Why is landscape photography bound by so many rules? You must obey the rule of thirds; you shouldn't place your horizon in the centre of the frame, you must have a centre of interest, and many others. It seems that if you disobey these rules, you can forget about taking a successful photo. But why should this happen to a medium, which like painting or sculpting, is a method of free expression? Shouldn't we be able to put our own vision onto film without someone criticizing us? Yes, there are standards that must be upheld to separate the good work from the bad, but after that creativity can be encouraged. You should learn the basic rules of photography when you're beginning, but once you've done that, throw the rulebook out the window.
The 'rules' we use in photography are out-dated concepts used to bring order to something that should be free of constraints. We are being asked to follow directions that were taught to painters centuries ago so they could produce structured images. But todays, photographers, painters and other artists shouldn't feel as though they are bound by this system. Look at the work of some of the great photographers of the 20th century and notice how their images never feel restricted by sticking to a set of rules.
It's time to take control of your photography, to let everyone know you have something to say. Ask yourself, how do I make my images stand out from all the others, how do I imprint myself onto my photos? If we are ever to produce an image that is truly our own then we need to break away from these set rules.
Let's look at a number of these so-called rules and see whether they are still relevant to photography today.
'The rule of thirds'
In order for an image to have balance we must follow the rule of thirds. But how can we reproduce a landscape, which in its very nature, is not bound by any structure, with constraints such as this. In other words how can we say that we'll place the waterfall here, and the dominant rock formation there, when these to formations don't conform to our vision? Just because we want to arrange the elements in our photo, doesn't always mean the scene will concur with us.
'The horizon should be in the top or bottom third of the image'
Where should we place the horizon? If it were up to the rule makers then it would only be in two places. What we should be doing is letting the scene determine where we put the horizon. If the landscape is interesting and the sky free of cloud formations, then why not put the horizon line right at the top of the image. You could even exclude it altogether. Alternatively, if the sky has a lot to offer, and the landscape is bland, then exclude the ground.
We're also told never to place the horizon in the centre of the frame. Why is this exactly? If the land and sky are equally interesting then isn't it worth trying to photography each in equal proportion. Brilliant cloudscapes can be photographed reflected in a calm sea or river with the horizon in the centre. How could a photo be more balanced than to have the clouds and reflection copy each other almost perfectly?
'The image must have a centre of interest'
Again, the very nature of the landscape is that elements are placed totally at random, and not every scene worth taking a photo of will have a point of interest. Photography judges will often bring out the old staple when referring to such an image, "My eye wanders around the image looking for a centre of interest". What we should be more careful of is insuring that all parts of the image have some interest in them; a rock pool in the foreground, some tussock grass in the centre, and a line of trees in the distance. Surely this is what we should be striving for. Yes, the eye will wander around the image, but wherever it looks there's something worth looking at. Have as many centres of interest as you want.
'Lead in lines should go from bottom left to top right'
Including lines in an image is one of the visual tools used to add interest into the image. Roads, ploughed fields and fences are three classic examples often used to lead the eye into the image. But where should they run from, and where should they go in an image? I've often heard it said that lead in lines should go from the bottom left of the photo to the top right because that is the way we view a page of writing. Does this mean that people from other cultures, whose words run across a page differently, would prefer the lead in lines elsewhere? Does it really matter if the lines are entering through the bottom right and running to the top left? Of course not. Just because the lead in lines in a scene go the wrong way doesn't mean that we shouldn't take the photo.
'The sun should be over the shoulder'
How boring would our photos be if we only took them with the sun behind us. Every scene would have the same lighting, rendering subjects without any shape or form. With the sunset coming from the side shadows are created, and this highlights the textures in everything within the scene. The subjects in the photo have been transformed from flat cut outs, into solid forms. We can even go further and photograph into the sun. Yes, exposures are harder to calculate, but the rewards are images that break out of the norm. However, you should always exclude the sun from the image, unless clouds or some other semi-transparent object such as tree leaves blocks it. Look at how light reacts with the landscape, and never be afraid to try something different.
'There should be no empty spaces in a photo'
We've always been taught that we should fill the frame from edge to edge, and never leave empty space. But there are certain images that cry out for some negative space to accompany the main subject, like a single tree on a barren flat landscape. If you move in close to the tree and show nothing else, you can't convey the isolation of this subject. The same thing can be said with a boat moving across a vast ocean, or a bird flying into the sky. Not all subjects can be photographed this way, but we should be able to produce images such as this if that is what is required.
'Everything in the frame must be sharp'
To ensure that everything in the photo is sharp set your lens to a small aperture. This will maintain sharpness throughout nearly the entire image. Of course, this means that in low light we are forced to use long exposures. Anything moving within the scene will become a blur. But, we can use this as an effective tool to add movement to our images. Water is one of the best examples. Whether in a waterfall, or in the ocean, it's often in a state of constant movement. What better way to add interest to what is otherwise a static medium like photography? Other things like trees and grass can be moving also, but they can be balanced by including stationary objects such as rocks and other landforms. Using a tripod and a cable release will ensure that what is meant to be sharp will be, and what is not won't.
'You must place your centre of interest according to the rule of thirds;
you can't put it in the centre'
Another rule that restricts the creative process and tries to bring order to medium that doesn't require it. Not, every scene will have a centre of interest, but if one is included should we be restricted to where we can put it. Some would say that if we place this subject in the centre of the frame, or off in the corner, it upsets the balance off the image. But aren't we upsetting the balance if we place subjects according to this rule, rather than where they look the best. By following the rule-of-thirds aren't we producing image after image, each a clone of the other.
'Landscapes should include people or cars, or boats, etc....'
How many times have we heard, "That image would be great if only there was someone in it" or "That seascape needs a boat in it"? If we were photographing a city park, then yes, that would need people in it. But shouldn't a forest scene or a pristine beach be free of man-made intrusions. Just because a scene doesn't feature a person in it, doesn't mean that it's uninteresting. In fact in some places signs of human intrusion would be to the detriment of the image. Isn't a landscape interesting in its own right, without including unnatural elements?
The simple fact of the matter is that each generation of photographer learns from those who have gone before them. But if those photographers are merely repeating the same old stale set of rules, how can our images break away from this. We should listen to those more experienced with matters relating to photography. Listen and learn. But we shouldn't be afraid to express our own creativity. If we disagree with a certain photographic rule, then shouldn't we be able to say so without prejudice. As a member of a camera club I have witnessed visiting photography judges trot out the same well worn excuses as to why an image is good or not. Many people will simply accept this as normal and move on. Therefore, when they pass on their judgements to the next generation of photographers, nothing will have changed. We cannot have true artistic input into our images if we are bound by out-dated rules. If I sound a bit annoyed with the whole system, yes I am, but no changes will ever happen if people just sit by and say nothing.