Start with the Box!


I often state that as creatives or artists – in whatever medium you are working – we should more often break the rules, not feel confined to conformed understanding; or as it is often expressed: be thinking out of the box. At the same time, I acknowledge that those rules or all that which comes with traditional craftsmanship is there to help us learn and develop. It can be seen as accumulated wisdom (collected over centuries or even millenniums by artists before us) functioning as guidelines more than rules. Only when it starts to limit our creativity, is all that accumulated knowledge becoming a limitation.

What I am trying to say is this: Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.

We need to learn the basics of our craft. If you understand the traditional craftsmanship, that is – when speaking about photography – the technical aspect of handling the camera, understanding composition, having thorough knowledge about light’s influence on a photo, and being familiar with the visual language of photography; only then do you achieve full freedom to express your intentions with a photograph.

Some believe learning the traditional craftsmanship will limit their artistic voice. However, I do not agree to that perception. As I see it, knowing will only make you freer – as long as you do not let those old rules confine your creativity. It can actually – and most likely will – become a resource for expressing your artistic intent.

Yet, the result may well be an unliberated or constricted photographer, if he or she in a mechanical fashion attempt to reproduce a rigid, pre-established vision and in so doing is averting the possibility of seeing the unexpected – which I have just written enthusiastically about in various posts last week. This kind of restricted awareness can indeed impoverish a photographer’s vision and art. As Philippe L. Gross writes in his book Tao of Photography; «Imprisoned by the discriminatory mind, the photographer with constricted awareness is unable to appreciate the boundless visual richness of the world that lies beyond the filters and projections imposed by mental constructs. Only when the photographer can become free of the discriminatory mind can creative, unconstructed seeing occur.»

It may seem at first that Gross believes the box – to use this expression – is actually constricting the photographer. However, that is not his conclusion. The point – and my point, too, is not to throw this box of traditional understanding away, but use it as well as thinking beyond what the box contains. Thinking outside the box only becomes possible when you have a box in the first place.

In his book, Gross does not use expressions such as a box and thinking outside of the box, but uses the term Little Understanding for the traditional craftsmanship and Great Understanding for being open to the world – both inside and outside – and having an unconstructed awareness. Philippe Gross makes a point that to develop our true artistic voice we need both.

He writes; «General speaking, Little Understanding in camerawork represents the frame of mind that concentrates on techniques, sets goals, applies photographic rules, arranges a scene to fit a desired outcome, and attempts to gain control over the subject. Great Understanding, on the other hand, corresponds to the photographer’s ability to respond holistically and spontaneously to a scene without overtly interfering with the subject. Ultimately, the liberated photographer is a companion of both forms of understanding: to develop one’s artistic ability demands first fully knowing and then transcending techniques – seeing, feeling, and responding holistically to a photographic scene.»

In other words, mastery of the craft’s skill does not mean rejecting the thinking outside of the box. It simple means freedom from the belief that traditional craftsmanship is a reliable, necessary, and, not the least, an exclusive guide to artistry. The creative and free artist can make use of the box without being entangled by it.

I will not conceal the fact that photographers are biased about this, particularly when it comes to compositional rules. In The Essence of Photography Bruce Barnbaum writes that in his book he does «not discuss any rules for good composition. I avoid them because there are none. Every composition is unique, and following some concocted formula will not guarantee a good photograph. There are no formulas; there are no rules of composition. I strongly urge all photographers, beginning or experienced, to avoid any instruction that claims there are – it’s bogus.»

Not surprisingly after what I have written so far, I do not agree with Barnbaum (still, I do recommend the book; it is a very personal and insightful book about his photographic approach. I only disagree with him on this point). Well, there are no rules as such – of course. Nevertheless, painters for centuries and photographers for almost two have built upon each other an understanding of what works and what normally does not work in order to create a balanced composition that is best read by the eyes’ movements. Of course, that may not be your intention – which is just fine. But these ageless compositional rules – which I would rather regard as guidelines, because no one has to follow them, indeed – can be very helpful for particular beginners who try to come to grasp with creating a photo that somehow works compositionally. And of course, any time those guidelines can be broken, as I have always been encouraging.

However, and here I am in total agreement with Bruce Barnbaum, he writes: «You have to be flexible at all times, and you have to work with the situation you’re in, even if it’s not the one you wanted.» Yes, and I would like to add; use all of yourself in the process, whatever you have in the box and whatever you can find outside of it.


47 thoughts on “Start with the Box!

