Break the Rules, When You Need To

Sometimes, I wonder how some hardcore photographers can have very restrictively narrow perspective when it comes to street shooting and the methods accompanying the execution in the field.  If you search on Street Photography How To you would probably find millions of Dos and Don'ts all over, many which contradict each other, and many more that are probably not even relevant to street photography itself at all. Rules and guidelines serve as initial drive to push us forward to move toward certain direction, but once we are on the streets shooting, we should follow our heart, and decide which path we want to take. If we constantly adhere strictly to the rules, I am afraid photography will no longer be fun. 

Photography as a hobby, is meant to be fun. It is supposed to be enjoyed by the photographer. 

That is why, sometimes, it is ok to break some rules, if you need to. Breaking the rules that are being set by others, or the rules that you have set for yourself. 

1) Use Flash When Necessary

We all know that flash is not the best friend when it comes to shooting portraits, especially when it is not bounced or diffused with some sort of expensive large panel softboxes or fancy gigantic umbrellas. The final outcome would be harsh, and undesirably, well... ugly. True, but shooting on the streets, your subjects are not supermodels anyway !! So why worry about the oily skin or imperfections that the flash may amplify? Of course we are doing all that is technically viable on the street to make our subjects look good, but when you need to use flash, in that particular moment, just pop up the built in flash (or external flash if you have one and do not mind carrying it around) and fire it to save your shot. 

E-520, 25mm pancake, Internal Flash

I was shooting in a market which was sheltered, and under that heavy shade the lighting was extremely dim. Where I was standing, I was faced with a slight back-lit situation. Using flash is a quick solution: it fills in enough light to properly illuminate the face, while salvaging enough details in the background to support the main subject. Oh, and I simply love how the man looked at me in this photo !!

2) Shoot Against the Light

We are always told not to shoot against the sun, or any strong source of light, which is prudent considering how strong source of light may just throw the exposure balance of the photograph out of proportions. Also, observing the direction of the light is extremely important: shooting buildings with the sun behind or high above would usually yield uninteresting results, in comparison to side light. 

E-5, 11-22mm, Single Shot Pseudo-HDR processed. 

I was bringing a friend to Dataran Merdeka on a Sunday morning, and since he has not shot the Sultan Abdul Samad building before, I thought he might want to take a few snaps. However, it was the wrong time of the day, and the building was facing the direction of sunset. Yes, in the evening, if the sky is clear, the golden sun would have bathe the whole building and made it look like it belonged in a fairy tale movie. My friend had to leave in the afternoon, and we were facing strong sun coming from behind the building. 

Knowing this would be the classic case of strong back-lit, I shot this image in RAW, and use tone-mapping (pseudo-HDR) to balance the exposure of the sky and the building. I shot this against the sun, because I wanted the starburst effect, and I thought the flare would add some character to the otherwise ordinary and flat shot. 

3) Screw the Highlights

Many photographers, especially the digital shooters have a new obsession: fear of highlight burns in their photographs. The highlight is the part where the exposure was too intense it just whitened out certain parts of the photograph, leaving no trace of details. I personally have no issues with highlight clippings, as long as the exposure balance of my main subject is still well maintained.

E-5, 50mm F2 

In the photograph above, the highlight clipping in the background, being burned to almost all white actually helped isolate my main subject. The bright background created a dreamy effect, and I like how the brightness enveloped my subject. You can still clearly see a man in the background, but if more details were salvaged, with less highlights, don't you think seeing more of that man in the background will result in a more distracting photograph? No, I do NOT have the luxury to re-position myself or rearrange my subjects. I think it is not worth getting so worked out about saving every single bit of detail, while there are so many other things the photographer should be worrying about: getting that intense facial expression of the man while he was at work, which made this photograph work. The last thing I would worry was the dynamic range of the image. 

4) Shoot From Behind

I have always shot my subjects from in front, or at least from the side, and very rarely from their back. It is crucial to get the facial expression, or at least capture what the subjects were doing, and their interactions with other subjects or their surrounding environment. 

