F/ The Rules

David duChemin


Several years ago, I was with a small group of students and enjoying a lively dinner in Oaxaca, Mexico during the Day of the Dead festivals, when the table across from us got up, all of them hung heavily with photography gear. They fumbled with their stuff, excited to get out to make photographs in the falling dark and growing crowds, when I heard one woman say adamantly to another, “Now, remember, your F should be 5!”


My F?


My lens doesn’t even have a 5.

There may well have been a context for this advice that none of the rest of us heard, but it has since become a bit of a mantra to me.

Photographers are very keen on prescriptive advice, formulae, and recipes. At the beginning, as we learn, they might not even be that harmful. But they sure do stand in the way of getting to something better: understanding. Understanding tends to put us into a place where we can flex our creativity. Understanding helps us problem solve and troubleshoot. It’s understanding that allows us to “know the rules then break them,” though I still contend there are no rules. Formulae and recipes have a nasty way of confining us, pushing our expression into a narrow template, encouraging homogeny and mediocrity. They can be helpful for a time, but they must be transcended.

It’s why I die a little inside when a student asks, “Which lens should I use?” I know what they mean. I know it comes from earnest intention. But far, far more important to our work than using the “right” lens is the ability to choose, to play, to experiment, to fail, and to learn. My answer is meant gently, and with respect: "You tell me." But consider striking the word “should” from your vocabulary.

Art is about possibility more than about propriety. It’s about creativity, not conformity. As my friend, colleague, and hero, Freeman Patterson has said, “Rules do not give a damn about your creativity. It is not how we make our photographs that is important, but that we make them.” Indeed.

F/ the rules. It has always been and will always be the ones who break, ignore, or deny the rules to find a new and authentic way of doing things who will make interesting art, tell great stories, live amazing lives, and change the world. We do this, not for the sheer defiance of it, but in celebration of the human spirit that has always longed to exceed its bounds, to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (as King Lear’s Edgar so poignantly reminds us). We do it because rules, at least in art, have always been so heartbreakingly unable to express the best of what we are, and the fullness of the things we long to say.

David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com. 

Craft & Technique Creativity David duChemin

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  • Lori – I hear you and I should clarify: people do not make me cringe. Just the question. And it’s not because it’s not a helpful question, so much as it because those questions tell me that students have been taught to believe there’s a right way and a wrong way. Somewhere along the way we have learned to approach our craft with a sense of duty or obligation rather a sense of curiosity. We all have different learning styles but somewhere along the line someone failed you by not teaching you about principles and possibilities. The best teachers among us will, I hope, answer your questions with patience and understanding and help you learn. I would never bite the head off a sincere student. But I would take the opportunity to explain why one lens does this but not that, or why one set of exposure decisions will accomplish one thing and not the other and until we know those things, and can articulate our vision, even a little, we will never approach this craft creatively.

    MIke – We don’t disagree. In fact I think we’re saying the same thing. Every time I post one of these articles I say the same thing: learn principles, not rules, and you will learn your craft – and your art – much faster. And everytime someone comments and say, Yes, but…, and then goes on to defend the very principles I am suggesting we must learn if we are not to slavishly follow the so-called rules in order to make a photograph. What I am advocating is the very understanding (if I could underline and bold and italicize that word I would) you are advocating. But I’m also suggesting rules and platitudes do not lead to that understanding. Good teaching does. Trying and playing and failing and learning does. BTW, I like your distinction between cameras capturing images vs capturing light.

    David duChemin on
  • David does not tell us not to learn the settings in systematic ways. He advices us against getting stuck in formulas.

    Sometimes, I go out shooting with a fixed parameter; shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and I usually only bring one lens, and it is usually a prime. Many of these choices stem from a desire to learn the behaviour of a parameter so well that I will eventually be able to navigate it more intuitively. I see nothing in David’s post that goes against this.

    November 2015, I bought my first good camera. Before that, I used my Samsung galaxy S2. Let’s just say I took very few fotos. Then I bought a Fujifilm X-100T, and I honestly didn’t expect it to change my life as much as it did. After 3 months and 8000 shots, I bought an X-E2 with an 18-55 zoom. Later, I bought the 60 mm lens, and later more lenses and cameras. I believe the reason why I didn’t ask which lens to buy was, that I actually took a lot of pictures. And when I bought new lenses, I did it based on my own experiences and inspiration from looking at other people’s pictures and getting a feel of the different lenses “personalities”. Once, I did make a post requesting lived experiences from people having (had) both 35 fujinons.

