RULES SCHMULES! Do Photography Rules Really Matter?

RULES_SCHMULESOne of the mistakes I made early on was to tell myself I didn’t need to know why I was doing something as long as it looked good. But I quickly found myself feeling stagnant. I wanted to learn and grow but I really didn’t know what I was shooting for. To be really honest, I actually only fully learned this lesson about 6 months ago! I was searching for this answer for a long time.

I knew it was important to know how to use my equipment, but I didn’t realize how understanding the rules of photography would help stir my creativity as an artist!


MY 6 MOST IMPORTANT LIST: The building blocks to a great photograph

  1. EXPRESSION- Without expression,  your photograph is lost. You can have every thing else technically correct but if your subject has a poor expression the image looses impact and meaning.
  2. POSING- There are some simple posing rules that will take your images to the next level. It is important to learn how to use posing to flatter your subject and enhance the photograph.
  3. COMPOSITION- Being deliberate about your composition will help to portray the message of the image and keep the viewer engaged.
  4. LIGHTING- Its not just about proper exposure, lighting affects the overall feel of an image and can take it from blah to brilliant.
  5. EXPOSURE- It is important to understand proper exposure. Notice when highlights are overexposed and/or detail is lost in underexposed shadows and then what to do to fix it.
  6. LENS CHOICE- Your lens choice can add visual interest by effecting compression, DOF, Bokeh and field of view.



Recently I embarked on a new adventure: entering photography contests. From my experience so far,  I have learned so much and realized there is even more to learn! When I decided to enter my first PPA contest in July of 2014, I was so lost! I had no idea how different creating images for a contest would be from creating them for a client. And I really couldn’t find any good resources about entering contests. So I just picked a few of my favorite photos and sent them in. Little did I know there were specific elements photos were judged on. Not only that, I did not have a clear idea what these meant! I attended judging and got to hear what the judges had to say; it was invaluable, and I recommend you do it! But even if you are not planning on entering any contests soon, learning about and understanding the following PPA standards of great images, will benefit you greatly.


The 12 Elements of a Great Image per PPA Standards:

1.) Impact is the sense one gets upon viewing an image for the first time. Compelling images evoke laughter, sadness, anger, pride, wonder, or another intense emotion. There can be impact in any of these twelve elements.

2.) Technical excellence is the print quality of the image itself as it is presented for viewing. Retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting, and correct color are some items that speak to the qualities of the physical print.

3.) Creativity is the original, fresh, and external expression of the imagination of the maker by using the medium to convey an idea, message or thought.

4.) Style is defined in a number of ways as it applies to a creative image. It might be defined by a specific genre or simply be recognizable as the characteristics of how a specific artist applies light to a subject. It can impact an image in a positive manner when the subject matter and the style are appropriate for each other, or it can have a negative effect when they are at odds.

5.) Composition is important to the design of an image, bringing all of the visual elements together in concert to express the purpose of the image. Proper composition holds the viewer in the image and prompts the viewer to look where the creator intends. Effective composition can be pleasing or disturbing, depending on the intent of the image maker.

6.) Presentation affects an image by giving it a finished look. The mats and borders used, either physical or digital, should support and enhance the image, not distract from it.

7.) Color Balance supplies harmony to an image. An image in which the tones work together, effectively supporting the image, can enhance its emotional appeal. Color balance is not always harmonious and can be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect.

8.) Center of Interest is the point or points on the image where the maker wants the viewer to stop as they view the image. There can be primary and secondary centers of interest. Occasionally there will be no specific center of interest, when the entire scene collectively serves as the center of interest.

9.) Lighting —the use and control of light—refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image. Whether the light applied to an image is manmade or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image.

10.) Subject Matter should always be appropriate to the story being told in an image.

11.) Technique is the approach used to create the image. Printing, lighting, posing, capture, presentation media, and more are part of the technique applied to an image.

12.) Storytelling refers to the image’s ability to evoke imagination. One beautiful thing about art is that each viewer might collect his own message or read her own story in an image.


If any of the above subjects put a question mark above your head, don’t worry! The Photographers Element has got your back! All of these topics are covered in the large array of classes offered.

