The Rules of Photography

With every sport, there are a set of rules. Someone who excels at tennis, or baseball, or skiing only came to that point of achievement through knowing the rules and following them. In a similar manner, there are also rules in the field of photography. Certain rules are subjective to the scene and the subject matter and others are more concrete.

The two biggest photography rules involve exposure and composition. Photography is all about capturing light. Therefore, "good" exposure in an image means that the photograph contains the right amount of light. The rules of exposure are fixed. The decisions made to achieve the desired exposure have to take into account the way a camera functions to capture light. Composition, on the other hand, is more objective. Composition is about the placement of the objects in the photo. It relies heavily on the photographer's choice.

The first thing every photographer must learn about the rules of photography is to follow them. There is a trend nowadays to break the rules. But in order to break the rules effectively and still have a good product, you must first learn what they are. For a beginning photographer, the rules do serve a purpose. They are a starting point to an ability to make right choices in different situations. Knowing the rules generates more, better quality photographs. It removes the guesswork most beginners feel. It is by following the rules that a photographer knows when he or she needs to break them, and can do it effectively. However, one word of caution - Never make rule breaking the norm!


The rules of exposure involve three primary factors: ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. These three things are interdependent on each other. Changing one alters another. Individually, they each also only do certain things. A higher ISO will always create more noise in an image. A smaller aperture will always give more detail, and a slower shutter speed will always cause more blurring. Proper exposure comes from knowing how these three affect each other and thus making the right choice for each scene.

Exposure itself should match whatever the lighting is in that situation. For example, a moonlit beach should look moonlit and not like midday. In this sense, exposure becomes more objective. The rules for ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, are fixed. However, a photographer uses them to replicate certain types of lighting. When reviewing my photographs, I ask myself if the lighting looks like what I saw when I was there. Does it look like an overcast day or not? Exposure is the most important thing to learn. Bad exposure will destroy an image. Yes, sometimes editing can correct certain issues, but one should never rely on editing. A photographer's goal is to get it right in the camera without having to change anything afterward.


Composition decides where to place the different shapes and textures in a scene. There are certain general rules about composition. The two foremost involve choosing between a horizontal or vertical image format and using the "Rule of Thirds". This makes composition for each individual image more the choice of the photographer. I must ask myself what I am trying to achieve. What is the main object in this photograph? I must also pay attention to the "movement" of that object.

Now, "movement" does not specifically mean the subject is actually moving. Instead, it is shape and feel. Ask yourself if your subject is tall and thin or short and wide. Does it seem to spread out, or up? Flowers are always a great example. Longer flowers need more vertical space than round ones. For the one I would use a vertical format and for the other perhaps a horizontal one. In landscape scenes, are you featuring the building in the corner or the street trailing off into the distance?


In making decisions of this nature, I also ask myself how much "negative space" I want to leave. "Negative space" is the area surrounding your main subject. If the flower is long and thin, then too much negative space could cause it to look lost in the photograph. In reverse, too little negative space might cut off your subject. Proper placement of the subject in the scene will always affect the amount of negative space and its location. Usually it is best to leave the subject some "breathing room", especially if you are photographing objects that are not stationary. Flying birds or a running sports player need to have somewhere they "are headed" too. Otherwise, they look as if they are running into an invisible wall at the foreword edge of your image.


Once you have chosen your format, you must take into account the infamous "Rule of Thirds". The "Rule of Thirds" divides each image into three pieces both horizontally and vertically. This creates a grid with nine squares. Each of the inner points of those squares is a location where your subject might be placed. The idea behind the rule is to avoid centering an object and thus visually cutting it in half.

Horizons are the best example. Horizon lines, when centered usually distract from the scene. Horizons should generally be placed low to feature the sky, or high to feature the foreground. They should also be straight, or level. The fact is crooked horizons confuse most viewers.

Now, I myself have broken the centering rule when I felt the resulting photograph would be more effective. Often, I choose to center an object because its shape leans more that direction. Circular objects are a good example. A photo looking up into a domed ceiling usually works better with some centering. A round flower often needs centering to avoid cutting off portions of the petals. I never make this a habit, however, but in the end return to the "Rule of Thirds" as my guideline.


Photographs are created through the vision of the photographer. This is what makes them each unique. I find it as fascinating to look at pictures of street scenes with people walking by, colorful signs, or slowly decaying architecture, as I do preening birds or softly running streams. However, what makes these different images stand out in my thinking is usually one of these two elements. The combination of the right exposure and a suitable composition either make an image outstanding or destroy it altogether.

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Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.