There are no rules to photography. A rule, by definition, is “one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity.” This is far too rigid. However, for the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that photography does have rules. In reality, please remember at all times that rules are meant to be broken. They are merely guides; maybe suggestions. They are considerations for you when composing a shot or processing a shot that will hopefully make it just that bit better.
So here are 8 rules for anyone interested in photography and taking pictures with something more than a smart phone and Instagram. If you decide to ignore them all, all the time then that becomes a creative decision that is right for you.
These rules span three main areas. Composition, post-processing and delivery.
1. Avoid Using A Flash
Flashes, unless used as part of a full lighting setup (or at least diffused and bounced), create harsh shadows and totally unnatural lighting. Avoid using an on camera flash wherever and whenever you can. Cameras can now operate at high ISO levels with minimal noise. A little noise is preferable than a glaring flash and probably an underexposed background.
2. Think About Lighting
Use light sources to your advantage to make your picture look better. If you can, adjust your position to benefit from light sources or if possible get your subject to move. This is particularly relevant for candid shots and portraits. For example, if you can get your subject at 20-40 degrees to a window and have them look at the camera, the catch light (specular highlight) in their eyes will look fantastic. Then there are all the other advantages of better lighting such as a higher shutter speed possibly leading to a sharper image, more faithful colour reproduction and a lower ISO setting meaning less noise. Of course, it doesn’t just mean more light. It could often mean less but just in the right place. Essentially this rule could spiral into a whole website about photography lighting (which I would not be qualified to write) but you can’t go too far wrong in learning the basics and considering them very quickly in the moment before you take a picture.
3. Use Dutch Angle Sparingly
This technique (see here for information) can be used wonderfully well and generate a sense of tension, action and forward movement. Don’t just use it so you can seemingly fit more in the frame. There is nothing wrong with cutting off part of someone in a shot or cropping more than would first seem logical. It’s better than every picture being at some weird and wonderful angle.
4. Straighten Things Out
Think about which lines are dominant in a picture and straighten accordingly. Let’s pick a very obvious example. The sea and sky means a horizon. If this is the main part of the picture, make sure it’s straight. When do you look out on holiday and see a horizon that’s about 5 degrees angled to the left. You may have your head tilted but your brain is certainly telling you it’s straight. In a photograph, it doesn’t work like this. It has to be straight otherwise it will just look bad. There are lines everywhere and they all deserve at least thinking about when it comes to composing or cropping.
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Crop
This follows on nicely from rule 4 but is more general. It would be a perfect world if every photo taken was perfectly framed in camera. As it’s not, don’t be afraid to crop. Firstly, you might want to remove distractions from the background that take attention away from your subject. Secondly (see rule 4), straightening is also a form of cropping. Thirdly, you may just want to re-position and re-compose your shot. E.g. dead centre positioning can looking uninteresting so cropping can shift a subject to one side. It might look odd when you first do it but often when you go back to the photo, you’ll wish you took it like initially. That moves us onto the other benefit of experimenting with cropping. It forces you to really take another think about composition and you carry the ideas and choices for cropping into the field and make them part of your original compositions.
6. Adjust Your Level
If you’re taking pictures of pets or children in particular, try to always get down to their level or close to it. It looks so much more natural and flattering in most cases. If every picture is just a head staring upwards, they all look the same and will always look like a snap.
7. Avoid Unnecessary Colours & Effects
The rule is simple here. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Firstly, let’s deal with black and white. Think about when you need it. When a picture deserves its wonderful look, go for it. If you have 3 pictures in a set and one is black and white, it makes no sense whatsoever. The same applies to colours and filters. If it helps tell your story, great. If you’re using it because there’s a button on an app that means you can, don’t.
8. Pick Your Winner
If you take 30 photos one afternoon of your child, you can bet that the rest of the world, your friends or even your family don’t want to see all 30. If you post pictures online, be selective and choose a winner. If it’s family, maybe 3 winners. Don’t post a gallery of all 30 with random blurred shots and pictures that are almost identical but for some movement in the background. It’s good practice because it makes you critical of your work and ruthless in your choices.