“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of universal gravitation before going for a walk” – Edward Weston
For the commercial photographer it sometimes appears pedantic to overly consider aesthetics when seeking the commensurate financial compensation for work performed in the current business environment.
For the amateur photographer chasing awards and citations within their club environment it sometimes seems essential to work the rule of thirds to its predictable and very likely dire death.
Should the rules of composition be considered prior to making a photograph?
Well of course they should. But wouldn’t it be better if this, and many other rules, were ingrained via education and consistent repetitive practice? After all, the best musicians practice every day. Great artists are constantly working at their easel. Writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle produced a solid 3,000 words per day, whilst Ernest Hemingway produced a more miserly 500 words per day – but they, and many others, kept up this rate day after day. When questioned about his daily output, Doyle was recorded as saying “anything is better than stagnation”.
In this day and age, where the combination of simple photographic fixes with apparently bullet proof cameras producing exposures approaching perfection, the need for formal education has never been more apparent. Learning the rules might seem a little on the tedious side, but a solid grounding with this knowledge makes the subsequent artistic breaking of them a matter of course.
Doing so with the confidence of gut instinct is far better than consulting a tedious check list of “rules” set out in bullet points on a crumpled piece of card in your back pocket. A little like those cheat sheet cards containing illustrations that were once favoured for posing portrait subjects.
Equally destructive is the often absolute reliance on formulaic rules of photography favoured by some camera club judges. This usually comes about from a desire to enforce a certain standard upon judges who come from many and varied backgrounds and experiences. This approach to standardisation is as damaging as having a couple of rogue judges rampaging through a photography society. This lowering of standards to that of the perceived average photographer is as counter-productive as the commercial photographer who attempts to bring a veneer of creativity to their output via a forced reliance on contemporary aesthetics.
There are no simple fixes to this age-old photographic conundrum. Although often overlooked in current times, one simple answer is grounded in a formal course of study (either photographic or artistic) followed by a period of time working in the shadow of an established practitioner, prior to embarking into the world of commercial image making. Instead, today many choose the quick fix money making alternative of purchasing a sophisticated camera capable of producing sharp and well exposed images, printing a few business cards and hanging the virtual open-for-business sign that a simple website now represents.
It is at this point that aesthetics fly out of the window, lost perhaps forever to the commercial imperative. The end result? A slow decline in professional standards, and less effective, less persuasive visual communication.
The downside of this unsophisticated approach is that an unskilled photographer with the gift of the gab and some slick presentation skills is sometimes able to take work away from a practicing professional with years of solid experience, often by providing a cheaper solution.
The words, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”, were attributed to Pablo Picasso, and it is difficult to argue with the master.
This essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p156, issue 61 :: December/January, 2017.