Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

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If you ask someone how to get the perfect photo, you might get a response that includes information about exposure, posing, and lighting. Books you read might warn against chopping limbs, using wide angle lenses when photographing people, or failing to follow the rule of thirds. You might end up scared that other photographers will judge your photos and notice when you have broken “the rules,” making you nervous to step outside the box and get creative sometimes.

Even worse, you might try so hard to follow the rules that you leave every photo session stressed, exhausted, and disappointed–like I did, before I redefined perfection.

I did all of those things. When I first started trying to learn more about photography, I read a ton of books. I talked to a lot of photographers. I read a lot of tutorials, watched a lot of videos, and studied a lot of photographs to determine what I had to do to take “perfect” photos. In the process, I learned more than I thought possible about the technical side of photography, but I became so insecure and critical of my own work that I was not having fun.

I was not getting images that I absolutely loved.

For me, the sessions that stressed me out the most were always my own sessions with my two children. By the end of an attempt to get perfect photos with my sons, Gavin and Finley, I was usually ready to quit photography, my husband was usually ready to send me packing, and Gavin and Finley were usually crying because I kept trying to make them be still, look directly at my camera, and smile, when all they wanted to do was play or explore.

The turning point came for me when Finley was close to his first birthday.

I had planned out very specific shots that I wanted to get of him for his one-year photos, set aside a weekend to do them, and gathered together all of my props. I got a few cute photos with perfect smiles, perfect eye contact, and imperfect exposure (I only had a few months of experience with professional shooting), but I essentially ended each session with tears—either mine or Finley’s…and sometimes both.

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When Finley’s second birthday rolled around recently, I had already made the decision that I wanted to capture his true personality and the things he loves most, not try to get perfectly posed photos with perfect eye contact and perfect smiles.

You see, Finley is the ultimate reason that I learned to embrace imperfection in my photography.

Finley has always been a difficult subject to photograph. He never reacted to my crazy sounds and pleas to look at my camera and smile. He never stayed still longer than a second. He never focused his attention on taking photos long enough for even one great shot of the four of us smiling and looking at the camera. After my experience with his first birthday photos, I gave up on getting “perfect” shots. And when we tried to get family photos a few months later using a friend as a human tripod, I didn’t get upset when this was the end result.

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pin it4 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

Even though people still make repeated comments like, “It’s too bad Finley isn’t looking at the camera,” the canvases I had made of this photo are hanging on my wall, my parents’ wall, and my father-in-law’s wall.

Why? Because he’s Finley. He would rather study a branch than smile for a photo or even look in that general direction. And you know what? That’s okay. In March, we got the official diagnosis that Finley is one of a growing number of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and although it explains why I always had such a difficult time getting his attention in photos, it doesn’t change the fact that my entire idea of perfection in photography has been redefined. Finley’s photos that I took for his second birthday are perfect examples of my idea of perfection.

Perfection is capturing Finley’s love for drawing.

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pin it4 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

Perfection is documenting Finley’s habit of exploring textures by rubbing things on his cheeks.

finley crayon 600x400 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love
pin it4 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

Perfection is showing Finley’s love for horses (and wearing nothing but a diaper and cowboy boots).

horse and boots 600x400 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love
pin it4 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

And sometimes, perfection IS a photo of Finley smiling and looking directly at the camera, but not because it’s “perfect” by any definition of the term.  I’s perfect because it shows the sweet spirit he possesses.

finley smiling 600x400 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love
pin it4 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

When I was stressing so much over getting my subjects in the perfect position or trying to make them constantly look at the camera and smile, I missed amazing shots of my boys being themselves.

I decided it was time to loosen up a little. Instead of planning out sessions with my kids, I started leaving my camera in the living room where I could grab it quickly if I saw an opportunity for a cute photo of them. I broke a lot of rules in those photos, and some of them are not very sharp or exposed very well. But some of those photos are my absolute favorites. Some of those photos, in fact, are the ones that I know my children will still treasure when they are adults.

finley harmonica 600x400 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love
pin it4 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

By loosening up, I discovered that those photos were the ones I always considered perfect. I started to fall completely head-over-heels in love with lifestyle photography, and when I did, I rediscovered my passion for my hobby. Instead of trying to capture perfect smiles, I started trying to capture the love my subjects have for each other and the personalities that make them unique. As a result, my skills and the quality of my photos started improving because I had more room in my head to think about exposure and using available light to my advantage.

mom holding baby 600x400 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love
pin it4 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

Getting correct exposure is critical, and there are some “rules” that have their place in your work. I would never want to use a wide angle lens to take a serious portrait of a bride, for example, or make my subjects look like they are sliding off the edge of the photo. However, it’s okay to chop a limb sometimes, if necessary. It’s okay if my subject is not looking at the camera. I even read once that you shouldn’t have your subject looking off camera unless you can see what he or she is looking at. But does that make this a bad photo?

off camera 600x400 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love
pin it4 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

Here’s my point—If you are one who absolutely, positively, LOVES perfectly posed photos where everyone is looking at the camera and smiling, then that’s perfectly fine. Those types of photos are perfect—for you.

