I think it is a shame that the word “rules” gets bandied around. There are no rules when it comes to art.
There is, however, Technique.
The reason that it is a good idea, but not necessary, to learn technique, is that not only do you learn what works and why, but also what does not work.
You don’t have to use technique. In fact a good artist should push these boundaries, that is what being creative is about.
Without this knowledge, you will still make good art from time to time at about the same ratio as a person who does know technique, but you wont know why it is good art, and if it is a bad photo you wont understand why it is a bad photo.
For example, you could take thousands of landscape photos and keep wondering why no-one likes them. If you had known how proportion (rule of thirds), lines & diagonals and “points of interest” all work to psychologically interest the viewer, then you could have spent all that time working on improving that and developing your own style instead of getting frustrated that you just couldn’t seem to get it “right”.
Photographers often take care not to underexpose the shadows or blow the highlights, and often struggle to put the subject on the “thirds positions” in the frame because they are trying to follow rules. But you don’t have to follow these rules. no-one is holding a gun to your head.
Perhaps another way to think about this is that there is nothing wrong with under-exposure or over-exposure when used creatively. Knowing how and when to do so is the trick.
Look at this Photograph by SANDY WARREN.
Technically they have (albeit accidentally) over-exposed this photograph by what could be considered “waaaay toooo much”. But it works as an image. We know they are horses, yet the image also contains a lot of mystery because most of the detail is hidden from us by the over-exposure.
Interestingly, the mane the eyes and the noses of the two horses form a diagonal from top left to bottom right, which follow our natural tendency to view an image in that direction. This image would feel very different if it was flipped from left to right.
Your subject does not have to be on the thirds line, if for example, you are not intending to feature the subject . Knowing that the viewer’s eye will be naturally attracted to the third line positions, you now know where to put your subject so that it does not attract our attention!
Look at this photograph by BENSOUND.
The main subject is not the person. The person does not attract your attention, that bright pink skip bin, the blue "Disabled Sign: the red wall and Blue sky (with that cute cloud) all get your attention first, and then you notice the person.
The person is not on the thirds line, and is not featured in such a way as to naturally attract the viewer. This has added to the interest of this image by breaking the “rule of thirds” technique.
People say “but rules are meant to be broken…”
Well that is actually a misunderstanding, and frankly a rather dumb thing to say. Rules are meant to be followed, but they are created so that if you have to break them, then you are able to justify your actions.
As I have said on another forum about a similar topic, you don’t have to use technique, but you should be able to justify artistically why you didn’t. In other words, if you haven’t used any technique, and it is still a crap photo, you really haven’t got an artistic leg to stand on.
Often artists will cite another great artist who never had a lesson in his life as justification for not using tried and tested techniques.
Well … two can play that game.
Louis Armstrong never had a trumpet lesson in his life.
If he were to show Miles Davis how he does staccato technique, do you think Miles Davis would disregard what he has to say.
I promise you that Louis Armstrong and his mates would have discussed their own techniques with each other. Musicians do that sort of thing (and so do Photographers!). Sure, it is not the same as going to school, but it is still learning technique.
So remember technique is just technique. It is just knowledge handed-down from other who have sought the same goals as yourselves.
They are not rules.
You don’t have to follow them.
But it certainly helps to know them.