Why It’s Time to Throw Away the Photography Handbook


Why people should learn to play and experiment with photography instead of being pressured into learning the 'rules' first.

For me, photography is a way of communicating an emotion, a story, a feeling, a snapshot of a moment that you can look back on in years to come and instantly be transported back to that place or time.
I’ve always loved using photography in my work and have never bothered to use an SLR camera. I understand the importance of learning about composition, lighting and other general photography ‘rules’ but most of the time when I try and learn about all the essentials to taking a ‘good’ photograph I am put off and I don’t feel any emotional connection with these ‘professional’-looking images.

Let me explain, however, that it’s not that I don’t appreciate their skill for what they do, I’m just not personally drawn to this type of ‘perfected’ photography. I dislike the notion that to be a ‘good’ picture it must have perfect and considered lighting, be of excellent quality, have an exciting composition and not have any flaws, (i.e blurring, over exposure, light leaks etc.). It just so happens, that I’m actually drawn to the ‘bad’ photographs.

The first time I saw ‘alternative’ photography, I was blown away. It was an emulsion transfer my tutor had shown me in college. It was a magazine photocopy, but it had been transferred on to textured handmade paper and the worn surface and soft colours hypnotised me into an image transferring frenzy where I tried transferring on to every type of surface using as many photographs as I could get my hands on.

I believe that the real skill in a piece of music, art, novel isn’t about the complexities of the subject, but how well you can communicate what you love with the viewer and have the ability to transport them to another place. It took a lot of guts, but I threw away the Photography Rule Book a few months ago and traded it in a cheap, toy camera. The amount of time you can spend learning the theory of photography and using ridiculously complex cameras, you could spend shooting everything you see using a camera that costs less than they handbook and produces photographs that have more ethereal qualities than the most expensive camera in the world.

Argue with me if you want, but I don’t believe there is such a thing as a ‘professional’ photographer. Yes, people get paid for taking photographs, they may have a degree in photography and have read 50 books on the theory of light & composition but to me, the value isn’t necessarily in the skill, it’s in the way the viewer communicates with the piece. I believe that photography, like art, is subjective to each individual person.

And isn’t art about breaking the rules anyway?

One of my biggest fears is losing my passion for what I do because I am bogged down with the theory and the ‘rules’ of what to do. I never want to lose my passion for experimentation, 99% of the work you produce may not be brilliant, award-winning photography, but there’s always the 1% that is truly genius, original and heart stopping, purely for the reason that you didn’t follow the rules.

Be brave, trust your own knowledge and embrace your inner child, question everything you know and produce work that is truly your own.

written by creativediarist on 2011-08-11 in #lifestyle #handbook #photography #rules #experimentation #free #play


  1. aroninvt
    aroninvt ·

    While I agree with you for the most part, and I love the pictures, I personally feel that studying the basics is still important. Learning depth of field, composition and what the heck ISO means is integral to the art of photography. Learn the techniques so that you can get the shots you want in difficult conditions. For example, understanding ISO of the film and how it relates to aperture and shutter speed will make the difference in whether you get the shot indoors, at night or in mixed lighting conditions.

  2. lomophobia
    lomophobia ·

    A decent article ruined by a misleading title. You've highlighted some genuinely nice pieces of art put together with true creative flair. Sadly this isn't true for most lomographers who are simply capturing, not creating.

    The rules of photography are there whether you like them or not. You're using a mechanical device, chemistry & physics to produce a photograph. Irrespective of what kind of camera you're using, some understanding of the 'rules' will aid you in getting the shot you want as opposed to dumb luck.

    The 'professionals' whom you're put off by can only sustain their business by repeatedly producing consistent results to meet their clients requirements. I'm happy that you're happy with the pictures you produce according to what matters to you, thats great, but don't try to say theres no place for learning the finer points of photography. That just turns this article into a fluff piece.

  3. coldkennels
    coldkennels ·

    I agree with @aroninvt and @lomophobia; sadly, for true creativity in any field, a certain amount of understanding of "the rules" is always necessary. Just as you cannot write a story without a basic understanding of language (i.e. the alphabet, words, syntax, etc), you cannot be creative without understanding the basics of photography. It doesn't matter whether it's read from a book, seen in someone else's work, or merely from refining your own, you will always to pick these basics up.

    And, of course, on a technical level, there are rules you need to learn too; how many depends on the processes you work with. If you are merely a point-and-shooter with an automatic camera, it's kept to a minimum. You point. You shoot. If you want to graduate past that - say you jump all the way to a 4x5 view camera that you're developing and printing yourself - you NEED to learn how to do it properly. You can experiment with avant-garde ideas and techniques later, but unless you take the time to learn how to actually do each and every step, you might as well be reinventing photography from scratch. You're just making things harder for yourself, and the chances of you being able to ever do an emulsion transfer are slim to none. Only by standing on the shoulders of giants can we reach bold new heights. But even then, when you learn all the rules and discard them, don't fool yourself; the alternative is merely a different path, and not a new one. This is not to say there is no creativity, merely that you are now subscribing to a new, different photography handbook.

    But, at any rate, there is a distinct difference between creativity and control; you can argue that a child throwing paint at a wall is being creative, regardless of whether or not you like the end. And if you give a two year old an LC-A, it will shoot a roll of film in 20 minutes, and if you're lucky, one of the photographs that result may be worth looking at. But the real skill lies in knowing how to get that photograph consistently, and, to quote you directly, "how well you can communicate what you love with the viewer and have the ability to transport them to another place." This isn't something you can do by accident. True representation of ideas requires consciousness, understanding and control, and it is only by fully understanding and considering every creative choice that you can reach this point.

  4. slumbrnghok
    slumbrnghok ·

    Great article! Personally my favourite part of learning rules is knowing I'm going to break them all in the future.

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