The "rules" of good photography

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Poobah Emeritus
Sep 3, 2003
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S. Dartmouth, MA
Yes, rules are made to be broken, but there are some basic rules of photography that when followed will help a photographer grow from taking "snapshots" to making quality images that hold the viewer's interest.

The basic "rules" of photography come from centuries of study and come to photography from painting. The idea behind the rules is that a quality image holds the viewer's attention. Yes, it is subjective, but there are some hard patterns of interest that the human brain falls into.

For example, lines should lead the viewer into the photo and keep their attention and not lead them out of the photo and to a loss of attention. A single subject placed dead center gives the viewer the entire "picture" immediately and the attention is lost quickly. This rule can certainly be broken with a well done centered photo, but it does hold true in the majority of cases. Hence, the rule of thirds...

This is probably the most basic and widely known rule. Two "lines" should be drawn across an image 1/3 down from the top and 1/3 up from the bottom. Two more lines should be drawn down the image, 1/3 in from the left and 1/3 in from the right. The placement should not be exactly 1/3 of the way though. It should be weighted slightly towards the edge of the photo. Where the lines intersect is an ideal spot for a subject or point of interest. By placing your main subject at any of the four intersection points, you are giving your subject more emphasis than if it is dead center.

This rule not only applies to placing the main subject at the 1/3 intersection points, but also applies to horizons. A horizon that splits the photo in half most often leads to a "boring" photograph. In most cases, the photographer should make the decision between the land or the sky being the main subject. The horizon should then be 1/3 of the way up from the bottom or 1/3 of the way down from the top. Either the sky or the land should be featured, but not both. One exception to this rule is a reflection of the sky in water.

An example of the 1/3 rule can be seen in this shot:

The sky was grey and had more of it been shown the viewer would quickly lose attention. The land was more interesting, so it was featuerd. The villa is placed near the upper right 1/3 intersection point.

I took the same photo and overlayed 1/3 lines on it so it is easy to see where the lines are:

The photo also used leading lines to bring your eyes to the left, back to the right and then to the villa. But leading lines is another "rule". I'll let someone else explain that and give an example.

When placing a subject at or close to a 1/3 point, subject motion should be taken into account. The subject needs "room in the frame" to move into. An example:

The ice climber is near the 1/3 point and has room to climb into the frame. This lets the viewer imagine what will happen next and hold attention longer.

So, who is next? Pick a "rule" and help pass some knowledge...

- darren
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I'll attach my favorite rule, as it builds upon the rule of thirds.

It's the:
"Walking in/Walking out" Rule.

After you've positioned your subject, either person or animal, in the (presumably) bottom third of your picture, you have many choices about how to compose the scene around them. The general idea is to give the subject room to still experience the scene that you compose around him.

What do I mean by this...

If a subject is walking to the right, put the subject on the left, and allow the viewer to see what the subject is about to experience. It just doesn't look 'right' if a person is walking out of the frame, so give him/her/it room to walk.

So taking this a step further is the looking in/looking out rule...or as I call it "the vista rule" that we all can benefit from.

The idea is that side profiles work well for someone standing at the ege of an overlook taking in a scene. It's good practice to compose the subject in the lower say left third, have him look right, and shoot the view to the right of what he/she/it is looking at. Makes you feel like you are experiencing the scene right along with the subject.

Here's my ultimate example, from one of my favorite shots:

The fox is looking right, and you can take in the scene right along with him.

Thanks for the thread darren,
Looking forward to more 'rules' from others and I'll post another tomorrow.
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Very interesting rules. A couple of years ago my son, who has no knowledge of picture taking and shows no artistic interests spent a few minutes manouevering me into position for this shot. You'd think he had just read this thread. Amazing!
When taking pictures of people hiking - Get off the trail. Nearly all of my shots of people hiking are shots of their backs or their fronts. Get to a spot not in line with your subject and you get a whole different perspective on the terrain. It's a bit of work, and you sometimes have to get your subject to wait while you get to your location, but it's worth it.

Here is an example of Jim's "Walk in / Walk out" rule.

This poor bird is jammed against the edge of the frame. He can't see anywhere or go anywhere. He is trapped and it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable.


While this bird has room to look around or fly off in the direction he is facing:


Simple change, but very effective.

- darren
Just thought of another easy rule and figured that I would post it. Look out, it involves math. The math is simple though. :)

Shutter speed vs. lens size

Pictures are often blurry due to camera shake. If the camera moves while the shutter is open and the picture is being taken, the picture will blur. The longer your lens the greater the magnification and even a small amount of camera movement can result in significant image blur. In other worsds, hand holding a 300mm lens is much harder than hand holding a 28mm lens. Lens size (length and weight) plus the magnification of a long lens can make taking a sharp shot difficult.

