Home / Blog / When to Break Photography Rules Like the Rule of Thirds

When it comes to photography, there aren’t a whole lot of rules. But the rules that do exist? You may be taught over and over again that to break them makes you a sloppy photographer. This simply isn’t the case— as long as you understand the key rules of photography.Before you go doing some intense experimenting, brush up on your photography rules so you can know when you’re breaking them, and you can break them with confidence.

Balancing elements with the Rule of Thirds

Whether you’re just starting out as a photographer or you’re a professional, chances are you probably hear the rule of thirds daily. The rule of thirds states that if you were to break down a photo into nine segments – with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines – the most vital parts of your photo should be positioned along those lines. This is meant to balance out your focal points, making the image easier to view.

However, this rule can be, and very often has been, broken. For instance, try positioning a decrepit sign in one corner of your photo with a vast empty space in the other half of the photo. Some would say this move is a huge no-no, but it can add a sense of drama to a picture, if that’s what you’re going for.

Framing the Shot with a Focal Point

Framing a shot can be crucial. Adding a natural frame around a focal point – whether it’s trees, mountains, or something man-made – can bring more attention to your point of interest. Take famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photo “Children Playing In The Ruins”, for instance: While the photo without the frame still would have been interesting, the fact that it was shot through a hole in a wall added a whole other element.

henri-cartier-bresson-hyeres-france-1932-seville-spain-1944-wall-hole-children-playingPhoto: Henri Cartier-Bresson

That being said, if your goal is to give the viewer a sense of business or even confusion, you may want to opt for omitting a frame in your photo focal point. A picture of a crowded street filled with people minus any framing from a building or something like that can have the potential to make the viewer almost feel like they are right there amongst the hectic, crowded street. It’s all about how you want your image to be perceived.

Horizontal Horizons

Photography 101 states that any horizons in your shots should be kept, well, horizontal. If the horizon line in a photo is slightly off, it may leave the viewer seeing the photographer as somewhat sloppy in their approach. But if you feel like consciously breaking this rule, isn’t just slightly off; it needs to be pretty off-kilter. This way, the not-so-horizontal horizon line looks more creative and less like a complete accident.

crooked_photographyPhoto: Crooked Horizon Series

If you don’t trust yourself to keep the horizon line in your photographs completely horizontal, this is when a tripod will really come in handy. Just make sure that you have a tripod with a built-in level to make straightening things up a little easier.

Keep Things Crisp

People may try to tell you to never accept blurry photos, or try to eliminate as much noise as possible from your shots. While following these rules will typically make your photos ten times better, sometimes the instance calls for a bit of blur or a bit of noise.

One amazing photographer, Uta Barth, is best known for her out-of-focus photography. Blurring out the subjects in your image can present a new way to look at something that people may be incredibly familiar with, like a famous landmark. As long as it’s obvious that your blur is intentional, it’s a technique that you can have fun experimenting with.

uta_barthPeripheral Focus: Uta Barth

As for noisy photos (that is, overly grainy photos), if your plan is to shoot a scene with a lot going on, the grain may add to the already tense and hectic shot. But if your goal is to emit a sense of relaxation through your photography, it’s best to eliminate as much grain as possible.

If you want to learn more about photography rules, like the rule of thirds and when it’s ok to break them, consider checking out my beginner’s photography class in Central Park in NYC.

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