What are the rules of good photography?

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The rules are a good starting point with photography, but as with anything, it’s often useful to know and understand the rules before then figuring out how best to bend or break them – the best photography can often go against those rules!

1: Shoot with the light behind you to light the subject

This is a classic, and I’ve had this one quoted to me many times when taking photographs at weddings. It’s true – if you want the subject to be broadly and more evenly lit, stand with the sun (or light source) behind you to ensure the subject is well lit.

How to break this rule

I have a real problem with this being a ‘rule’, because it generally removes any sense of drama from a photograph. Photography means literally ‘painting with light’, and to have a rule that imposes one angle of light seems frankly ridiculous. William Fox Talbot originally invented photography* because he was frustrated with his own crap drawing ability… so there’s hope for us yet.

Try shooting with single light sources to the side to get strong shadows, or backlighting a subject for silhouettes, or with a little additional fill light at the front / side / above to give a bright outline to the subject from behind.

2: Use a shutter speed of at least the focal length

This helps to prevent camera shake. For example, a 200mm telephoto lens might show visible shake below 1/200th of a second shutter speed, whereas you could get away with 1/50th on a 50mm lens. This can be a really helpful rule, and quite easy to remember.

How to break this rule

Slower shutter speeds show more movement, which is desirable in some situations. Use a tripod to allow slower shutter speeds whilst keeping the non-moving elements of the photograph in focus. Of course you can shoot at a very high shutter speed to freeze the action too!

3: Compose using (insert composition rule here)

Here’s a Wikipedia definition of the rule of thirds, for example:

The rule of thirds is applied by aligning a subject with the guide lines and their intersection points, placing the horizon on the top or bottom line, or allowing linear features in the image to flow from section to section.

How to break this rule

There are actually lots of rules you can use for good photography composition, but rather than follow a neat system that you have to keep in your head, why not try this instead: shoot from the least obvious place. I find this to be a very helpful consideration when looking at what could be a dull object to shoot. Why not shoot it from above? Up some stairs? Lying on the ground? Through a window? In a reflection? These are all ways to give a photograph an unusual edge that make them stand out better.

Note: you’ll probably look like an egg, but your photos will be better.

4: Say ‘cheese’

You’ve heard people say this when getting you to smile. Unfortunately this usually puts the subject(s) into a frame of mind: ‘I’m having my photograph taken’, which causes them to reset to a default pose and smile that often doesn’t turn out that well.

How to break this rule

Actually, I don’t find ‘cheese’ to be a great smiling word… try ‘whisky’, for an element of surprise, or talking to the subject(s) rather than trying to use a magic word. Alternatively, ask the subject how they wish to appear in their photograph, you may find that a more serious face is more suitable.

Thanks for reading — I wish you the best of luck with your photography!

*William Fox Talbot was one of the inventors of photography at least

This post first appeared on Quora here. Photo by Jakob Owens

By Graham Ormiston

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