poorly-composed photo, because it's not highly trained photo interpreters at NRO who would get to look at them, but simple-minded folks like us.

Your composition is your first and last chance to communicate, so you'd better make the most of it!

There are many guidelines that help you compose, such as:

  • subject isolation
  • tight framing
  • rule of thirds
  • use of lines - diagonal, vertical and horizontal
  • use of curves
  • viewpoint angle
  • balance
  • textures

Your picture will work if you keep the rules in mind, but nothing prevents your picture from rocking even when it ignores all the rules, as long as it manages to rivet viewer attention to the subject and drama.

A delightful photo that defies composition rulesA photo that breaks composition rules with a playfulness matching that of the child. Photo Credit: Vijainder K Thakur

Take a look at the delightful photo above. What happened to the rule-of-thirds here? Or the need for space in the expected direction of subject movement? The child is ready to walk out of the frame! Yet there is no tension, because that's what children do!

A classical composition has a single strong point of interest or main subject that immediately catches the eye. Having savored the subject the eye is encouraged, sometimes guided, to explore remaining elements in the scene.

Photographers draw attention to the main subject by its relative sizing (prominence), positioning, color, contrast, or lighting. Often there are guiding lines and curves in the photo leading to the subject.

(Photographer Rajan Parrikar draws attention to St. Peter Church of Zürich using color contrast and relative prominence.Photographer Rajan Parrikar draws attention to St. Peter Church of Zürich using color contrast and relative prominence.

It's usually not a good idea to put the subject in the center of the photo, as doing so can relegate other elements in the composition to insignificance, sometimes to an extent where the viewer misses them completely. The rule-of-thirds provides artistes several options to alternatively position the main subject such that the viewer is seduced to explore the context.

But sometimes the subject is so enrapturing that you don't care if the viewer ignores the rest of the scene. The Eiffel tower, for example. If you try to push it to an intersection of the thirds, you will probably end up with a bad photo! So use your discretion. Trust your eyes, more than the rules.

Similarly, diagonal lead-in lines work best if they start from the left edge and move into the scene towards the subject. The scientific reason being we tend to scan from left to right. But you can get very fine compositions where lead in diagonals move from the right edge.

Two weary travelers, too tired to stand up and click or pose, at Amer palace in Amer Fort, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.Two weary travellers, too tired to stand up and click or pose, at Amer palace in Amer Fort, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. Photo Credit: Vijainder K Thakur

Guide to Pleasing Compositions

Strive for a rule-based composition to begin with. If you are working with a prime lens, you have your eye and legs to get the composition right. With a zoom lens, you have one more option.

However, at times you will find yourself hopelessly out of position, with neither the zoom nor your legs able to help you. A helicopter, or a quadcopter, would help, but you dare not even think about it with your spouse already at the end of the tether from your LBA.

If that happens, trust your eye, move your camera and see if the urge to click persists. If so, go ahead.

In both the above two cases, the urge to click must come only after you have honestly answered the following three questions with a resounding "Yes!":

  1. Is there a compelling subject?
  2. Is there compelling drama?
  3. Would my composition show both?

Photographer Rajan Parrikar ignores the rule of thirds and relies on on the lighting and relative prominence of the Grossmünster for this pleasing composition.Photographer Rajan Parrikar ignores the rule of thirds and relies on the lighting and relative prominence of the Grossmünster, Zürich for this pleasing composition.

Artful Blurring

Blurring the background to increase sharpness of the subject is a technique we often employ and are all too familiar with. Sometimes, there is an imperative to do the reverse - blur the subject while keeping the background sharp. Occasionally, there may even arise a need to blur the entire composition!

Blurring a subject is a technique used to animate a stationary subject and to show motion.

Why on earth would I want to animate a stationary subject, you ask? Well, you are forgetting. It's all about drama: you animate a subject to increase the drama!

Blurring the entire composition is a rare and controversial technique. It's used when the subject is a mood, not an element in the scene.

Blurring a scene is all too easy- only when you don't want to do it! It can be challenging when you want to do it, artfully, in a carefully calibrated manner. You can blur using slow shutter speed, low depth of field, panning, de-focus and zooming during an exposure. Read the preceding sentence again. Notice it does not include camera shake as a technique for blurring. Ironically, deliberate blurring is best done using a tripod so that there is no camera shake and the blurring is carefully controlled.

Blurring to Animate a Still

You can make a delightful scene exhilarating - by animating it! There are two ways.

  1. Panning.
  2. Zooming during a long exposure.

Pentax Forum user David Bales recently posted a fine example of animating a static scene through panning.

He was shooting a vast field of multi-colored tulips and "could not get past the feeling that all these bright stripes of color wanted more movement."

Animating a Tulip field through a short pan of the camera!
Pentax Forums user David Bales animates a tulip field through a short pan of the camera.

Explaining the technique he used, Bales writes, "A short pan with a moderate shutter speed brought their exuberance back to life for me."

Similar playfulness prompted me to animate these buildings in downtown Noida, visible from my house, by zooming during a 5-second night exposure.

Animating a night scene by zooming during a long exposure.A night scene animated by zooming during a long exposure. Photo Credit: Vijainder K Thakur

I attached my K-7 with a DA 55-300mm lens to a sturdy tripod and set exposure to 5 sec, ISO to 100, zoomed to 55mm, and aperture to F/8.

