People often refer to “the classic rules of photography”: “This photo follows the classic rules…” or “he/she broke all the classic rules…” etc. But what are those “classic rules” anyway? I gave it some thought and came up with the following five rules, all longstanding and time-honoured, like you would expect when something is called classic. But nothing is set in cement and rules such as these have been violated with superb results over and over again. But they are also there for a reason, since they probably represent something that most people mostly find pleasing most of the times. Not everybody all the time. So what are they, these classic rules of photography:
Rule #1: F/8 And Be There!
This is rule number one and it has little to do with your camera and technical proficiency, as is the case with the other four rules. Read this rule again, breath it and live it. As simple as it sounds, it is the most important of all rules in photography.
The part about f/8 refers to a camera setting, or rather a lens aperture setting. It’s a technical detail and it’s not really important. But at the same time it’s what makes this rule so memorable.
It’s not a bad advice using f/8, it’s a pretty standard value and often safe to use if you want to be sure to get your subject in focus without giving it much thought.
But it’s true value is that it boils all the complicated art and tech issues down to that simple 1-letter-1-number statement, f/8 (simply read f eight), the hidden message being: Forget the technical aspects, concentrate on the subject. Simple and brilliant.
In my experience it’s mostly used in the context of spot news photography, where it’s certainly important to be on the spot when something happens. But I wouldn’t forget about it in the context of normal peoples lives, peaceful landscape photos and even photos for the family album. Whatever photo you want to capture, you have to be there first. You have to get up and go out, walk that extra mile, lose that hour of sleep, do whatever it takes for you to get there with your camera.
A talented, but lazy photographer is not necessarily as successful as a very active, less talented one. Because you have to be there.
Rule #2: The Decisive Moment
A term coined by photography legend Henri Cartier-Bresson. Sort of a time-version of rule number 1. Together we could call these two rules: “Being in the right place at the right time”.
But there’s more to this rule than just being there at the right time. You have to press the shutter button at exactly the decisive moment, when all the elements of the photo (perhaps including the photographer himself) suddenly come together in a fraction of a second. A blink of an eye and it’s gone again. The man jumping over the puddle has touched down again, the guy in the background has turned his head away from the kissing couple and the dying soldier has fallen flat to the ground.
It happens so fast that it’s hard for us to see and react to before it’s over. But that is one of the big charms of photography. It can capture these fleeing moments and make them last forever — on print. For Cartier-Bresson it was an intuitive thing. “Think before and after you take a photograph, not while you are doing it.”
Sports photography arguably has a lot of decisive moments, but in my book they don’t really count, since it’s just a game and not truly a slice of reality. I know Cartier-Bresson in his book set off with quoting someone “there’s nothing in the world that doesn’t have a decisive moment”, but I don’t want to get into the discussion here. Many people who are more sports enthusiastic than me would probably disagree with me, but I do think that there’s more real decisive moments to be had on the stadium seating than on the pitch.
Rule #3: Go Close
— And when you’ve done that, go even closer! Coined by another photography legend, Robert Capa, who died following this rule, camera in his hand, as he stepped on a landmine in the French-Indochinese war. But not all situations of course are life-and-death situations. So use it whenever you reasonably can, and your photos will in many cases have a stronger appeal and give a more intimate connection between the subject and the viewer.
Again, it’s not just for spot news photography. If you are portraying normal life, it is equally important to get close to people. Get into their homes and into their private lives where they are themselves. Do it in a way that isn’t prying and offensive. It will give you an honest and intimate view of life.
This rule usually implies using a wide-angle lens, which tends to give a more “open” perspective. Much good can also be said about the long tele-photo lenses as well, and they have their place. Especially in fields like wildlife and sports photography, where it is often impossible to be up close to the action.
Rule #4: The Rule Of Thirds
This is one of these rules that are great to follow and equally great to break. But photography would be a lesser thing without it. Briefly stated, it tells you to place you main subject, not in the center of the frame, but a little to the left or right side, a third into the frame. And also to place any dominating horizontal lines in your photo, like for instance the horizon, a third into the frame from the top or bottom. Just not in the center.
This will arguably give your photo a more appealing look, pleasing to the eye by leaving a significant space on one side of the subject for the surroundings. The rule, also known as the divine proportion and the golden mean, have been used by painters for thousands of years. Having survived that long, there’s got to be something about it!
Rule #5: Use The Light
The magic hours, the hour around sunrise and the hour around sunset have a particular pleasing, soft light that works particular well for landscape and outdoor photography. It’s always the light that creates the photograph. For indoor and portrait photography, use a barn door or, if you don’t live on a farm, a big window without direct sunlight will also do. Place your subject close to the window and you will get a nice, soft light from different angles falling onto your subject. You can get the whole studio lighting set-up as well if you prefer not to rely on the constantly changing natural light.