Photography Should Not be Chained by Rules

It is my Birthday today, and interestingly it is a public holiday here in Malaysia, because Christmas fell on a Sunday, and the following Monday (which happened to be today) is the holiday replacement. Too bad Malaysia does not have public holiday for Boxing Day, or else, tomorrow will be another holiday too. Nonetheless, we make do the best that we can with what we have, and I surely have utilized this holiday fruitfully.

I started the day by clearing out a huge amount of back-logs on my pending previous paid photography assignment/jobs. I was quite happy with the pace and amount of photographs cleared within half the day, and when afternoon came, I got myself ready to storm the streets. It is strange, since it was my birthday, I felt like shooting alone. It has been quite a long time since I last shot on the streets alone, and I started to yearn for that solo street hunting session. Together with my faithful Olympus DSLR E-5 and the “still getting used to it” Sigma 30mm F1.4 lens, I attacked Jalan Masjid India and Chow Kit, both my favourite street hunting grounds. Gosh, I have not enjoyed myself this much for a long, long time !!

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Sigma 30mm F1.4

Special vehicle


Sour face

Father figure

An Indian Lady


I decided to present my images all in monotone in this entry. Nothing special, just felt light taking off all the colours and focus right onto the heart of the subjects. We all know how beautiful Olympus colors are, and to be honest, many times when I admire some of the output from E-5, it was mainly due to its amazing and life-like colours. Therefore, to explore further and go beyond just colours, I chucked all the colours aside. No beautiful skin tone, no famous Olympus blue and no natural greens. Just plain, black and white images with hints of warm casts to evoke the “fuzzy” and “glowy golden” feeling that I like very much. Just like how some people would convert all their images to look like “lomo” inspired output theme, I love my photographs to exhibit some pleasing and comfortable warmth, rather than just blank, empty black and white. Some would call this sepia, but true sepia is tipped towards the red colour tone, which is not something I want.

While shooting on the streets, some thoughts sprung up from my mind. I have come across many photographers, or so-called self-proclaimed professional, or artists, or enthusiasts, having their own philosophies, ideologies and ultimately, their strict list of “do”s and “don’t”s in street shooting. If you have seen my photography work at least several times on the previous entries in this blog, you will realize that I do not exactly follow strictly the rules being set by those street photographers. In fact, I have probably broken more than a dozen rules, and would have failed in their standards of what good street photography is. My question is, why should I follow their rules? Their requirements and shooting tips work perfectly and seamlessly for their own shooting style and street photography approach. I have my own set of shooting techniques, and I like to do what I like to do, on my own pace, and my own style. I create my own rules. I am not restricted by rules set out by irrelevant others.

I am sure rules such as “do not chimp” come in mind. I admit, I chimp from time to time, but not to the overly extreme edge. I needed to make sure my subjects are in tack sharp focus. I needed to make sure everything was as planned in my photograph before I moved on to the next, and if I found anything wrong, that chimping will help me identify those issues, and I will have opportunity to rectify the mistakes. Some photographers will argue that if you know what you are doing in the first place, you do not need to chimp. Well, how can you be so arrogantly sure that you wont make mistakes? We, photographers, are human, and we do make mistakes, and by reviewing the images taken on the LCD screen, that little time spent (depends on how much time you take to chimp, which varies from photographer to photographer) will actually save your ass in the end. Yes, chimping is a necessity for me, and I will gladly admit I chimp, regardless of what every other professional photographers say.

Needy hands

One way




There are a lot of other rules, like you must get your horizon perfectly straight, you must find the balance in your composition, you must expose to the right (in reference to the histogram, or whatever that is), down right to how you approach your subjects on the street, eg asking permission, or shooting your subjects without interfering with their activities. How do I know which rules to follow and which to break? It all comes down to the unique situation you have encountered. The subject presented in front of you may require you to shoot without disturbance from a distance. Is it better to go nearer and shoot directly at the face? Or strike up a friendly conversation first? Or just snap and run? Do you want natural facial expression, or posed and smile to your camera? There is no fix answer, and you, the photographer have to decide which technique to apply, and in execution, you have to choose your own set of rules to adhere to. No one rule will work for all situations. You must judge the situation accordingly and respond with the best solution.

When I shoot, rules actually come in later. I concentrate on finding my subjects first. Find the subjects that appeal to me, things that attract my attention. Once I have decided on what to shoot, then I will instantaneously know what to do. No, I do not make the right decision all the time. I do get rejected, and there are times people say no when I point my camera at them, those encounters are perfectly normal. Just smile, and walk away, and target your next subject. Sometimes, I screwed up my metering, and some settings on camera. On certain occasions, I do miss some crucial shots due to my own slow reaction to fast paced action. Just as many misses that could have happened out there, or many screw ups and mistakes unexpectedly occurred, there are just as many, if not more better chances awaiting along the street, if you just keep an optimistic mind, and think positively when you shoot. One or two failures should not batter you down immediately. Stay strong, keep your chin up, and walk on. Your next subject could be the best photograph of the day. And you should not let the rules chain you down, and restrict you to explore your own potential further. Rules tell you that your mistakes are intolerable, and should not be made. I say, who cares, we all make mistakes, we learn from them, and we move on. Screw the rules.

Nasi Lemak

Street desert




We should not let others tell us what to do. They do not dictate our own photography outcome. We know best what we want to do with our camera, and our photography needs. You may not agree with my take on street photography, or you may not like my street photographs at all, that is perfectly fine. We all have our own preferences and opinions. I get really annoyed when some photographers would be so blatantly selfish to tell the wrong doings of other photographers. Or condemn other’s works, or label them sub-standard. Who are you to judge? We are not here to compete, or shoot to compare and see who is better. If that is your purpose of photography, just to show your supremacy and boost your whale-sized ego, I am afraid you are beyond salvation, seriously. Quit photography while you still can. While I cannot deny that ego will never be completely absent (we are humans after all), photography is a way of personal expression. It is a form of communication and telling stories, sharing your inner ideas and thoughts. It should never be used as a weapon. It should not be used to satisfy your personal sadistic fetish desires to make others miserable.