E-520, 14-42mm kit lens. 

However, for the above photograph, I find that all their faces being hidden away, draws the attention of the viewer towards the balloons and legs. Not showing everything, hiding parts of the image actually added mystery and can be rather intriguing. Not my usual attempts, but when it works, you know it works. That is when you have to break away from your habit, just for that moment. 

5) Move as close as you can to the lion's mouth, and while it opens, drop a grenade inside and run for cover

I always, always, always ensure I have a comfortable working distance between myself and my subjects. That is why I do not prioritize using wide angle lenses on the street. My lens of choice would be 50mm (100mm on 35mm equivalent format), allowing me to attack from a distance that I know my subjects would not feel too agitated or intimidated. It has never failed me, and the results I get are usually very natural, and even when my subjects smiled or looked into my camera, they remained being themselves and not looked threatened. To me that is very important. 

E-5, 25mm pancake

One day, I was out shooting and only had one lens with me, the 25mm, which was a little wider than usual. When I saw this opportunity, I knew I had to do something to grab the shot. Sometimes, certain shots do not happen twice. I was drawn at the differences between the three friends, they were all possibly Muslims, but from very different background, and yet they hang out together, and appear to be very close. I walked casually towards them, as I was close enough, I fired one shot, and I was fortunate to get the shot even before they reacted to my camera. They did react (surprised) but then I smiled, and they smiled, and we all walked away. Not something I would do often, and certainly this would not work on so many reasons (respect your street subjects, remember?) but I know, when I have to do it, I will do it. 

I think it is unwise to follow rules blindly. Understanding the principles on why the rules were formed, and how to use them effectively, we will discover that there are times we can, and should make exceptions. Rules are not perfect. None of us humans are. Therefore, we have to compromise, and improvise to make that shot that we have visualized in our minds happen. Be smart, and be yourself, and you will see yourself shooting with your own style !!


  1. Donald W Leitzel6/13/2012 01:55:00 AM

    Robin, welcome back from your holiday.

    Number one rule of photography is there are no rules. Only suggestions.

    Know your equipment!

    Don from America

    1. Hey Donald,
      There are no rules indeed !! It is up for the photographer to decide !!

  2. hello robin, nice entry this time.
    IMO, rules are made to be broken...=)

    1. Amiruddin,
      Exactly !! If they were not broken, they would not be considered rules.

  3. Another couple of rules to consider.

    1. Embrace the grain -- some people are so nazi about the presence of grain (noise) in photos. Sometimes it's unavoidable. I would rather have a grainy shot with a good story than a perfectly clear shot with no story.

    2. Blurry is just like curry -- as long as it tastes good, who cares how hot it is? Again, some photos are just amazing, despite the blur (and sometimes BECAUSE of the blur). Not sure why people are so hung up about all shots HAVE to be sharp otherwise it's crap.

    1. Aizuddin,
      Thanks for sharing more tips !! I agree, some blur photographs, either depicting motion, or mood can be very powerful too. Similarly goes to grain, blame the camera manufacturers for brainwashing the public, and the forum measurebators !!

  4. Robin,

    ----Ansel Adams
    (And he certainly knew what he was talking about !)

    1. Hey Ben,
      Thanks for sharing the wise words !

  5. Thanks for another great article Robin.

  6. Hello Robin,
    Thank you for these good photography thoughts. Now I can have a peace of mind and concentrate of taking good images.
    Happy shooting.
    John Ari Ragai

    1. Hey John,
      That is the important thing, keep shooting !

    2. Hey Robin,
      I hope you don't mind, I ask this.
      Have you ever view my blog? Appreciate your one word for my blog.
      Thank you, Robin.
      May you have a great evening.
      John Ari Ragai

    3. Hey John,
      Yes, I do read your blog. I rarely comment (not very good at giving constructive comments here) but if I do have something to say, I surely will write. No worries !

  7. Hi Robin,

    I was just at Dataran Merdeka too last weekend.

    Shots all shot from the back is so like me, still afraid of getting street shots from the front.