Someone seriously misunderstood this post as a “prescription for good photography.” A careful reading will clearly show that the argument here is “not to be bogged down with rules” and try to move beyond. It was a response to rules-driven salon photography. Since I would not presume to exclude anyone from doing what they wish to pursue as a hobby, I wanted to point out the learning process they might be going through, and the sooner they move beyond the rules the better their photography would be. This comment would not have been necessary had it not been for a self-proclaimed photographic genius who misunderstood, and even misquoted my views. See my response if you like. — November 14, 2010.
People trying to learn something new go through a process that seems to be unaffected by what they are learning. I suggest that we define “learning” as “any overt or covert change in behavior” to have a starting point. Human behavior of any kind seems to resist change. Learning is the process aimed at making this change possible despite the resistance. The subject matter and its complexities aside, the process of learning and the stages that the learner goes through do not depend on what we are trying to learn. We all go through the same stages of understanding, remembering, comprehending, applying, and finally, learning the material or the process so well we start doing it seemingly with no effort.
For instance, riding a bicycle is difficult to learn at the beginning. But once learned, it seems impossible to unlearn or to forget. Remember how you learned to ride a bike. Your brother, father, mother told you to “steer in the direction you seem to be falling,” and you tried to do that as they pushed you from behind, helping you to experience that delicate balance. Most likely, you fell a few times, always being aware of the rule “steer in the direction you seem to be falling” and, although it felt counterintuitive, trying very hard to apply it. Once you realized how to keep your balance, the rule itself became fainter and fainter, to the point that you probably do not remember, nor do you care about the rule anymore.
You can apply this process to every learning situation, from playing softball to golf, from playing the guitar to jumping rope. So, why don’t we try to apply the same process to photography and see if we can find the path to become an “expert photographer.” On the way there, I also would like to take a detour and decipher the adage, “rules are made to be broken” or “experts break the rules,” which most people take to mean that we should ignore the rules. As I will suggest shortly, I don’t think it means anything like that at all.
Anyone who grabs a camera and seriously considers this as a hobby or future profession needs to deal with the equipment, composition, artistry, creativity, all reasonably complex, and with their unique challenges. Think of a camera system and forget for a moment how comfortable you are with your gear. Now, try to explain how to use your camera to a person who is just starting. You will realize that one, you know a lot; two, you cannot decide where to start explaining how to use this gear. Yet, you have learned it reasonably well and use the equipment without much thinking. All the things you know and take for granted, the beginner needs to understand, remember, comprehend, and apply. And, this is only the equipment.
In this learning process, this hypothetical student of photography has to go through the same stages as I outlined above. Depending on their aptitude, effort, and other factors, different people may progress at different speeds through the stages below:
- Understands the rules, be it exposure, framing, printing, developing, post-processing
- Sometimes remembers to use the rule, the rule to use, and when to use it
- Then consciously tries to apply the rule, often failing because the rule matters more than the photograph at this point, we do not see any “intent”
- Remembers the rule, the rule to use, when to use it
- Applies the rule with reasonable ease most of the time, we see the rule in the photographs, not the “intent”
- Knows which rule to use when
- Smoothly and efficiently applies the rules
- Knows several variations of the rules depending on the circumstances, we occasionally see the “intent”
- Does not think in terms of rules
- Has an all-encompassing approach to photography, gestalt
- Instinctively knows what will work and what not
- Knows enough not to be hampered by the rules, most of the time we see the “intent”
It should be reasonably clear after this dissecting of the path to becoming an expert photographer is following the rules to the point that application of them becomes second nature, and finally, at the point of expertise, the rules no longer matter. The photographer has gone beyond the rules and is more focused on the expression of her or his “intent.”
The “expert photographer” knows when to put the subject matter in the center, bulls-eye that the rules tell us to avoid, crops the head of the person or the roofline of a house in two, has the subject move during the exposure, all against the rules that we pass to each other. As a result, to the amazement of most, her photograph has been so well constructed, even with a dead-center positioning of the main subject, seemingly in defiance of the “rule of thirds,” really works.
Here, the expert photographer seems to be breaking “the rules that are made to be broken.” Or is she? In reality, she is not intentionally breaking the rule of thirds, as she no longer feels bound by it, nor does she even care to remember it. What matters at this point is the gestalt, the photographer, the subject, time, placement, framing all becoming one. The result moves us all as we feel this unified, coherent whole presented with a seeing eye and a feeling heart, with all the “intent” forcefully coming through.
I would like to end with the definition of an expert that I like. “An expert is a person who has made all possible mistakes in a narrow field of study.” So, in the spirit of this definition:
May you make many more mistakes very soon!