The Rules of the Road
There's a notable shift in perspective from merely taking photos to making them. It's not uncommon for aspiring photographer to struggle with getting out of first gear, but it needn't be as hard as it might seem.
First, let's consider what goes into taking photos. Think back to when you first because interested in photography. No doubt, you had some reason for wanting to record the awesome things you came across in your life. It may have been memories of times with family and friends. It may have been the beautiful sights you encountered on your travels. The details may vary, but the underlying motivation is generally the same. Photography lets you save your memories and experiences, so you can relive them later and share them with those who were not with you at the time.
When you're first learning, it's enough to hold a camera still long enough to focus and shoot. Looking down at the controls on the camera means taking your eyes off your subject. The tendency is to center your subject in the frame to minimize the risk that it will accidentally slide past the edge just as you press the shutter release. It takes a certain degree of coordination, even to master the basics of photography. Go back and look at some of your earliest images if you doubt me. If you've already thrown out all those horrible early efforts, then you'll have to accept that you did so for a reason. I'll admit that mine were pretty bad if it helps for me to go first.
Once you did get beyond such fundamentals, you likely developed an interest in continuing to improve your photography. Looking at your images, you note that they somehow don't measure up to those taken by more experienced shooters. They've had more practice than you have, but clearly , there's some room for improvement. To get better, you decide to do some studying on the topic. Perhaps you did some reading, or took a class, or whatever. Many of us made use of these and more in various permutations. In each situation, the aim was the same: to learn the rules for taking better images. You learned about the rule of thirds, leading lines, symmetry and repetition, color theory and perspective. You did your best to apply all these rules when taking pictures, but in a sense, this only gave you even more things to struggle with when shooting. But at this point, it wasn't the shutter and the focus; it was also the many variables and facets of good composition that had to be mastered.
The obvious conclusion is that practice makes perfect, that you merely need to keep at it, and that one day everything will fall into place, and you will have arrived. And this is true, up to a point. But as you work to juggle a growing assortment of rules and guidelines, it's easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. It's easy to lose sight of what initially spurred your interest in photography. What started as fun ends up as work. If good photography ultimately boils down to just a matter of following a series of rules, what about the simple joy of taking pictures?
I've thought about this a lot over the years regarding my own process. Even without a camera, when I see something interesting, I want to see it the most interesting was I can, myself, then and there. Taking out my photo gear, it's this then that I want to photograph. When things are going well, it's not just my subject I'm photographing. A good part of what is happening is that I'm photographing the way I see it.
But if I want the picture I make to be its best, it helps to have seen other good images, and have at least some idea how they were made. This is were the rules of composition come in. Had I never learned how the arrangement on thirds-lines enhances an image, it would have taken a fair while to stumble across it in the field. Sooner or later, I'd like to think I'd notice such a pleasing arrangement on my own, but familiarity with this guideline in advance no doubt helped me notice sooner. Once you know about it, you start to see it everywhere. Images just look nice that way.
Indeed, I've come to understand that sometimes I now do this automatically. Certain compositions just look better, and I find myself drawn to them. I'm not so much following a rule. I notice when rules are being followed, and I go with it.
I remember learning to drive a car as a teenager. Yes, it was some years ago. I took a drivers education class in high school. At first, I found driving a difficult skill to master. I found myself frequently drifting side to side, having a hard time staying in my lane at anything above the slowest speeds. Eventually, I realized I was looking too closely at the front of the car rather than the road ahead.
Now, had I not already learned the rules of the road before I got behind the wheel, I'd like to think that I would have figured out I was supposed to say in my lane and mastered how to do so before any serious mishaps occurred. But it certainly did make the process simpler and safer by studying safe driving first.
Once I got the hang of it, I no longer had to focus so much on where my car was in the lane and found that I did so almost automatically. That's just the way things looked best to me. And to my driving teacher.
In a way, a car's steering wheel is no different than a camera's aperture. A brake pedal the same as a shutter speed. A center divider between lanes on the roadway the same as a leading line in the camera's viewfinder. That's just the way this stuff works. That's just the way it looks right. And you go with it.