Ansel Adams once said, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs. ” I whole heartedly support this statement, and it’s one of the reasons that I tend to avoid posting my photos to public websites for critique. The people who are most active in the critiques sections of these websites tend to be the people who have learned the “rules” of photography and then go into the forums checking off the rules. If you followed the rules then it’s a good shot, and if you didn’t then it gets torn apart.
The thing about the rules of photography, especially composition rules, is that they can be helpful to someone who doesn’t understand the fundamentals of what makes a good image. They’re good guides in helping illustrate abstract concepts, like visual tension, that are difficult to explain without something of a concrete example. Unfortunately, the rules can become counter-productive if they underlying concepts they illustrate are never fully grasped.
To illustrate this, I tend to use the example of hitting in baseball. In little league, children are taught the rules for hitting a baseball. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, arms back, elbow up, step into the pitch, swing level, etc. The thing about these rules is that they’re great for someone with absolutely no clue how to hit a baseball, but look at baseball players from every age group, from the traveling teams through to the pros. How many of the players still have a textbook swing? As players get experience, they learn what works for them and they adapt their hitting style accordingly. By the time most players become pros, their hitting technique is so unique, that they can be identified by their stance at the plate. These guys are by definition among the best baseball players in the world. Every one of them have abandoned the rules, after learning the fundamentals of hitting and adapting those techniques to their strengths.
So it is with photography. Photographers learn the rules as a guide for understanding the concept, and then move past those rules, adapting their technique to their strengths.