You must first learn the rules like a pro, so that you can break them like an artist!


Here are some examples of photos that don’t follow the typical rules, but they still work because the artist knew the rules, but was deliberate about they way she broke them:


Roseburg_Oregon_Child_Photographer10bwPhoto by Jenny Gibson- Kids Instructor

In this image I knew direct sunlight is not the best light to photograph in. Taking that into account I found a way to make it work. By using the reflection off the water as a fill light to add more light on the subject, that allowed me to use the direct sunlight to highlight my subject while still being properly exposed.


centered malia b Photo by Malia B- Newborn Instructor

Generally speaking you want to want to place your subject on the thirds line. For this subject to follow that rule she’d need to be shifted to the right of the photograph. But… this photo works because Malia intentionally positioned  her in the center of a very symmetrical location. She framed the subject with the path and the bushes so  your eye is drawn right to her and not away.


Out of Focus Photo by Kristy Chapman- Lightroom Instructor

OOPS! Someone missed focus… or did she?! Kristy intentionally threw the subjects out of focus to tell a story. You get a sense as the viewer, that you happened upon a very private moment between a couple very much in love. The focus on the snowy trees lends to the story by sharing the location and adding a sense of coziness and intimacy.


Hindt-100Photo by Jen Golay- Photographer

Whats wrong here? The subjects are centered and thats a no no, but it works! Why?! Because Jen followed some very basic posing rules to enhance the photo and add interest in a way that makes the photo feel very balanced. She has created triangles. Look at the subjects heads, they form triangles with each other as well as the group pose as a whole. Plus she centered them on the bench giving the image a very symmetrical look.


Slow ShutterPhoto by Kristy Chapman- Lightroom Instructor

Most of the time  you want to have your shutter speed fast enough to avoid any type of motion blur. But in this case it works. Kristy wanted to tell the story of this happy and energetic little family. Its a glimpse into their daily lives; how it can be so chaotic and joyful at the same time!


Jenny_Gibson_Roseburg_Child_Photographer_Boys_FrogsPhoto by Jenny Gibson- Kids Instructor

Here is another one of those instances where you’d typically want a deep enough DOF so that the entire subject is in focus. But this works because it draws focus to the frog while still capturing the playful interaction between the boy and the frog. The boy’s head fills the image and because of his expression you are immediately draw to his face, but then you think, “what is he looking at?”  and your eye is drawn to the frog because that is where the focus falls. The frog would likely get lost had the boys face been in focus.


Flip itPhoto by Kristy Chapman- Lightroom Instructor

Yes, Kristy meant to do that! LOL! What makes this so visually interesting is that it is from a perspective we do not see everyday. While we recognize what the subject of the photo is, its because of the use of the reflection and the unusual upside down perspective that the viewers focus is held.


You see what fun this can be?! Knowing all of the rules allows you to be deliberate about creating a photograph that tells a story and creates a sense of impact. Now its your turn! Share an image on The Photographers Element Facebook Page where you deliberately broke the rules and why it works!





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Jenny Gibson

Jenny Gibson


Married and living in Roseburg, Oregon with 4 kids of her own, she is one of the most real, honest and down to earth people you will ever meet. It’s been said that Jenny has an uncanny ability to elicit great expressions out of any kid. She believes there isn’t a child out there that she couldn’t get a great photograph of. Her secret?? Patience. Determination. And an understanding and love of children.

Jenny’s confidence and passion spills out from her ‘Can Do’ spirit. She doesn’t believe being a successful photographer is a matter of what gifts you were born with, but how hard you’ve worked and how many failures you’ve overcome. Being completely self-taught has presented her with many challenges, but also an understanding for the needs and doubts among aspiring photographers. She never claims to be the absolute expert, but is willing to do whatever it takes to figure it out, and to help those around her succeed.

Jenny has earned recognition as an award winning photographer by the National Association of Professional Child Photographers, Shoot and Share Magazine and various other blogs and websites. When she’s not being a mama or photographing clients, you can find her filling her time with a variety of creative avenues like: refinishing furniture, redesigning/remodeling her home or cutting a friend’s hair.
Jenny Gibson