Some people wonder what some of the unwritten photographic rules are, and ultimately what makes a great photograph. Those who do not practice photography, haven’t been trained in the medium, and don’t know the history of photography often have questions as to why a photograph is famous, or often assume that by using the rule of thirds images are automatically great.
There are misconceptions in every field of study, whether it’s artistic or scientific. I’ve compiled a list of 10 unwritten photographic rules that most professional photographers should know, or already do, and often talk about on forums and articles on the web.
So without further ado, here they are:
1. Classic Photographs Are Considered Great Because They’re The First of Their Kind
People new to photography look at work by photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and wonder what was so great about his photographs. When people understand their importance, such as other photographers, they often have a hard time expressing why it’s famous.
It is hard to contextualize why a good photograph is great, but it really comes down to the era and date it was taken. HCB was doing something that no other photographer was doing at the time. He was taking pictures of real-life scenarios instead of the photographers in his time that were focusing on orchestrated portraiture. He was one of the only photographers at the time out in the street capturing slices of daily life, and doing so in a way that had never been seen before.
So when you look at a painting by Picasso, you might think to yourself ‘what’s so special about that, even I could do that.’ Sure, that might be true, but no one else was doing it at the time, and it changed the game and influenced many artists, just like great photographs do, and will continue to do.
2. The Rule of Thirds Isn’t The Recipe For a Perfect Photo
Many photographers are under the impression that if they use the rule of thirds their photographs will be perfect.
Rule of Thirds: “an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections”
This digs right into the Divine Proportion/Golden Ratio, which is an equation that a mathematician named Fibonacci observed in nature. He found that nature had a preference to create things in a similarly symmetrical way, which could be put into a mathematical formula/ratio — i.e., a ratio system photographers could use and understand. The rule of thirds take this ratio literally and divides a frame into thirds.
A photograph is made of subjects or objects that are immovable, but they are extremely important elements in any photograph. The movable objects, like a person or animal brings more balance, and act as an anchor to the photo, and ultimately is what makes a photo interesting. It is even more effective and dramatic when the movable anchor is placed off-center, or at the edge of the frame like the divine proportion. It creates tension or interest in the subject, and draws your eyes to the edge.
You are essentially using a static background to illustrate your subject/anchor in a more symmetrical fashion. This disruption, or movable object at the edge of the frame is what makes the photograph interesting, and that is why some people think the rule of thirds doesn’t necessarily need a unique anchor or element.
The balance between the movable and immovable elements falls into the rule of thirds, but it’s not the reason for a great photograph, it’s just a great way to exploit this rule to your benefit.
3. Photography Is Selective Framing
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” — Robert Capa
Photographers will get close to their subjects to isolate elements that add nothing to their image, or even too much to them. What Robert Capa is saying here is that you need to find an interesting subject and get in closely to take delete all the unnecessary elements that distract from your intended subject. A tree, a telephone pole, an unwanted person that walks in frame draws more attention than you intended subject, so you must isolate them correctly.
Good photographers are able to posture themselves, or get their bodies into a specific angle to isolate subjects to keep out distractions. It’s finding the subject matter that is the difficult thing to find for any photographer. If you look at a Bruce Gilden, Robert Frank, HCB, W. Eugene Smith, they’ve mastered getting up close to isolate their subjects, but their eye to find these moments is what made them amazing photographers. They have an eye for photography, and they exploit the scene to keep out unwanted distractions. That’s what separates a postcard from a great photograph.
4. Constantly Shooting Will Give You Better Results
If you were to look at the old contact sheets of your favorite photographer you will see hundreds of mishaps, things out of focus, and just ‘ok’ versions of your favorite photo. But there is always the one image among the whole lot that is perfect. Just like a gun that goes off and produces a dud, or your miss the target down range completely, if you keep shooting you will eventually connect and hit your target.
This also helps in developing the photographic eye. The more you shoot and try to hone your skills, the better photographer you will become in the long run. Photography school can teach you the technical skills and teach you the history of photography, but that is not going to make you a better photographer than anyone else. Being a photographer is 90% about just being there and shooting as much as possible.
