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Rule Follower

September 12, 2023

family on the beach


I can’t remember when it was exactly but someone once told me at the start of my photography journey: Learn the Rules…. so you can BREAK THEM! I never knew how important that statement was back then and it wasn’t until just recently that I finally truly understood. But I think for me to share what I mean… I have to start at the beginning!


You see, I am a rule follower! Like seriously, hard core, 100 %, never step a toe out of line rule follower. I think that’s part of being a perfectionist… which I am! I can’t help it. I love to people please and it’s probably my best and my worst character flaw. Raise your hand if you can commiserate! It’s what makes me GREAT at my job in this world of photography and what makes me the absolute worst at my job when it comes to business. But that’s beside the point and also a whole other rabbit hole topic for discussion which I promise to share THAT particular story one day.

I had lots of mentors when I started out. I was so hell bent on doing things “the right way” that I met with so many other photographers that were “successful”. I sat while they gave me their own words of wisdom and their own version of “how to be successful” and trust me I listened intently and took diligent notes! I was convinced that if I did it their way, which was THE way, then my business would flourish!

And it wasn’t just about the business. I wanted at the heart of everything to create images that made the family’s I worked with happy. I wanted to make them see what I saw: magic! The magic of just them being who they were in that moment and nothing else. That they didn’t need to be anything other than who they are in their everyday life, behind closed doors: the good, the flawed, the imperfect, the vulnerable!


So I continued to do that! Meet with mentors over and over and over again and yet… “their way” didn’t do anything for me. I kept coming up with all these “rules” I had to follow. This person said I had to do this. The next person said I could only do things that way. If I wanted to blog, I had to leave out the personal and blog for business. I needed to post on social media at this particular time. I had to only post on this social media app because this one was old news! It all got so confusing and eventually I was so overwhelmed by RULES that I stalled out! I actually felt so much pressure that my creativity left me. And you kind of need creativity to be a creative! Funny right?

All that rule following and trying to do things the “right way” left me in a place where I eventually kind of gave up!


It was back in May with a starbucks in hand, sitting in the airport in Vegas killing time while waiting for a friends flight to arrive when a conversation totally rocked my world!

I agreed to attend a photography retreat even though I knew I was (at that point) kind of done with my business. I was frozen still and after almost 14 years of mentors and retreats investing into a business that was also just stuck, I didn’t understand why the needle hadn’t moved. After all I had followed all the “rules”, done all the things the other’s had done and yet I was still in the same place where I was in the beginning.

My friend Sara was waiting with me and she opened up the conversation bluntly in between the dings of the slot machines.. at the airport. She asked me why I was wasting my time owning my own business and trying to run it like someone else’s. Sara’s pretty smart! She wanted to know why I didn’t just go all in, my own way?

That’s kind of when everything clicked for me and I remembered that one piece of advice that I was given at the very beginning:

Learn all the rules…. so you can break them!

Yes that phrase meant photography rules but it applies to so much more! Why was I trying to run MY business which is unique to me as a person like all these other people?! What works for them clearly was NOT working for me! It was making me miserable.

Sara made me feel safe in that conversation. She listened to me describe what I loved to do and why I loved photography. She also asked why I wasn’t just doing that! It was almost like she gave me the permission I needed. She didn’t give me “advice” even though she did. She didn’t give me rules. She actually gave me the opposite. She gave me the freedom by saying I didn’t HAVE to do it like all the others I had gone to before. She gave me the permission (which is a powerful word to a perfectionist and people pleaser) to do it just for me as me.

The Choice!

I had learned all the rules already! I had followed them blindly even. Now, I needed to break them and most importantly I needed to have FUN doing it!

Just as Sara had said, what is the whole point of owning your own business if you can’t do it in a way that suits you?!

In the world of photography there are certain rules of composition, lighting, space, symmetry etc. These rules help you to create interesting and clean images. Are they important? Sure! Should you know and understand them? Absolutely! If you want to be a great photographer you should know how to compose a beautiful and interesting image. But once you know them I think it’s OK to go ahead and get creative! Technical photography is there to provide you with guidelines. Those are the “rules”maybe but not all rules need to be set in stone! Sometimes, rules are meant to be broken right?


I’m learning to break the rules a little bit at a time! It’s not an overnight process and sometimes I fall back on my old ways. I look for guidance when really I need to look more to myself. But hey, one step at a time. Sometimes I need to remember it’s OK to do it my way.

All I know is that the more I allow myself the freedom to do what feels natural for me, the more I feel I find my definition of “success” and I also find joy!

I’m learning to “break the rules” my own way!

I think that’s the best advice I can give to anyone starting out in photography or to anyone starting their own business.

Just don’t take 14 years like I did!

And if you need “permission” like I did… you can call on me! Us rule followers can form a rule breaker support group!

photos by the amazing zoe grant

family on the beach in virginia

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