Photo Masterclass part 12: Break all the rules

Rules were made to be broken. So play with blur, relish clutter, crop out your subject and discover the dark. If you ignore the protocols of photography, you may just create a masterpiece, says Mark Carwardine.

Photo Masterclass part 12: Break all the rules

Rules were made to be broken. So play with blur, relish clutter, crop out your subject and discover the dark. If you ignore the protocols of photography, you may just create a masterpiece, says Mark Carwardine.

Rules are a great starting point when developing your skills and growing as a wildlife photographer.

Keeping it simple, getting down low, the rule of thirds and all the other tricks of the trade we’ve been studying over the past year really will help to improve the quality of your images.

Yet none of these protocols is sacrosanct. Who says that clutter can’t make a good picture, that you always have to shoot at eye level or that every animal must sit squarely on a point of power?

It’s invaluable to have rules, but professional photographers break them all the time to get the shot they want.

The most important thing is to understand how rules work and why they are important before you start breaking them, because people who look at your images will soon be able to tell if you have done something intentionally or by mistake. But then you need to be free to let your imagination run wild.

It’s all about thinking outside the box and experimenting. It won’t always work – in fact, it often won’t work – but when it does, you will have created something really eye-catching and different.

So this month we’ll be breaking all the rules, developing our own individual styles and remembering the golden rule of wildlife photography: it’s not what you photograph, it’s the way that you do it. 



1. Focus on the features

The expert: David Tipling, UK

One way to push the boundaries of creativity is to concentrate on an animal’s most distinctive feature.

That’s exactly what David has done with this portrait of a Philippine tarsier. It may be one of the smallest primates in the world, but it does have the largest eye-to-body ratio of all mammals.

“When you are looking for tarsiers, the first thing you notice is those disproportionately big eyes staring out through the foliage,” says David.

“I wanted to capture the essence of that in a single photograph.”

David has focused on just one eye for even greater impact. He has also cropped out the rest of the animal, filling the space with foliage. 


2. Find magic in mayhem

The expert: Pål Hermansen, Norway

Few gull images have the energy and excitement of Pål’s striking flight-shot of black-legged kittiwakes in Norway’s Lofoten Islands.

It may be blurry and chaotic, with most of the main bird out of frame and the head of a second blocked from view, but it’s dynamic and powerful, and really stands out from the crowd. 

“Real life isn’t always neatly structured and well ordered – it’s often quite shambolic,” explains Pål, “and that’s exactly how a flock of eager gulls appears to me.

I wanted to capture how it might feel to be a bird among the throng, which meant breaking a few photographic rules.

I like to experiment with the accidental chaos of motion, where I don’t have full control over every element of the image. I prefer these shots to perfectly composed ones.”


3. Think dark thoughts

The expert: Peter Cairns, UK 

Can a picture be dominated by black? Judging by Peter’s wonderfully unusual shot of a coot, it can. 

This is clearly not a black and white photo – there is colour in the light, in the coot’s plumage and in its familiar red eye – yet more than 90 per cent of it is pitch black.

“The light on this particular day was gorgeous,” says Peter. “It lit up the coot’s dark plumage just enough to lift it from the background.

I like the way its white frontal shield is reflected in the water, forming a vertical line right down the centre of the frame.”

Note also the faint horizontal white line at the water’s surface. This anchors the coot, so it doesn’t look as if it’s floating in mid-air.


4. Capture the character

The expert: Edwin Giesbers, Netherlands

Distinctive subjects lend themselves to a little extra creativity, offering the chance to highlight or even exaggerate their most striking features in unusual ways.

“I wanted to give a prey’s-eye view of a praying mantis,” explains Edwin. “By focusing on those archetypal spiked forelegs, I was able to show the last thing a hapless insect might see just before it is seized.”

Your eyes are drawn straight to the insect’s forelimbs because they are the only sharp parts of the image.

You can immediately identify which animal they belong to – even though its head and body are completely out of focus – because praying mantises are so distinctive.

A picture like this wouldn’t work nearly as well if the animal wasn’t instantly recognisable. 



Now you know the rules, let your creativity run wild for an even better picture.

5. Challenge your viewer

The expert: Jan-Peter Lahall, Sweden

Jan-Peter is renowned for pushing the boundaries of wildlife photography.

He takes plenty of traditional images, but is best known for throwing away the rule book and letting his imagination run wild.

This delightfully off-the-wall picture of greylag geese in Tysslingen, Sweden, is a good example of his unique and recognisable style.

“I was able to get a clear view of the geese,” he says, “and I did take a number of more conventional pictures by shooting across the open snow. But I wanted to capture something more unusual, so I moved to a different position and shot through the trees instead.”

There is one key ingredient to this image – the goose on the right. If this bird wasn’t clearly visible through the branches, the picture wouldn’t work so well.

It’s a very abstract image – one that most photographers probably wouldn’t have noticed – yet Jan-Peter has made sure that it’s immediately obvious what you are looking at.

There is, however, a limit. You have to be careful not to become so ridiculously creative that your pictures leave the viewer frustrated and confused.



SWAP PLACES Try intentionally breaking one rule at a time. For example, experiment by placing your subjects in the centre or close to the edge of the frame rather than on a power point.

WATCH THIS SPACE One interesting rule to break is the use of ‘dead’ space. Have your subjects flying, running, walking or swimming (below) out of open space rather than into it.

FIND AN AUDIENCE Bear in mind that many of the most creative images are loved by some people but hated by others – reactions are subjective.

KNOW YOUR LIMITS Don’t give up the rules altogether. After all, they are designed to make pictures aesthetically pleasing.


Read previous Photo Masterclasses. 

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