However, if my experience raising an autistic son has taught me anything so far, it’s that what is considered perfect for one is not necessarily perfect for another.

Just as Finley is perfect in my eyes, the photos I take that show who he is and what he loves are perfect in my eyes as well.

If you find yourself stressed, exhausted, and insecure like I was every time you attempt to get great photos and want to redefine your idea of imperfection like I did, here are a few tips to help.

  1. Get a good grip on exposure first, if you don’t already have one. No amount of emotion or personality in your photos is going to matter if you can’t see it because your photos are completely over or under exposed. There are tons of MCP tutorials here on the blog that can help with that.
  2. Stop scouring Pinterest and trying to replicate the images you see. Getting inspired by photos you see is one thing, but trying to make your subjects do exactly what you have seen done before in those photos will usually only end in frustration. I once spent two hours creating a backdrop of newspaper pages to use in photos of my boys only to rip it down five minutes later because neither of my boys would cooperate at all.
  3. Decide what you truly want to document. Is it a relationship between two people? An aspect of someone’s personality? A hobby or interest? A particular emotion? Once you decide, make sure your exposure is solid, and then solely focus on capturing what you are setting out to capture.
  4. Relax about the “rules.” Don’t toss a photo that cuts someone off at the knees if that photo shows genuine emotion. Use a wide angle lens, if you like the look it gives your photos. Relax. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken…if breaking them results in a photo you love.

Now, grab your camera and go take a photo YOU think is perfect. Don’t worry what the books say. Don’t think about what other photographers might think of it. Take a photo you love, and love the photos you take.

Period.

Lindsay Williams lives in south central Kentucky with her husband, David, and their two sons, Gavin and Finley. When she isn’t teaching high school English or spending time with her quirky little family, she owns and operates Lindsay Williams Photography, which specializes in lifestyle photography. You can check out her work on her website or her Facebook page.

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 Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

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This post was written by a MCP Guest Blogger. If you would like to contribute to the MCP Actions Blog, check out our Guest Writers Wanted page.

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24 Comments and 24 Replies



  1. 1
    Johanna says:

    Love this article! I shoot a lot of kids and it’s hard to get the perfect smile and perfect composition sometimes. And as I cull through my pictures, my favorite ones, and the ones I always add on as extras, are the ones where the kids usually aren’t looking straight at the camera, but they have an adorable face – be it smiling, crying, thinking etc. Those are the pictures that really stand out to me because it captures the personality of the child.

  2. 2
    Cindy says:

    Simply beautiful and well said.

  3. 3
    Linda says:

    totally agree with you….I have twin grandsons and was stressing myself out trying to get them both to “look perfect”. Now we just go with the flow and LOVE my pictures of them. I attached a picture I took.

  4. 4
    Jody says:

    Lindsay, you have an amazing and beautiful family and a talent to match. The photos you are capturing that show the essence of who they, and you, are, are works of art. Instead of a portrait that is taken — and then taken down — you have captured memories. Emotions. Love. Don’t stop doing what you’re doing.

  5. 5
    Wendy says:

    THANK YOU for this! SO helpful!!

  6. 6

    Amazing! I can relate and appreciate these encouraging words. This is being bookmarked for those days when.. Thank you :)

  7. 7
    Cassie says:

    Thank you!! I needed this so much….. something I struggle with constantly.

  8. 8
    Katie says:

    This is SO TRUE! Posing was always one of my weakest points, so I used to spend hours obsessing over it. It wasn’t until I figured out that my absolute favorite shots weren’t the ones with meticulously planned backdrops and labored over poses or pinterest duplicates, but the ones that showed the subjects’ true personalities, love, and excitement. I often still struggle with walking away from a session disappointed with what I thought i’d captured, thinking I don’t have enough variety in poses or backgrounds, or feeling like i’d wasted time aimlessly shooting rather than planning every second of the session…. until I load those things onto my computer and see the personality and laughter shining through. It’s a hard habit to kill, but so worth the change in vision!

    • Lindsay says:

      Girl, I feel you! I remember totally freaking out before a session one time because I had forgotten to make an album of photos I had saved from Pinterest that I wanted to try to duplicate. I had to “wing it” on that session, and I ended up loving the photos WAY more than any other session I had done around that same time. Now I just try to go into a session with knowledge of the subjects themselves and the things they love instead of exact posing.

  9. 9
    Jacki says:

    Well done! My parents get more upset than I do. “He wont look at the camera”, he’s making a face, just like he always does” LOL. Why do they expect a toddler to sit still and smile? I capture them exactly the way they are and then the parents love it. Some have show up years later on the “graduation wall” of fame.

    • Lindsay says:

      Haha! Love it! I did a family session one time where the mom kept yelling at everyone to look at me and smile any time she saw me raise my camera to my face. I wanted to yell, “I’m trying to sneak in some natural shots! Stop looking at me!”

