The Camera Club Rules of Photography – Do they Stifle Creativity?

Note this article was previously published over a year ago in Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine – to get articles freshly pressed be sure to subscribe to this fine magazine!

Camera clubs are excellent places for photographers to learn and share photography. In my own development as a photographer I owe much of my early inspiration, learning and excitement about photography to time spent in Images Alberta Camera Club in Edmonton. The friendships developed and the lessons learned have stayed with me through life. I have an abiding fondness for camera clubs, but there can be a dark side to belonging to a camera club….

©Dave Williamson - Sam kicks my butt whenever I start to go all formulaic!

©Dave Williamson – Sam kicks my butt whenever I start to go all formulaic!

 

As with any group effort, sometimes a little herd mentality may surface. And this way of thinking can stifle innovative or fresh ways of photographing – especially when it comes to image competitions. Over time, critiques of submitted images become increasingly formulaic; images that follow the ‘accepted’ rules of competition will score higher than those images that do not abide by these, dare I say it, sacred rules. Putting aside whether competitions are even healthy outlets for creativity, it seems that the ‘rules of photography’ espoused by most camera clubs reward conformity. In my experience, not much creativity happens when the first priority is conformity.

Let’s take a look at four ‘rules’ commonly trotted out during image critique sessions by camera club members.

In camera clubs often everyone begins to shoot the same things.

In camera clubs often everyone begins to shoot the same things.

What is the Subject?

It seems that every photo must have a centre of interest (watch yourself though – placing an object in the centre of your frame violates the superior rule of thirds). According to camera clubs an image needs to have something that we, the viewers, can define as a ‘subject’. No obvious subject? Then the image has failed. Abstract images that are simply about pattern, texture, graphic design or mood do not do well in photo clubs. Abstract painters like Kandinsky, Pollock and Miro would have a difficult time thriving under a regime that forces them to have an obvious subject.

Brazeau Colleries, Nordegg, Alberta, Canada ©Darwin Wiggett - oopoomoo.com

Sometimes a photo can just be about pattern and design with no centre of interest!

Fill the frame!

One of the ways that camera clubs reinforce the idea of subject is to tell photographers to fill the frame with the subject. This rule makes sense in that many beginning photographers make pictures where it’s not clear what the photo is about or why they took the photo in the first place. Having photographers fill the frame with their desired subject of interest is an easy way to get photographers to make better images. If you fill the frame with the subject, then we will know what the photo is about – all other stuff is excluded. But if all we ever do is fill the frame with the subject, there is no room left to explore placing our subject in a broader environment to tell a contextual story. Many of the great environmental portraits we see in National Geographic or Life magazine do not ‘fill the frame’ but have a small subject in a sea of context. Try that in a camera club and you will hear, “Get closer and fill the frame!”

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The subject here is obviously the penguin but the concept is the penguin in its environment, filling the frame with just the penguin would dilute the story idea.

Make it Sharp!

In camera clubs there is a fascination with sharpness and detail. Much time is spent talking about the best sensors, the sharpest lenses and esoteric things like circles of confusion and hyper-focal distance. If an image is not tack sharp, it won’t win a competition. Period. I think this fascination is partly about gear and partly because most camera clubs are populated with the over 50 crowd who long for the 20-20 vision of their youth (trust me, I know, I also fall into this camp)! Some of the most recognized and historic photos of all time have not been sharp. Just think of Robert Capa’s World War II D-Day photos. These gritty photos succeed because the blur and grain give them the mood of being there. Ansel Adams famously said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Of course we can reverse this idea and state, “There is nothing better than a fuzzy shot of a sharp concept.”

©Darwin Wiggett - oopoomoo.com

There is nothing in focus in this image and yet the concept of sparkling highlights on water shines through.

Shoot in Good Light

And finally, there is the fascination with light in photography. This makes sense because photography is literally ‘writing with light’. Light is our tool; the cameras and lenses just capture the light. So a pre-occupation with light is an occupational hazard in photography. Camera clubs tend to classify light as good or bad. Good light is the ‘sweet’ light of the ‘golden hour’ (the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset). Any other light is bad. The reality is, as my partner Samantha likes to say, “There is no such thing as bad light!” There is either light that flatters your subject or concept or light that detracts from the subject or concept. Your job, as a photographer, is to choose the light that best enhances your idea for the photo.

©Darwin Wiggett - oopoomoo.com

By classic definitions, this is bad light for a mountain scenic; but for mood and story the light is perfect.