The best method for avoiding camera shake induced blur is to use a tripod to steady the camera. Sometimes you just don't have a tripod with you or due to the subject you just can't use a tripod.

To make sure that you take a sharp shot the rule is to use a shutter speed faster than the reciprocal of the lens length. Yah, that means math, but it is easy math.

1 / lens length = minimum shutter speed

So if you are using a 100mm lens then to shoot handheld you need to shoot at a minimum shutter speed of 1/100 second. Normal shutter speed increments would translate that to 1/125 sec or faster. A 200mm lens requires a minimum shutter speed of 1/200 second (1/250 sec) etc.

If you are using a digital SLR with a crop factor then you need to factor that into it. A DSLR with a crop factor of 1.5x combined with a 200mm lens means you need to shoot at 1 / (1.5x200) = 1/300 second or faster in order to hand hold the shot.

Going in the other direction, if you are shooting with a 15mm lens, most people can not handhold a camera at 1/15 of a second and get a sharp shot. Another basic rule for hand holding cameras is to stay faster than 1/60 sec. Most people can hand hold a camera at 1/60 sec and take a sharp photo.

With practice, you can get good at holding a camera. Most experience shooters can handhold a wide angle lens down to 1/30 sec or slower. It takes practice though.

Another way to get around this rule is to use Canon's Image Stabilization (IS) or Nikon's Vibration Reduction (VR) lenses. These lenses have small gyros that sense motion and motors that shirft lens elements in order to compensate for the camera shake. This allows you to handhold photos at up to 2 stops slower than you normally would be able to. Meaning if you shot at 100mm you would normally have to have a shutter speed of 1/125 sec or faster to get a sharp photo. With IS you can now shoot 2 stops slower or 1/125 --> 1/60 --> 1/30 of a second.

OK, who has the next "rule"?

- darren
BorealChickadee said:
Darren (or others)- In your experience does Image stabilization really work?
It most definitely does. I have a test shot of my shed at a distance of ~85 ft. Lens was 300mm (480mm effective). Handheld shot at 1/10 sec. The screw head slots show no motion blur.

Canon claims that their IS gains 2-3 stops (4-8x exposure time).

BorealChickadee said:
Darren (or others)- In your experience does Image stabilization really work?

Yes it does. IS buys you 2 to 3 stops depending on how good your technique is.

Check out the second image on this post for an amazing example:

That is handheld at 1/5 second. Crazy.

Notice that IS does not help stop moving subjects. It only helps reduce the effect of camera shake. So it does not help with kids running around. :D

This one is 1/4 of a second:

This series really shows it off. The last shot is 1/3 of a second and you can see how sharp the car is and you can see a blurred person in front of it. Amazing.

Those are all shot with Canon's 24-105mm IS L lens. You pay for the L quality (Canon's top line) and the IS. The lens is $1000. My next lens (drool).

- darren
darren said:
Those are all shot with Canon's 24-105mm IS L lens. You pay for the L quality (Canon's top line) and the IS. The lens is $1000. My next lens (drool).

- darren

My buddy just got this lense and it is amazing. It is on my wish list at B&H. It will come right after the 100-400mm... :D :D :D
Ok, that IS is pretty amazing! (Oh yeah, I'd like to spend a week at those vacation houses in the woods :) ) the wrought iron railings on the carousel are so clear and that last shot at 1/3 second... You can't even see the guy, and the car is clear as a bell!

Just five years ago I bought another Minolta SLR after cracking the ceramic on my old one. Hard to give up the film. then I finally got a P&S digital a couple of years ago after a trip to New Mexico and developing 27 rolls of film. and then another 23 on the next trip etc.....I've been thinking about a DSLR and they are truly the cat's pajamas.

Those shots have convinced me that the Image Stabilization is really something else. A cool grand for one lens, huh? Well that may have to go on the future, future wish list. Got to get a body first! And from what I am hearing Canon seems to be the preferred one. Too bad about my Minolta lenses.
BorealChickadee said:
Those shots have convinced me that the Image Stabilization is really something else. A cool grand for one lens, huh? Well that may have to go on the future, future wish list. Got to get a body first! And from what I am hearing Canon seems to be the preferred one. Too bad about my Minolta lenses.
Not cheap.

The non-L lenses are a bit cheaper. Choose your trade-off.

