The Rules of Photography

5 01 2007

imageAt this point, you’re getting pretty comfortable with your camera. You know how to operate it and you know how to make use of some of those newfangled professional features such as manual focus, shutter, aperture, and ISO. But you aren’t quite done yet. You’re now at the Point of No Return, the Twilight Zone, or where the magic happens… otherwise known as the place that separates the good photographers from the great photographers. You’re ready to start taking pictures that are not only technically adept but, well, interesting.

What makes a picture interesting? How do you go about taking these pictures? How do you use the things you learned in the last article to your advantage when trying to take a beautiful photograph? That’s what this segment is going to be all about.

The Rules Myth
Something I commonly hear from new photographers and filmmakers who don’t want to learn the basics is that there are no rules. I always hear people say that in art, there’s no such thing as a rule – you just go out there and take a picture and make a movie and it doesn’t really matter how. In reality, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. A seasoned professional who has been taking pictures for years can break all the rules on the planet. Why? Because they know what they’re doing. They have the experience that teaches them what looks good and what doesn’t, even if it is counter-cultural or uncommon.

Beginners don’t have this experience, and it is for this reason that I present in this article some proven methods that you can use to take interesting pictures. You may choose not to use them, but keep in mind that they are just stepping stones. Use them now until you feel you understand why they are important, and then go nuts with your own angles, framing, and whatever else. But for now, do yourself a favor and follow the guidelines. Your pictures will improve dramatically just by using them.

[bKnow Your Subject
The most important thing to know before you take a picture is what exactly you are taking a picture of. Is it an object? A person? Why is it that person? Do they have an interesting haircut or gorgeous eyes or does their face just have a certain look to it?

You are never just taking a picture of “a person” or “a thing.” You are taking a picture of a very specific part. Know what you are taking a picture of, and know why. This is because taking a picture of a person because their eyes are pretty could be framed completely differently with the same person standing in the same position if you wanted to, say, accentuate their hair instead. Or their smile. So be sure you know what exactly your subject is.

The Rule of Thirds
Look at this picture:

imageThis might be a typical picture someone might take of a friend of his or hers. The subject is almost dead center, with a lot of wasted room on just about all sides. While this may be one of the most common ways to take a portrait, it’s also the most common way to take an uninteresting photo.

Now consider the same subject, but framed differently:

imageThis is much more interesting. There is not as much wasted room, the person’s head is at the top of the frame, and thus more of the person can be seen. It also gives a sense of height. The subject is off-center, which not only adds a significant amount of interest and mystique, but directs your attention very clearly to him, as well as allowing you to see the background. This photo was taken using what we call the Rule of Thirds.

The basis of the ages-old Rule of Thirds is that if you were to divide a frame into thirds, both ways, the points of intersection are the points where your subject should be placed in order to be most interesting. For example:

imageThat’s what a typical frame would look like when folded into thirds both ways. The circled points of intersection are the areas deemed most interesting. Let’s see how that plays out with the picture I just used as an interesting example:

imagePerfect! The subject’s eyes are directly lined up with the intersecting points. Any one of those four points is a great place to frame your subject. Check out these other examples that have all been improved using the Rule of Thirds:

image image imageAs you can see, the Rule of Thirds can make things look interesting that normally are not. This rule is a fundamental rule of composition, and as such, you can apply it to just about anything – any object, any subject, any location. But it also works in other arts, such as filmmaking, painting, or just about anything else. Any type of art that has a subject bound within a frame is benefited by the Rule of Thirds.

You may notice that the photo above of the subject has his hair partially cut out. Was that a mistake? Hardly. Remember the first section of this article – know your subject. The subject was not my friend’s hair, but his eyes and expression, and thus it does not particularly matter if part of his hair was cut out. You can still see he has hair, and you probably aren’t left wondering what the other inch of it looks like. However, had I moved the shot up a tiny bit to allow room for his hair, his eyes no longer would have been in the point of intersection and you would no longer be as drawn to face.

Depth of Field
Another powerful tool at your disposal is depth of field. This is another way you show what your subject is and where it is. It also lets you see, well, depth. Depth of field (or DOF, for short) is most commonly demonstrated in photography by what objects are in focus and what objects are not. Take the following picture, for example:

imageWhat is the subject of this picture? Obviously the person is right in front of the camera, but he is so blurry that you can’t see him. The background, however, is razor-sharp, suggesting that it is the object you are supposed to be looking at in this picture. Look at the following picture:

imageThis is exactly the opposite. The subject is clearly the person, and the background is obviously of no real interest, since it is completely blurry. This is just one use of DOF, however there are several. Check out this picture:

imageIn this photo, despite the background being blurry, it almost appears as if it is the subject because of the framing. The blur mixes the colors of the background, giving it a very surreal and interesting look, even though it’s just a picture of a park bench at a college. This was the intent, and is a good demonstration of how framing and DOF can drastically alter the way an image is perceived.

The amount of DOF you have is defined by two terms – shallow and deep. A shallow depth of field means the photo has a lot of blur in it, whereas deep depth of field means that there isn’t a lot of focus as all – nearly everything in the picture looks the same. For example:

imageThis would be an example of a photo with a shallow depth of field. The background is almost entirely blurry, whereas the foreground is completely, totally, 100% razor-sharp. However…

image… this photo is sharp pretty much everywhere. Nothing in the picture is really sharper or blurrier than anything else. Nearly everything is in focus. This would be described as a deep depth of field.

You can manipulate depth of field using two things: focus and aperture, as you may have learned from the previous article. Obviously you would use the focus ring to decide what is in or out of focus. However, differentiating between a shallow and deep depth of field is done with the iris. The more opened an iris is (or the lower the “stop” is, for example f/1.8) the more shallow the depth of field will be. The more closed the iris is (such as f/11) the deeper the depth of field will be. This will be demonstrated using different lenses in the next segment.

Go Take Over the World!
And there you have it – a few easy ways to turn your good pictures into great pictures. Use these techniques and use them often, as you will not only take better pictures but you’ll learn all sorts of other tips and tricks down the road.

You’ve made it. You’ve gotten beyond the Twilight Zone. You know how the magic happens. You now know not only the basics of the technology, but the basics of the artistic side as well. Now go out and take some pictures!





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