The rules of photography that camera clubs follow are generally useful ‘guidelines’ for making stronger images. But like any rule, followed religiously the rules become constraints and shackles to creativity. You obviously need to know why rules work so that when you break them you do so for creative effect. I wish that camera clubs would look beyond the rules and just look at the heart of each image. If it resonates in spite of ‘flaws’ it is a good photograph. I’ll end this article with another Ansel Adams quote which nicely sums everything up: “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

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About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

11 Comments

  1. Robert Melnyk
    January 4, 2017

    Darwin…. great article – you are so right. I see so many camera club members ready to give up photography when they hear the marks awarded for their images submitted in clinics.

    Reply
  2. Fidel Villa
    January 4, 2017

    I really see your point. I have been a member of a camera club for three years and I have been questioning why pictures of orchids are the ‘image of the year’ most of the time. Reason: we hire the same judges. I might as well shoot orchid so I have a chance. I also learned that members are now submitting images based on who is judging for the competition because they know his/her preferences already.

    Reply
  3. Rosemary Rosin
    January 4, 2017

    Great article…timely for me. I tend to shoot outside most of those rules, purposely, to tell the story I like to tell. It makes me happy even if they don’t compare to others work. I have stopped comparing myself to others and it has breathed a breath of fresh air back into my enjoyment of photography.

    Reply
  4. Guy Kerr
    January 4, 2017

    The “rules” are probably in part due to the need to be able to tell someone why their photo did not “win”. We want to know why one is better than another and often without rules we are not able to articulate why.

    Reply
  5. John David James
    January 4, 2017

    Ha, I copied (see below) your text ‘But like any rule’ with the hopes of displaying it for you in different sizes…attempting to have a creative way to suggest to you that I am having a challenge seeing the text in your email…but, the system you have converted my text to this size and font….? so you can see it easily? or maybe so I can see it easily. Clearly stated, I would like your text size in emails to be bigger than the 8.5 that was in your last. Yes, I am on your side of the hill, the age hill. And even with vision correcting/assisting glasses…I strain to see/read the text and it is valuable.

    I am a long time follower or your efforts, keep up the great work/fun and help me ‘see’ the words you use; I do so enjoy the photos. Keep up the great work you guys!
    John

    8.5 But like any rule
    9 But like any rule
    10 But like any rule
    11 But like any rule
    12 But like any rule
    14 But like any rule

    Reply
  6. David Lilly
    January 4, 2017

    Hi Darwin,

    First, let me respond to some of the comments above. In the Calgary Camera Club there are no rules for entry and no rules for winners. In the club all photos are judged as fairly as possible. We have three judges internal judge, external judge and all club members can be judges. Each judge gives a score and the average of those scores determine the final score. You can see our latest winners and honorable mentions at http://www.calgarycameraclub.ca

    I have always argued against the conformity. I believe you have to find your own way of seeing and ignore everyone else. Do what you think is best for you. Find your own way in the photo world.

    Reply
  7. Jane Chesebrough
    January 4, 2017

    I made comments already on FB, but want to add something here, which is when you see a trend in style or the same people are winning, something that was passed along to me after getting a lot of criticism on a photo in front of the group, one of the judges from outside of the club reminded me that sometimes no one will like your work but you do and it is okay to be true to yourself.At that point everyone in the room applauded.

    Reply
    • David Lilly
      January 4, 2017

      Jane,

      Was that in the Calgary Camera Club. Entering Competitions , you have to have thick skin because you open the door for both good and bad feedback. Most is bad feedback. Put all the rules aside, if a photograph appeals to someone they will like it regardless if they know anything about photography. Ignore
      the critics.

  8. vartkes peltekoglu
    January 4, 2017

    You are so bang on with your observations regarding camera clubs. The club I am in focuses on competitions primarily. The membership is very nice and being part of this group while staying away from the competitions, ribbons and rank is good enough.

    Reply
  9. Vickie
    January 4, 2017

    Thank you for sharing your club views/feelings. I am well over the 50 age and belong to a photography club. I don’t see the world as sharp but most of our senior club members insist on sharpness. The last year I have entered images that I liked into competition. Sometimes I won a ribbon, sometimes not. What I have found to be important is that I share my feelings with others. Thank you for giving me the courage to be me.

    Reply
  10. Graham Brown
    January 5, 2017

    Your comments about camera clubs and judging and commenting are right on. It’s not likely to change, so photographers should enter their artistic and innovative images anyway and not worry about scores or awards.

    Reply

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