5. A Bad Picture Cannot Be Made Good
You can’t shine a turd into a diamond, and bad photos cannot be saved in Photoshop. Sure you can manipulate the bad photo to an acceptable level if you’re a master of Photoshop, but the photograph will still suck. This goes back to shooting constantly. Don’t just take one image, take hundreds, especially since we aren’t burning film anymore.
‘Fix it in Photoshop’ doesn’t mean you can save anything, this pertains to minor exposure adjustments… not making a subject that’s out of focus in focus, or turning darkness into light.
Learn to take a proper exposure and the rest will fall into place in the editing process.
6. Professional Photographers Are Good Businessmen
To be a professional photographer today you must learn good business sense. Being a professional photographer today, especially with the saturated field of us out there, you have to be a businessman too. You must market yourself, you must reach out to get new clients, and you have to be proactive to keep your income stream coming in.
It’s not just enough to be a great photographer. The work will never come to you, it will only come when you chase it down. Take a business class, talk to successful pros, and see what it takes to make it in the digital age. Hard work is what separates the pikers from the doers.
7. F/8 and Be There
Arthur “Weegee” Fellig once answered a question with “f/8 and be there” when someone asked him how he captured his photographs. F/8 and be there is a philosophy, a technique, and an inspirational saying all in one. When shooting with a wide-angle lens it is easier to ‘zone focus’ your camera to get sharp images without having to find your focus constantly. Instead you can just focus on shooting and finding these decisive moments.
Also shooting at an aperture like this allows your depth of field to capture multiple elements in your frame in focus instead of having a wide open aperture with shallow depths of field.
But on a philosophical front, Weegee is saying that you have to be there in order to find interesting moments and subjects. Having your camera zone focused with a wide-angle lens will allow you to blend in better and to see amazing moments unfold as a passive observer without fiddling with your camera.
8. Never Delete Your Images In-camera
Just looking at your LCD monitor on the back of your camera won’t be able to determine if your photo is good or not. Upload them to your computer, rifle through them and decide whether it needs to go. You need to be able to see more detail than what a tiny screen can provide you with.
Also, it will also act as a learning tool for you. When you look at photos, you can decide which is good and which is bad, and by taking a look at your entire field experience you can better analyze what works and what doesn’t, and what you need to work on. It’s also a good tool see the progression that led you to that one amazing image.
9. Content is King
The subject of your photo is more important than how you technically execute it. Some of the greatest photos in history were far from perfect. For example, Robert Capa’s images of American soldiers storming Omaha Beach in Normandy during the D-Day invasion are riddled with out-of-focus soldiers and distortion, but the battle happening around them is what makes these images powerful.
The more interesting the content of a photograph, the better the image will be. Subject matter and telling a story with your photos is more important than just creating a technically proficient image. This is what makes a photographer good.
10. Your Expensive Gear Won’t Make You a Better Photographer
We always hear it: it’s not the gear, it’s the photographer. Go ahead, buy expensive gear. But don’t just assume that having the latest and greatest is the only recipe in making a good photograph.
Chase Jarvis wrote a book on smartphone photography called: The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You: iPhone Photography. He is often attributed with this idea, but its common knowledge among professional photographers that having a camera with you in any form, whether your smartphone or a point-and-shoot, is essential.
It’s just like saying, it’s not the paint brush, it’s the artist. A photographer is an observer of the human comedy unfolding, and he or she is on a constant search for decisive moments no matter there location. Photographers always make sure to carry a camera in some shape or form.
So if you have $10,000 worth of gear will that make you better photographer than me with a Canon Rebel with a kit lens? Not necessarily.
Related Articles: What Makes a Great Photograph; Moment of Capture Defined; The Photographer Waits
Jackson Street says
Well, they’re not unwritten anymore.
Alina Oswald says
Excellent article! Agree with every one of the rules mentioned above. And, yes, I love the work of HCB. One of my favorite photographers. I got to see his work, and Ansel Adams’, up close in A Gallery for Fine Photography, in New Orleans.
Thanks for sharing these now written rules with the rest of us!
Thanks Alina. I suppose it needs a new title now, since I have written them 🙂