    One issue with asking totally open “which lens should I buy” is, that it often means people take too few photos, and have gotten themselves trapped in a gear-centric mode. But they actually do not use the gear enough to get an understanding of their photographic needs. Often, there is no specific gear need, when that question is asked. There is just a diffuse belief that “some” gear will be a magic ticket to better photos. It is a waste of energy which would have been used much better doing than fantasizing without a clear goal.

    Now, if all you have is a 35mm aps-c lens it might be somewhat meaningful to ask for opinions on which wide angle lens to go for, but these questions are often very non-specific too. For “Street” … is it for crowded areas or more open spaces? Do you want to get very close or be at a distance? Do you want to include a lot of the environment? Do you want to shoot in the dark hours without a flash and without going high on the ISO? If you have not thought about these kinds of questions, the time is probably not ripe to spend more money on lenses yet. And chances are, that you have spent too much of your photohours surfing gear fora.

    Immanuel on
  • I think it’s a double-edge sword. On one hand, I agree that if you believe you ‘should’ be using a certain camera, a certain lens or a certain setting, then you’re shoulding on yourself and that’s likely holding you back from making the photographs you could be making.

    On the other hand, I did a two-hour workshop the other night on Basic Photography Terms for our local photography group because I believe that while we live in an age where anyone can take a computer with a lens stuck on it, point it at something and click the shutter, that doesn’t make you a photographer.

    If you don’t understand the trifecta of exposure between ISO, aperture and shutter speed – EV, how can you understand exposure compensation? If you don’t know that aperture is linked to DoF and that as you increase ISO you not only increase read noise but lower dynamic range, then how can you use the tools in your hand to make the images you want to make? It may be that 1000 monkey sitting at 1000 typewriters will eventually write the Declaration of Independence, but even if that IS possible, how likely is it that such a threshold will be crossed at the exact moment the scene unfurls before you?

    Digital cameras do not capture images. Digital cameras capture light as information, and we can use that information to create something that looks like a photograph. Understanding the nuances of how that comes together (or, for film, understanding how to push the ISO in shooting and compensate in processing) allows you to achieve more consistency… not necessarily in the results in terms of the body of your work, but more consistency in having your expectations and desires match the outcome you create.

    My $0.02


    Mike Nelson Pedde on
  • I don’t disagree in principle with you (or Freeman). However, I am one of those students who, initially, ALSO asked: what lenses should I bring, what settings should I think about? So my answer to this actually goes back to your commentary on many an occasion about getting the camera out of your own way.

    There are many of us who didn’t learn photography because great uncle Wilf left us his brownie, or similar stories of youthful exposure. We didn’t “learn” about photography at all; we shot snaps, we documented situations; usually badly, I might add. Ultimately, some of us got intrigued enough by the results (or lack thereof) to actually decide to learn on a more formal basis. At that point, without a full comprehension of f-stops and how that affected depth of field, or the amount of light, or shutter speeds or ISO…I would ask questions of my teachers, such as, “What lens should I use?” or “What are those settings again?”. And I did it because I needed to understand WHY I might want to use X or Y setting in a specific instance. Now…I understand, because I know my camera enough for it not to get in the way, but I needed to ask back then because I had NO understanding.

    I DO understand why you, and other learned photographers, talk about how this kind of question makes you cringe. I completely cringe when someone asks me where the light falls off on this specific lens I’m using, or where the sweet spots are in the range. Because the type of photos I make have little to do with sharpness, and I don’t really care about the sweet spot because I am looking at the scene in front of me, not the tech specs of the lens.

    BUT: I understand that someone else’s learning style may be different than my own, and what THEY need from THEIR photography may service an entirely different area of brain than what I get from my photography. So I’m just standing up for some of them here, because I’ve seen a lot of this kind of commentary from people I really admire, and it kinda disturbs me, because I was one of those who would have made you cringe. But you’re one of the few who I would answer in this way, because I don’t think you’ll bite my head off for answering LOL.

    Lori Ryerson on

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