Return to Article Index E-Mail this Article to a friend

Breaking The Rules
by Gary Bernstein -


Kevin Sorbo - Magazine Cover Headshot - studio 35mm color

Education as it is applies to art may just be a double-edged sword. Some 30 years ago, when I started in photography, my work was loose, free, wild, unstructured, and at best, inconsistent. Looking back on those images, I find that some showed promise, a few were strong, and others were just horrible. But every roll of film brought with it excitement and wonder. Would the images come out good? Would the images come out at all??

Little by little, one learns by making mistakes. And back then--there were unquestionably a lot more mistakes to be made, because the equipment and the technology was a long way from today's pretty-much-fail-safe sophistication. Today you have to work hard to really mess up a success or failure must reside somewhere other than achieving the proper exposure and sharp focus...

I remember starting my formal photographic education. Some classes on fine art; the study of light and composition in school. I studied classical portraiture with (who else?) classical portraitists. It's great at first--having those reigns pulled in--learning what the learned ones deemed to be the right and the wrong way of photography. But soon (when mistakenly taken as dogma) those rules and reigns become a straight-jacket and a noose. They become confining, stifling, and ultimately they inhibit creativity. The reality ultimately sets in that an artform just can't be governed by rules, and that the ultimate yardstick by which success or failure is measured resides within the individual and his subject, or the individual and his viewers.

So now I find myself spending the greatest majority of my time on my website ( And the thrust, anchor and dedication of the entire site is to provide freedom and creativity through education. So do rules play a part? I think they do--if only as a foundation--a support system to rely on when all else fails. In honesty, I find myself going back to the rules at the start of a lot of sessions. They tend to make my subjects more comfortable, and allow me to get something good in the can early on in the session, before the creative juices start flowing and all heck breaks loose creatively.

Rules in themselves are indeed rigid. For example, in classical portraiture, only certain angles of the face are deemed appropriate for photography: The full face (in which theoretically both ears appear the same size to the camera), the provirtual (we're talking a true, clean provirtual), and the three-quarter view (in which (again) theoretically, the far eye comes precisely to the edge of the face. When the eye falls somewhere midway between the edge of the face and the nose--as it does here in this glamour headshot of actor (and great jump-shot shooter), Kevin Sorbo (star of Hercules), the classic portraitist calls it a "bastard view," and of course, that's a real no-no (I'm also anxious to see if I got away with publishing that term!). Additionally, the classic portraitist believes that a man's eyes must be centered in their sockets--as opposed to Kevin's out-of-the- corner stare. So once again, a bit of a departure from the classic image...

But hey, I hooked up three Photogenic Power lights--two at 45-degree angles to the white paper background--one mounted in a Moonlight main light (from Lighthouse Photo Products), then used a silver PhotoWorld reflector just beneath Kevin's face (to fill in the shadows and add some extra glint to the eyes), had him lean on a Denny posing table, loaded some Kodak Kodachrome 25 in my Canon EOS affixed with a 100mm lens, just metered for the highlights with my trusty Gossen (on incident, please), made sure that I had about a half step more light on the subject than on the background (to ensure good skin tones and saturation), and somehow managed to get an international cover out of it. So how important are the darn rules? I still think they're pretty important.

Contact Form