I clicked the shutter, counted 1001, 1002, 1003 and smoothly started to zoom continuing to count 1004 and 1005.

As a result, the lights on the isolated set of buildings under construction produced Star Wars-like streaks suggesting motion.

Blurring to Show Motion

You can show motion using low or high drama. When your subject is defined by the context you would normally use the low drama technique to ensure the context is not lost.

Using slow shutter speed to show motion.A slow shutter speed blurs morning walkers in a mark. Photo Credit: Vijainder K Thakur

The subject in the above photo- Walkers in Noida's War Memorial park- required the context to be firmly established.  The simplest way to show motion and the context is to use a slow shutter speed.

The above photo was taken at 1/4s. Other camera settings were ISO 100 with the FA 50mm F1.4 set to F6.3. More importantly, I was using a ND8 filter, because I didn't reach the park early enough in the morning to take advantage of the softer light, as I had planned to. Yes, I am slowing down. No, you can't do without a ND filter even if you aren't slowing down! For motion blurring during the day a ND filter is almost indispensable. (for more tips on ND filters, see this article)

How slow a shutter speed you need to use would depend on the lateral speed of your subject, which in turn would depend on the actual speed of the subject, distance from the camera and the direction of movement. I don't really have a rule of thumb. For walking people or other slow-moving objects, a 1/4 sec exposure is a good setting to begin with.

Panning to Show Motion

Panning your camera to shoot a moving subject adds much to the drama, but also heavily blurs the context, so your subject must really stand out for itself.

Panning allows you to keep the subject in reasonably good focus making the motion more real and thrilling. It's near impossible to get the entire moving subject in sharp focus: with human or animal because panning doesn't negate the up and down movement of their limbs; and with cars, buses and trains, because the speed of lateral traverse varies with the front and back of the vehicle.

City bus rushes to its terminus to be in time for the first run of the day. Photo Credit: Vijainder K Thakur
City bus rushes to its terminus to be in time for the first run of the day. Photo Credit: Vijainder K Thakur

Note the heightened drama caused by the panning and how the front of the bus is more in focus than the rear.

Out of Focus Subjects

When your subject is a mood, rather than an object, it can sometimes be best captured by deliberately making the image out-of-focus. Admittedly, it isn't easy to do, both physically and emotionally!

It's difficult physically, because DSLRs by default snap into focus every time you shoot. If you don't tell them what to focus on, they cheekily pick something on their own. So you have to override the default on your own.

There is more to it. When you defocus for art, you defocus to an extent that achieves your purpose. Do you want to soften the highlights? Smudge colors? Play with the shape of light points? To achieve the desired effect, you have to look through the optical viewfinder and carefully calibrate the extent of defocus.

Bottom line: you have to switch to manual focus for this technique to work.

The following photo posted in our Photo Critique forum in April by member Velja brilliantly demonstrates the concept.

Pentax Forum member Velja brilliantly conveys a mood in this out-of-focus composition.
Pentax Forums member Velja brilliantly demonstrates how an of out-of-focus subject can convey a mood.

The subject is a mood: style and vibrancy.

Going back to the emotional difficulty, most hobbyists look upon photography as a lifetime pursuit of sharp focus, so deliberately rotating the focus ring to blur a composition is emotionally-taxing. Perhaps I am exaggerating? Let's just say it goes against our instincts.

It's not surprising that many photographers believe that an out-of-focus photograph can never be considered good, art or otherwise. But hey, not all of us care for Van Gogh either!

Out of Focus Photography Tips

With a normal (35mm to 50mm) lens, a wide aperture (f/1.4 to f/2.8) gives you maximum flexibility when you want to keep the scene blurred, but higher f-stops can also work. Telephoto lenses have much more shallow depth of field at significantly higher f-stops.

It's best to keep your composition simple using strong elements. A human element is usually intrinsic to a mood. Keep the background simple (sky, water, etc) and isolated from the human element.

An out-of-focus photograph is best accompanied by a title that suggests its purpose. Moods are not as easily-discernible as subjects. If required, use an accompanying write up to elaborate.

Sometimes photographers focus on a small, usually insignificant object that is not the subject, keeping the rest of the scene, including the subject blurred.

Body Parts

The visual impact of a photo determines whether it works or not. As long as the photographer manages to convey his feeling successfully, nothing else counts.

Take a look at the following photograph, posted recently by Pentax Forums user FLipsky. Note the caption: Generations.

Usually, photos showing parts of human body fails to make an impact, as they create a subliminal tension. But, in this case the photographer negates the tension through the joy that he conveys with the subject and the drama.

Pentax Forum member FLipsky effectively conveys how body parts can make an compelling composition in the photo titled - Generations!Pentax Forums member FLipsky effectively conveys how body parts can make a compelling composition in the photo titled - Generations!


Breaking the rules is never good without first learning the rules. Breaking rules unwittingly is not going to result in good photography. Remember, the rules are there to help us take good pictures.

Rules should be broken only when they become limiting; they should be broken with a clearly defined purpose. In photography, the purpose can only be to better convey the mood or subject, and the drama.


At the end, I would like to yell - Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! to Pentax Forum users Flipsky, Velja and pdxbales for having kindly consented to allow me to use their photos. A similar "triple thank you" to my friend Rajan Parrikar.

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