Oh dear, this was intended to be a short entry, and again, I have written more than I initially planned. I guess this is what this blog is for after all, to pour out my thoughts that sometimes can be rather random, but I just want to jot them down somewhere, and tell some people.

Photography should not be chained by rules and standards. What say you?


  1. I say 'Happy Birthday to you'. Thank You very much for sharing .It is always so beautiful & great monotone images from you.

  2. Agreed on you. Everybody should have their own style. 30mm is a good lens, very sharp.

  3. Hey Awang,
    Thanks for the birthday wishes and kind compliments. Keep that shutter clicking, you are getting better yourself !!

    Thanks for the compliments. The 30mm is nowhere as sharp as zuiko lenses. but for F1.4 lens, it does its job adequately.

  4. Nice pics, I like your style of a walk looking for pics to come to you.
    My walk today was in the woods, looking for an old tower - found it!

  5. Thanks Alf !!
    There are many approaches to get photos on the street of course, we should do what works best for ourselves.

    Oh my... does that tower transport people to another time or space? Looks magical !!

  6. I would like to ask the "rule-makers" how I check that I've nailed the exposure without looking at the histogram on the LCD screen immediately after taking a shot...

    In street photography, where you're walking around pointing your camera in lots of different directions (relative to the sun), and dealing often with high contrast situations, probably the best advice you could give someone is to check the histograms.

    I get annoyed whenever I hear people talk about rules in photography, the only real rules are things like the relationship between aperture and shutter speed.

    Keep doing what you're doing, it works for you as demonstrated by the great photos you post.

  7. Hi Robin, Happy Birthday to you. Looks like you are not alone on that day after all. The people you captured on that day is with you and tells a lot of them and they are 'glad' they are part of your moments. Good blog and good work. Keng woo

  8. Happy birthday, mate, and thanks for sharing your wonderful photos and your thoughts with the rest of us. My best wishes for 2012.

  9. Hello Neil,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts !! It is true that sometimes the "rule makers" left the practicality out of the equation, there are things that we can fine tune ourselves to suit our own shooting needs.
    Thanks for the kind words too !! All still improving and learning here, bit by bit.

    Hello Kengwoo,
    Wow, since you put it that way, I see that I was not alone, though I was shooting on my own. You sure have interesting way to see things, and I can't help but think how true it is !!

    Hello Wolfgang,
    Thanks for the kind words and wishes !! Same goes to you, best of health and lots of happiness to your coming 2012 !!

  10. Hey, you yet to break the exposure rule.. Why must the pics be correctly exposed... Just over and under the exposures...

    Just a thought...

  11. Happy Birthday Robin,

    I agree with you absolutely. It is better to going out, watching around and trying to catch the sometihing that exciting you and through the praktice making and braeaking your own rules than sitting and reading and learning the tones of rules and philosophy of the deifferent photograps.

    All the best and happy New year!

  12. hello zeljko,
    Thanks so much for the birthday wish !!
    While I do not deny the importance of reading and gaining better understanding on art and photography, it is more crucial to go out and shoot. Thanks for agreeing !!

  13. Nice review, thank you for sharing.

  14. If one's work is not open to being critique, it will be limited by its own defensive posture. As an Engineering grad, were you not first taught to follow certain principles in engineering, or you do as you wish? For you to come up with a 'new' principle, obviously you will have to do some experiment first, to ensure it fulfills certain requirements. Otherwise, it can be a costly mistake! Likewise, in defense of being reactionary to 'unkind' remarks, 'creating your own rules,' perhaps is actually your process of experimentation, "shuttle therapy" as you fondly called it. So please, define those priciples in photography that is from creating your own rules (i.e street photography) and what are their results. It would be great to read them.

  15. Hello Peter,

    I strongly agree with you that open critique is important. receiving feedback is the only key to improving, knowing our mistakes and reshaping our techniques and shooting methods to get better results. I have no issue argument with that. I have never mentioned that one should shy away from listening to another person's comments.

    My only problem with the overall "modern photography" is that there are sooooo many rules out there, many which contradict with each other. While many of them help photographers by "guiding" them through a safe path to improving their shots, many of them have often become restrictions. For example, "use only wide angle lens for street, don't use zoom". "you should not use flash in this situation, use only natural light", just to name a few. Those rules, do not apply to ALL situations, there are many exceptions.

    We get feedback all the time. Most of the online community will refer back to the "original rules", and mark your photographs down just because of that. It does not matter how good your photograph is, but if your photograph is not perfectly leveled horizontally, or it has corner softness, or slightly inaccurate white balance, it is seen as a bad photograph, regardless whether the photograph captures the most compelling story or moment. Rules were not supposed to be imposed this way.

    I have defined my principles in photography, my own shooting style, and using techniques that I prefer, by writing in my many blog entries. I guess there is no reason for me to link them all up here, because those who are interested to read them would have done a simple search or go through my archives.

  16. great article, Robin. I got hooked into taking my photography to the streets more than a year ago and I enjoy what I do. I dare not call it street photography anymore because the more I read about it, the more restrictive it has become with too many rules proclaimed by too many experts. I have lost my taste for the definition because it is becoming more of a science rather than art, or in my case, a visual journal of the era I live in. In the short time I have been into photography, I have met 3 persons who have come from the old film days, and their term for what I've been doing so far fits the description perfectly. They called it "human interest".