  1. I completely agreed. I guess we are using the wrong terminology – “rule” in the photography. It might be better if we carefully use a different word instead. “Rule” is short , simpler to articulate and appears (just appears) to fit the need but it has deeper consequence.

  2. As you said, these guidelines apply to all forms of art. The hubby and I have conversations about thinking outside the box, because people want new and fresh ideas.

  3. I love your title for this post, “Start with the Box!” It’s a great metaphor. It seems to me that craftsmen (or artists) of any type, whether they be writers, photographers, woodworkers, jewelry makers, or whatever, must first learn how to use the tools of their craft to equip themselves to express their creative visions.

  4. Rules can be broken. But we as artists, photographers and or creatives must know WHY we break them. Not just to make something out of the box because it’s out of the box.
    We need first an idea and then we can decide if this idea is more effective following a “rule” or breaking it. If I desire to transmit a feeling of quietness probably a well framed photo works well, if I’m angry against everybody and everything probably breaking a rule, or many rules it will work!
    Just my idea…

  5. An important post in that breaking the rules just for the sake of breaking the rules does not produce anything of substance. Understanding a craft first is essential and as you say “Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.” Perfect.

  6. Nel mio piccolo penso che un mix delle due cose non stona. Conoscere bene le basi della fotografia è importante, come lo è conoscere la propria macchina fotografica, però ogni tanto infrangere le cosiddette “regole” non fa male.
    Altri buoni consigli, grazie Otto.
    Saluti, Patrizia

  7. as many years of photographic education as i had, i was not happy that way… as hard as i tried to follow the rules, i failed…. i mean i didn’t fail, but you know, my happiness failed. now i post ridiculous snap shots and sometimes old film family pictures, and don’t even process, and it’s fun…. i take pictures of my dog with my iPhone, and see that it is silly, but good 🙂 yet, i still strain sometimes to be visually ‘turned on’ by a photograph… that one pic i submitted to you for critique, was just a ‘boring picture of the day’ for me, of the dog (me and my shadow)….. yet that pic turns me on photographically… and like you said breaks every rule possible lol

    1. Taking silly or even “bad” photos can be very liberating. I think the clue here is really “turn me on”. That’s where the honest and captivating expression comes from – whether or not you break any rules. When something comes from the heart, it will touch other’s hearts as well. Thank you for sharing your experience, Elaine.

      1. you’re welcome lol… even the click of an SLR shutter can ‘turn me on’ photographically… you know i love your blog, the richness of your expression of this love really enhances all of our experience of it… so thank YOU 🙂 xoxoxox

  8. It’s also important to choose our “rule-setters,” or guides, or mentors, carefully. Not everyone offering a set of rules for photography, writing, or painting, knows what they’re talking about!

    I like to think about it this way. First, we learn how to use the tools of our trade. Then, we build our own box, using those tools. Finally, we take a look around and decorate, or customize, or even break apart our box, using the same tools. If we know our tools and have mastered our craft, we can engage in that process over and over again, with increasing pleasure.

  9. I am a poet, writer, and artist, a novice photographer (very limited skill-wise) I am interested in improving. My inspiration for this art form is Bernd Reuthenhauser (definitely outside the mainstream) at Neues Vom Hutschi, I have learned some intriguing and fascinating concepts from this unique experimentalist including camera obscura, I am delighted to find your blog with your inspiring and informative concepts. Thank you so much! Have a wonderful evening.

  10. Wise words and comments. Always walking some inches above ground after reading your posts. For me, as a teacher, your words ring well too. As the subject Swedish also means writing in numerous genres, that is what I try to teach my students. You have to be familiar with the different styles before you can break the “rules” and set your real creativity free. Photography is no exception.

  11. Your point is well made Otto. In all of the arts the rules were derived from the analysis of what was most frequently effective for the great creators, whether painters, writers, composers or photographers – works came first, rules followed. But the most important words here are ‘most frequently’. They knew instinctively when and how to ‘think outside the box’.

  12. Excellent advice Otto! I can not agree more..I think being out of the box makes the images have ‘soul and identity’ but in other hand, knowing the technique and understand the photography itself will help the quality of the image..should not underestimate the rule of thumbs 🙂

  13. You make some great points, Otto. I agree that it is a good idea to start with the box. Without that, it’s all guesswork for a very long time. There are some of us who don’t understand the box. I have trouble grasping what all the technical terms mean and what they do. I couldn’t explain f-stops and shutter speeds and the rule of thirds, but I do know what manual settings I need to use to accomplish what I wish to do. I have done most of my learning by doing (pushing buttons) because it is the easiest way for me to learn.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post, and another beautiful image to admire before reading your post. 🙂

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