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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Photography Rules

Ernst Haas

Use a high shutter speed to prevent motion blur.

Clarence H. White

A fine B&W print must have a full range of tones from pure black to pure white.

Richard Avedon, from In The American West

Always flatter your subject.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Observe the rule of thirds.

Okay, maybe that's enough of this sort of thing. (But anybody got any more good ones?)

Note that I'm not saying that "rules" aren't helpful. In fact, they can be very helpful. A few of the "suggestions" that I think have helped me over the years are:

Never crop. This is standard advice for photographers learning to use the camera. The fact is, learning where to stand and where to point the camera is itself an excercise in "cropping," in effect, and you'll find it a great deal more difficult to compose in the viewfinder if you're always fiddling with the cropping of the picture after the fact. Compose in the viewfinder and then live with what you've done, and you're likely to learn how to shoot more quickly.

Hands in or out. In photographs of people.

When photographing children, get down to their level. Basic advice that will lead to stronger pictures of kids more often than not.

The name of the game is to fill the frame.

Objects out of the depth-of-field in the foreground are more distracting than objects out of the depth-of-field in the background.

And so forth. Of course, all of these "rules" might be broken just as decisively as the ones illustrated at the top of this post.

"Rules" are really just suggestions, and they are always optional. (I think.)


Featured Comment by Bob: "I've learned many firm rules about photography from reading Internet forums. For example:

• Digital zoom is just as good as real zoom and a lot cheaper.
• The free software that came with my cheap P&S is just as good as Photoshop and a lot easier to learn.
• Post processing is for people who are too stupid to set the adjustments in their camera.
• RAW is for people too lazy to make good exposures.
• Nikon is better than Canon.
• Canon is better than Nikon.
• Sophisticated flash systems and meters don't work; therefore, you should always shoot manual with manual flash.
• If you don't have vibration reduction equipment you aren't a real photographer.
• No one will take you seriously unless you list an extensive array of expensive photo equipment in your forum signature.

"I could go on and on."


Blogger J.A.S.O.N. said...

"the Code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules." -Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean

Seem to apply here. ;)

12:37 PM  
Blogger Photo-essayist said...

Mike, rather than rules I think photographers are better off asking themselves whether they've said what they intend as strongly or expressively as they can (always reserving room for lucky accidents). And the first step to answering this question is SEEING a new photograph with fresh eyes. So--either with a real print or on a monitor--hold it upside down, view it in a mirror, make a thumbnail-sized print so that the big chunks of form emerge, leaf the print into a pile of other photos and see how it stands up, tape it to a window and view it from the sidewalk, etc. Evaluating a photograph usually takes some effort. Good photographers have a huge work ethic and work every part of the process.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Steve White said...

Mike - Just a little typo to correct

Objects of of the depth-of-field in the foreground

1:29 PM  
Blogger paul@blogger said...

I like "if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough" but you cover that with your commentary. 

In general, I think rules are worth learning, but when they require breaking, at least be aware of why. An image might be all the stronger for it. 

1:34 PM  
Blogger Vikas said...

imo .. If you are breaking a rule and you know looking through the viewfinder that you are, usually its for something good! ;)

2:03 PM  
Blogger John Bates said...

"Never crop" is a rule that I find pragmatically indefensible, but aesthetically satisfying.

I'm always disappointed in myself when I find that I feel I really have to crop to get the right shot, and I'm always annoyed with instructors who suggest cropping.

I'm even more annoyed with people who have cropping as part of the ordinary workflow. It is as if they're suggesting that the actual *act* of taking a photograph is secondary, an afterthought, and all the *real* creativity takes place at the workstation.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Hi Mike,

I'm really enjoying all this discussion.

I think one rule might be to obsessively look at the work of other (better) photographers. I hear both sides of the Flickr laugh but one thing that it illuminates is that inexperienced photographers are criticizing other inexperienced photographers without too much knowledge of the luminaries of photography's history. That's fine, maybe, everyone has the right to their own opinion.

It's a reminder to me that I should spend a little less time looking at the photography of other "aspirings" and more time pouring over the pile of books that have seperated me from a big part of my income. If I added up the hours I've spent looking at Flickr vs. the hours I've spent looking at my Winogrand/HCB/Linda Butler/Irving Penn books I think I'd be disgusted. Part of that is being stuck on a computer at work and having nothing better to do.

