elf's Rules of Photography

These are my personal rules of photography. It is an attempt at codifying what I have learned over the years and now do instinctively. Except for the zeroth rule (which should appear in fifth place), they are listed in the order I discovered them. Over time, I have re-phrased them down to three-words to make them easy to remember. This is a work in progress.

0. Read the manual.

You should read your camera's manual once a month for the first six months after buying your new camera. At the end of six months, you should know what every button on your camera does.

Subsequently, read your manual annually to refresh your memory. I can never remember how to select Bulb Mode when it's time to photograph fireworks in July or lightning during a thunderstorm.

1. Lighting is everything.

You can't photograph in the dark, you need light. Whenever you walk into a room, observe the direction of the light and position yourself with your back to the light so your subject is lit. Outdoors, keep the sun at your back (unless you're shooting a sunrise or sunset) but watch for your shadow appearing in the frame.

Outdoor photography looks best during the Golden Hour— 1 hour after sunrise or 1 hour before sunset. Avoid shooting at noon because the sunlight is too harsh, unless of course, you want your photographs to have that harsh look. Outdoor portraits look best in the diffused light of overcast days. Photographing the same place at different times of the day (and night) will show how lighting affects mood.

The camera sensor has a limited dynamic range (bright highlights and dark shadows) compared to the human eye. Try to avoid scenes with dynamic ranges that exceed the camera's capabilities or else use HDR by taking multiple photos and then compositing them.

2. Fill the frame.

The subject of a well-composed photograph should be obvious even when scaled down to a thumbnail.

It should be obvious to the viewer, what the subject of your photograph is. Without a subject, the viewers eyes will wander around the photography and lose interest. You can use any of the composition rules to focus the viewer's eyes on the subject. The surest way, is to fill the frame with the subject. You can crop the photo in post processing if you need to.

3. Luck trumps skill.

It is better to be lucky than to be skillful.

An unskilled photographer will often take a very memorable photograph completely by accident. A skilled photographer, on the other hand, without any luck may never take a memorable photograph.

All other things being equal, in general, never under-estimate the element of luck in your photography.

4. Compose your photos.

The difference between a snapshot and a photograph is the composition.

A snapshot is a moment in time that is frozen for posterity; it is what the photographer saw in the instant they looked. A photograph, on the other hand, is an anticipated moment in time that is composed and then frozen for posterity. The photographer moves to position themselves (or to position the action in the frame) to capture the moment "beautifully" and then makes the photograph (the composition might take anywhere from a few milliseconds if the photographer is very skilled; the photograph could also take an hour, if it's a timelapse). "A good photograph is knowing where to stand." —Ansel Adams

5. Take many photographs.

Photography is about photographs, not cameras and lenses.

Photography is a contest between craftsmanship and art. The camera is the tool to practice your craft and the photograph is the art. Some people confuse the camera for the art. Modern equipment makes it easier to photograph things than older cameras. You can take beautiful photos even with a simple pinhole camera. "Never forget that all the great photographs in history were made with more primitive camera equipment than you currently own."

6. Practice, practice, practice.

There is no substitute for practice.

Buying a piano doesn't make you a pianist; buying a camera doesn't make you a photographer. You become a better photographer by taking photographs and understanding why some of your photographs are better than others. Practice your art until the act of composing and photographing becomes second nature. It is better to shoot for a half hour everyday than to shoot for five hours, once a week.

7. Learn from mistakes. (Make happy mistakes).

Mistakes are good; lucky mistakes are even better. The lessons you learn anre more memorable when you make mistakes.

8. Know the fundamentals.

Do you know what happens to the shutter-speed as you increase the ISO; keeping the aperture constant, does the shutter-speed increase or decrease? Do you know what happens to the shutter speed as the f-stop increases? If you have to think about the answers, then you need to brush-up on the ISO-Aperture-Shutter relationship.

luis fernandes | elf@ee.ryerson.ca | Fri 25 May 2012 11:52:19 PM EDT