  10. 10
    Debbie says:

    Thank you for this. I struggle for perfection too, and then I’m unhappy with my images, I am learning to let loose and have fun, which is why I’m a photographer in the first place!

  11. 11
    Lindsay says:

    Beautiful. Thank you, I really needed that reminder today. I’ve found myself straying away from my natural style that developed when I first became obsessed with cameras as a young pre-teen. I think I find myself trying to ‘keep up’ with the demand for certain types of poses and shoots (cake smash, heart-on-the-belly maternity shot, etc). I’ll do them if requested, but it’s important to remember what WE love, and the right subjects will find us. I notice a HUGE difference in my image quality and satisfaction when I’m relaxed just shooting faces, emotions, flowers, bugs. The minute I try to pose someone (besides a newborn) I can’t hardly remember what that giant M on my camera dial is for. :)

  12. 12
    Michele says:

    This is hands down one of the best photography posts ever written! Thank you. Love the photos of your son!

  13. 13

    Your message was beautifully articulated Lindsay and spoke to me in so many ways. I am looking forward to breaking more rules and finding the passion in my work again.

  14. 14
    Cindy says:

    This is such a wonderful post. Speaks loud and clear and volumns of much needed truth. Though I no longer do photography as business I still love photography. Wish every parent with a camera would read this! I posted it on FB. Thanks so much for sharing.
    Hugs and blessings, Cindy

  15. 15

    More to the point: STOP EMULATING! Do we need another cutesie-pie, cookie cutter, Pinteres-ish image out there in the world? NO, we don’t. What makes a photograph strong is a unique and confident point-of-view.

    Granted there can only be a finite amount of unique points of view.
    That is why there is a such a tiny number of TRUE masters of photography: They truly figured it out / knew their craft inside and out / had confidence in their point of view, and were not wanting to spoon-feed clients. They know they are the professionals and that their unique vision has value – They are not just copying what is out there.

  16. 16
    Betsy says:

    Lindsay, Thank you so much for this article! I feel the same way but always feel like the pros would cringe at this one or scoff at that one! It is such a freeing feeling to just be at ease with your work and know that you captured a moment in time even though all the photographic rules were not in place! Your photos are lovely!

    • Lindsay says:

      Thank you so much, Betsy! I always worried most about what other local photographers would think of photos that weren’t “perfect.” I try not to do that anymore, but it is still hard sometimes. I just try to focus on the fact that 99% of the people who view my photos will view them the way I do when I have truly captured emotion or personality. And honestly, if I’m happy with my own photos and my clients are happy with the ones I take for them, then I don’t ultimately care if a competing photographer notices a limb chop. If they do, they are missing the point of the photo anyway. :)

  17. 17
    Joyce says:

    So well said! I really need to take this to heart. I’m so critical of my own photos that I end up not liking any of them.
    Thanks for being so brave and sharing your story. I love the shots you took of your family.

    • Lindsay says:

      Thanks so much, Joyce! Don’t be so hard on yourself. Look for the things you love in your photos instead of things that might be “wrong” with them. We are always hardest on ourselves anyway. :)

  18. 18
    Suzana says:

    Thank you so much—such a great article! Well said!

  19. 19
    Lauren says:

    Love this post! But must ask what gear your using?

    • Lindsay says:

      Thanks, Lauren! For most of the photos in this post, I was using a Canon 5D Mark III and Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 Di VC lens. The two black and white photos were taken using the same body but the Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 Di VC lens. The photo of all four of us was taken with a Canon 50D and a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens.

  20. 20
    Heather says:

    Lindsay,

    Great post. My son Jude is also on the spectrum and I have battled the same battle trying to get him to look at the camera. It takes so much out of me sometimes. I have recently learned to just stopped forcing it because even if I can get his head looking in my direction the eyes tell it all and you can tell he’s not there. You’re a great mom! Great post, I think it’s a trap we all fall into sometimes.

    • Lindsay says:

      Heather, thank you for the kind words. I love my little guy and wouldn’t change him for the world, but it definitely makes him a different subject to photograph. Have you ever read the book “More Than Words” by Fern Sussman? I’m relatively new to the ASD world, but it’s worth checking out, if you haven’t. :)

  21. 21
    Barrett says:

    Thank you for the eloquent article! It was good to hear those words as I am gaining my skills in photography. I always feel so insecure and worry about what the better photographers are thinking. Loved the article!

  22. 22
    Gabby says:

    It’s like you were talking to me. I’ve been one of those people who try to recreate stuff I’ve seen. It’s nice to know I wasn’t the only one who struggled with the “people are judging me” thing. Beautiful article. One of my favorite shots I’ve ever taken was of a little girl making faces at me and its awesome to me because it feels real. (She’s kind of rotten) lol.

  23. 23
    Pamela says:

    Oh wow….thank you for this!! I feel like I’ve been in a rut lately with my photography and I think it’s because I’ve been stressing over getting the “perfect” photo. Thank you for this reminder to focus on the emotion and the story telling behind a photo! :)

  24. 24
    Kathy says:

    How do I find the tutorials on exposure? I really need help in that area. Thanks



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