I don't need rules but I'm really interested in the ideas of classical art. I'd love to find a book that talks about the conventions of art in terms of rule of thirds/vanishing point/layout, etc. I think to some degree there are rules of art and design, but that they are highly breakable. But it's hard to break them when you don't know them. I feel like a great artist is breaking tons of rules. I'd love to see a book that explains basic concepts in visual art.


2:11 PM  
Blogger John Bates said...

It is as if they're suggesting that the actual *act* of taking a photograph is secondary, an afterthought, and all the *real* creativity takes place at the workstation.

As they say, though, not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just not what I want to be doing.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Andy Frazer said...

Want more suggestions?

The example that kept coming to mind over the weekend was Richard Avedon's "Domina and Elephants". I could just imagine someone commenting, "Good model, and good pose. But the elephants are distracting. And one of them has lifted his foot off the ground. Makes the whole picture look unstable. Next time, try to find a less busy background."


Andy Frazer

3:25 PM  
Blogger Tony Rowlett said...

I agree that there are a small bunch of rules that could help one make a great photograph, either by following them or by breaking them. But my question is, should a well-thought-out critique of the result use those rules as its basis? The most interesting critiques I have read don't mention the rules.

4:26 PM  
Blogger R2K said...

Great stuff : )

7:22 PM  
Blogger Paul Van said...

I think of the rules as a quick way to organize elements within the frame. The picture I want may or may not conform to those rules, but I do find them a valuable starting point. When I look at my contact sheets, sometimes the first shot was the best, but just as often it has taken several shots to get something that I am satisfied with. But then again I still play with the food on my plate too!
Paul Van

8:42 PM  
Blogger Monte said...

Heh heh. I chuckled at "Always flatter your subject."

Anyway, I'm a filmmaker (*ahem*, in the pursuit of such a title, that is) and much that goes into framing a still photograph applies to framing a sucessful motion shot. That said, I was just passing through on a little blog-browsing, and I found your blog to be very interesting.

Stop by mine, and leave a comment sometime.

8:52 PM  
Blogger laurencepak said...

I think a very general but important rule for photography, though obvious, but seldom talked about explicitly, is this:

everything in the photograph should be where and how the way you wanted it to be.

this doesn't mean everything has to be posed, but photograph, similar to a drawing, should have and only have the things that u actually want, and nothing that u don't want in there.

but "want" i mean loosely as in intended or allowed.

9:23 PM  
Blogger fivetonsflax said...

Gilles Peress has out-of-focus foreground elements in some of his pictures from Iran (and maybe other pictures too, I only have his Iran book). I have been kind of digging the effect, and playing with it a little in my own pictures.

10:06 PM  
Blogger charel said...

Very interesting contribution indeed, I put a link to this one one my blog (, please feel free to contact me if you like it to be removed. A quick thought though: If you consider photography to be a form of art, could you not say that everytime you create such an artificial rule, there is at least one photographer going to break it to produce an astonishing shoot. In other words, maybe it's the rules themselves that stimulate us to achieve higher goals that we didn't even know of?

1:03 AM  
Blogger Ballistic said...


2:33 AM  
Blogger Hiding Pup said...

Funny how so many commentators seem to be rather fond of the "rules". And yet the three pictures you posted don't seem to have purposely gone out of their way to break such rules, but seem happily oblivious to them in the first instance..

2:53 AM  
Blogger Clive Evans said...

The only rule is that there are no rules...................

5:11 AM  
Blogger jedrek said...

I am of the opinion that one should know 'the rules' of any artform they indulge in, to know when to break them.

6:00 AM  
Blogger speedtrials1975 said...

Mike, I really like the direction your blog is taking. I like that you're taking on photography culture and not just cameras and photographs. Photography is so popular now and there are so many trends easily apparent on the internet. Its important to step back and deconstruct these.

Plus its hella funny.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Joe Reifer said...

Thinking about all of these rules made me think of the somewhat famous Garry Winogrand quote about the contention between content and form. Most of these critiques focus on form. What language do we have to talk about the content? And I'm not talking about content in a literal sense - I'm talking about how you describe the emotional impact of a photograph.

For the critiques on the analytical aspects of a photograph, nature photographer Mark Hatasaka uses the helpful acronym SLCCFET - Subject, Lighting, Composition, Color, Focus, Exposure, Timing.

Craig Tanner of The Radiant Vista talks about the rhythm in a photograph, and has a great feel for describing the emotional aspects of a photograph in his critiques.

Anyhow, thanks again for the humorous and thought provoking series of posts!



12:17 PM  

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