Somebody becomes the best at anything they do by understanding the rules of the game or project they are involved in. If you don’t know the rules, you don’t have a chance. So here are some good photography rules to learn, that will definitely improve the way you take pictures. Keep in mind that these are Rules, not Laws. Nobody is going to jail for breaking them, but they are good starting points to help you take better shots.
Keep in mind rules are made to be broken. If every photographer followed these rules to the letter and didn’t break any of them, then every picture from every camera would look exactly the same. So learn the rules, then learn just how far you can stretch them before you have to stop. This is the only way you will be able to discover your own style or individual taste in photography.
Rule #1 – The Rule of Thirds
This is ALWAYS the first rule a photographer needs to learn. The rule of thirds basically has you divide your field of view into 9 segments, much like a tic-tac-toe board. Then align your subject as close to the intersecting lines as possible.. It makes for a much more interesting composition that tells a better story. I did a more in depth tutorial of it here. The Rules Of Thirds for Amateurs
Rule #2 – The Sunny 16 Rule
The Sunny 16 basically states that if your outside, and it is bright and sunny, then you can set your F-stop to f-16 and your Shutter Speed will be the closest you can get to your ISO, so you set your aperture at f16, and your shooting in ISO 100 your nearest shutter speed would be 1/125, iso 400 would use approximately 1/500 of a second. It generally just gets you a good starting points to snap a couple of images and adjust from there.
Rule #3 – KISS
You hear this rule applied to thousands of things in life. Keep It Simple Stupid. But it may apply to photography more than most. It is not implying that you should only shoot simple or plain and boring things. It really just means keep the image focus on what you want to portray. Keep your backgrounds out of focus, or gone entirely so that your viewers focus is drawn entirely to the subject. If it doesn’t help tell the story of the picture, then either remove it entirely or make it less noticeable in the image. The images I have here show what I mean. The one on the left, does tell a story, but not the one I wanted. You see the grand stands, the people in front, the infield and really don’t know what the image is about. The one on the right, is zoomed in and much more definitive in its simplistic look at the subject.
Rule #4 – Keep the Horizon Flat
This rule is probably broken more than any other, and it is so simple that it is silly. Keep your Horizon Level or flat. For some odd reason people thing that tilting a camera while snapping a sunset, portrait or landscape shot is ‘artistic‘ Well let me tell you, IT IS NOT!. It is possibly one of the most annoying traits a new photographer can pick up. Keep your Horizon where it is supposed to be, flat an level. This doesn’t mean adjust your cameras to match the terrain, it really just means keep it level. If you look below at the picture of the Grackle, you will see the horizon appears to be off canter, but that is actually the incline of the hillside. The Grackle though, is truly level and appears so. Had I tilted to make the hill flat, then the Grackle would appear out of sorts.
When a horizon is tilted, it should be for a reason that expresses something along the lines of unease or imbalance , not just to try and be different. If the first thing someone notices about the image when they view it is that it is tilted, then you are completely missing what the shot is really about. Throw it out, don’t do it and never do it again.
Rule #5 – Leading Lines
When you snap an image you should be thinking of where you want to draw your eventual viewer to in the photo. Every picture tells you where to look if it is composed correctly. Many just because the subject is the only thing in true focus it the image. Using leading lines to draw the viewer to the subject is a great way to guide them to your intended subject. The Grackle at the left is an obvious way of using leading lines, but the sand pile at the right utilizes the lines of the pile to draw you up to the person at the top.
Leading lines can be anything to draw your view, like Roads, rivers and streams, edges of building or ridges, rows of trees, fences, and tons more. Just keep in mind that your viewer needs to be guided to what your eye sees.
Rule #6 -Shoot in RAW
If you do not know what I mean buy shoot in RAW, then I suggest we do a little research on the subject for your benefit. But in a nutshell the RAW image saved to your camera in in effect a Digital Negative. In the film days, when you had your images processed you always received your negatives in a little pocket with your pictures. With the advent of digital cameras, many people have forgotten why we needed those negatives. They could be used in the off chance we needed to make copies of course. But more importantly they could be taken to a good developer and they could possibly recover or modify an image that was otherwise unrecognizable. The RAW image is sort of the same thing. It is a raw or untouched (for the most part) data file that contains everything in the field of view at the time the image was taken.
Once an image is converted to JPEG it is very limited in the amount of adjustments you can make with out destroying the quality of the image and adding noise to it. Now if you take perfect images each and every time you need not worry about it. But the majority of us don’t, so we should be shooting in the “Raw + JPEG” mode. When in this mode, it saves the JPEG that you can instantly share with family and friends, but it also save a duplicate untouched RAW image with the same number. This image can be manipulated so much more, with much less loss of quality and may allow you to save an image that otherwise was just gone. Yes it does use more than twice the storage space, but realistically, SD cards and hard drive storage are cheap, so that excuse just doesn’t fly.
The image at the beginning of this rule was shot outside my door in the middle of the night during a pretty intense thunderstorm. Getting the shot and not destroying my NOT-waterproof camera body were both at the forefront of my thoughts. I step outside, make a few adjustments, and snap a couple quick shots. I thought I got the shot, so I walked back in the house and never thought about it again. A couple days later I am downloading my images to my computer and I start looking through them and I see this blacked out image. It takes a minute then I realize I didn’t get the shot. I was miffed. Until I realized I had been shooting in RAW+JPEG mode. I opened the RAW image in Adobe Camera Raw, that came with Photoshop Elements 9, and started working. I was able to make some adjustments and recover the image I was trying to shoot. Now I know the quality isn’t great, but the fact that I recovered this at all is amazing. I was able to adjust this image several stops of exposure up to be able to see the tornado right outside my door. It is also better than what I could actually see that night. I have been able to do many more amazing things with regular photos. So make sure your shooting in RAW.
Rule #7 – Break the Rules
You have some starting points that will help you in getting some great and memorable images out of that new DSLR you just bought. I recommend using these most of the time to help you in your craft. But there are times when the rules just do not apply, and you just need to do something different. Do not be afraid to experiment and try something outside the box. Some of the greatest photographers in the world did just that and got themselves noticed because of it. The only rule I will tell you NOT to break is Rule #4, this one should only be attempted by consummate professionals, and even then only in moderation.
So good luck, and keep shooting STR8.
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