Hyperfocal Focus Rule:

Another Rule that I think need to be highlighted is "The Hyperfocal Rule"

This is a technique for focusing when shooting landscapes and scenics that allows the most amount of the frame to be in sharp focus in the shot. This technique maximizes the plane of focus, whether your are shooting at F11 or F2.8.

As a quick basic before the explanation, the higher the F-stop number, the smaller the aperature, which allows more of the frame to be in focus. Not going into the physics of why...but, again this rule helps reguardless of what aperature you are shooting at.

First you need to compose a scene, a tripod or monopod is a big help in this case. Either way, you want to keep as much of the scene in focus as you can, from near to far. And the idea is that objects out of focus in the foreground are more noticable than objects out of focus in the distance or vista.

There is some math involved with real hyperfocal focusing, but for a cheater's (read simple and effective) method, simply focus 1/3 of the way into the scene. This will leave only one third of the scene between you and the point of focus, and two thirds out in infinity. This takes advantage of the lens' optics to garner the most DOF and sharpness.

This technique should only be used in landscape photography, but that's what I see here most anyway. For all living subjects, focus on the eye. It's the most important part. For macro and close up shots, it's artists discretion, whatever you feel is most important to you.

Hope this rule helps...try it out!
A little more on the subject of minimizing camera shake when hand-holding the camera. The Marine Corps is phenomenal at teaching rifle marksmanship, and I've actually found that some of the principles involved in shooting apply equally well to photography. First, do NOT try to hold your breath for several seconds at a time prior to taking the picture in an effort to steady yourself. Your body will start to sway. Instead, take in a deep breath, let most of it out, hold, and fire. Second, whenever possible, use your skeleton, NOT your muscles, to steady the camera. Whenever you can, use the bones in your lower arms (and when crouching, your lower legs) to do the job of the tripod you left at home. Breathing-posture-breathing-posture. None of this is vital for a sunny noontime photo, but in low light conditions (and thus slower shutter speed) every little bit helps.

This one is more of a courtesy rather than a technique. Be kind to your subjects. Don't make them stand there and smile forever while you take out the camera, adjust settings, adjust filters, compose the shot, etc. Do all the prep ahead of time, then say "OK, jump in there now. Smile on the count of three." They'll be much more willing to go along with your silly photo shoot ideas.
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Knowing when to break the rules...

I think most of the big rules have been pinned into this thread, and simply following them will create the best image within a comp 99% of the time. That's when your creativity comes in.

I searched through my images that I thought both worked well, and broke the rules, and came up empty. So I went to the work of my two favorite Photographers... Guy Tal and Marc Adamus.

Breaking the walking in/out rule: Guy Tal
This works because of the dramatic foreground, and the emotions evoked by the subject leaving...

Breaking the rule of Thirds: Marc Adamus
The horizon is centered, and the mountain nearly is, but all lines in this lead to the mountain, and the sun is a stand alone off center feature. And the color helps...

Both great images, both break the rules. So after you nail your shot by methods employed in this thread, don't be afraid to try something a bit different!
Thinking back across photos I’ve commented on here recently, it occurs to me that I probably read like a Johnny One-Note, singing, “crop, crop, crop.”

Well, I do think cropping is one of the simplest, easiest and quickest non-technical ways to improve our photographs, so I’ll probably keep singing that old tune. Cropping is merely an extension of careful composition in the camera, application of the “thirds” rule, and the walk-in-walk-out-of-scene or “gaze” principles.

In addition to achieving compositional “balance” (like that mandated by the “thirds rule”) the concept and challenge in cropping is to include in the ”frame” only what pertains to the picture’s primary “story,” and eliminate that which doesn’t. Simplicity boosts impact. Some photos turn out to be so complex that we find several stories, and so, several separate pictures in them.

Of course, sometimes that complexity itself is the story we want to tell, and so we decide to break the “crop vigorously” rule by leaving the photo intact and seemingly cluttered or somewhat confused or enigmatic.

Not every scene fits neatly into the “aspect ratio” provided by our cameras’ film formats or digital sensor dimensions. Some scenes simply demand to be depicted as long and skinny vertical or horizontal compositions; some want to be squares. And so, that’s the way to crop them. (I do draw the line at cropping to non-rectangular shapes, though. That’s the conventional aspect of my personality asserting itself.)

As a rule, I try to compose in the camera so the finished image will make maximum use of the negative or sensor area. This helps maximize “technical” quality such as sharpness and tonality. My purpose is to use as much of the longest dimension as possible. It helps to visualize the final crop while shooting, if the crop will deviate from the viewfinder format.

Add to list: learn basic post-production in Photoshop or GIMP. I only know how to do about 5-10 things beyond scaling and canvasing but they are pretty useful and effective.