View Full Version : Do all of these "rules" really make a better photo?

Jim Poor
01-14-2008, 08:28 AM
It is interesting to see trends in what folks like and don't. Lately, here and elsewhere, there have been a slew of "if only you had a lower angle" critiques.

While a lower angle does, in a many cases allow an intimate, eye level image, I wonder if we have been conditioned to always think "lower is better." I've even said it a bit more lately :o

I was just looking at a wonderful portrait and one would think it was awful after reading the critiques that had little to say other than "you should have shot lower." ( not on this site BTW)

Next. Diagonals

I see a lot of critiques that say "oh, lovely diagonals make this a great image." In many cases, I feel the diagonal adds nothing and fear that folks are just "parroting" what they have come to believe are "critical elements" of a good image.

Sure, diagonals help at times, but I think we're going a bit to the extreme.

BIrd on a stick or environmental images?

I have to admit to being a sucker for close, in your face shots, but I have seen a lot of environmental images lately that are wonderful too.

Crop or don't crop?

Some feedback indicates than an image shouldn't be cropped so an editor would be free to do his/her own cropping. Also there is a fear that a cropped image might be selected for use at a size that it can't hold up to.

Other indications are that one should crop the image to show it at the very best it can be (I kinda fall into this one)

I'm sure there are more, but I'm not writing to be critical, more to cause us to think a little and get away from our checklist mentality. I'm also not talking about personal preferences, but rather a "group think" phenomenon where suddenly "everyone" is saying the same thing over and over and over again.

Thanks for sticking with my rambling :D

Alfred Forns
01-14-2008, 08:53 AM
No rambling at all Jim I'm glad you are bringing this point Will give some examples below

First there are no "rules" it is up to the photographer to interpret and make a decision Some things in the mind of most will not work

Cropping You should make your image as close to the output as you can It is not always the case If you need to crop 75% of the image (just example) to have the crop you want ... its better to send it to the garbage The crops that are suggested in most cases is to eliminate dead space not contributing to the image

Bird position A small bird in frame will always look better in one of the corners

Environmental vs bird on a stick Each has its own merits Some people favor one but it does not indicate one is better than the other Just different

Lower angle If you stand up and make an image of a bird on the ground pointing down vs laying on the ground .... big difference Just try for yourself

High angle A bird way up on a tree and you are shooting at a steep angle will not work

Diagonals Diagonals is a strong compositional element If you study composition will be a dominant subject (again you should be ruled by taste)

I could go on and on there is no ending One suggestion Look at published images (quality published) and they will have most of the things we are talking about here I like to think of them as suggestions

Daniel Cadieux
01-14-2008, 10:27 AM
"Rules" will help in getting consistant results in your compositions, but they are by no means set in stone. Taste plays a bigger part...just look at images that have conflicting critiques (some like it, some don't). Even simple elements within an image is often debated - one saying you should crop or clone this, and the other saying it is fine as is.

I do see sometimes that people do suggest that a certain rule should have been used when critiquing an image even if it doesn't need it...and yes possibly because the person has been conditioned by reading these repeatedly over time. If an image is pleasing to your eye then that is what matters, rules or not, right? ( Although commercially you might have to provide what the customer prefers - even if you don't like it as much. )

Jim Poor
01-14-2008, 10:45 AM
Thanks guys. I've been thinking about this on and off for a while and I suppose woke up a little philosophical this morning :D

Just to pick on one or two elements:

Who says that diagonal makes a good visual impact? Design schools? Sure, ok, but who decided that, and what will the trend be next week, month, year, etc?

As for providing what the customer prefers, I certainly get that from my life as a contractor doing Instructional Systems Design work. I also have an example from the photography world.

My mother-in-law wanted some pictures for her office so I let her have free reign on my system to pick the ones she likes. One of her picks is an image that I really don't like at all and just hadn't gotten around to deleting. Anyway, I worked it up and printed it out for her.Since then I can't count how many people have just raved about that image over the others she picked and asked her to get copies for them. [EDIT:] I forgot to add, that I dislike this image so much that I didn't even save the "final" output image I used to make her print and had to redo it for the others. :o

It makes no sense to me as the image is poorly lit, noisy (forgot to switch ISOs after trying something with the D2X a while back) and doesn't have great composition. I'm sure that if I posted it here, it would get torn to shreds. I might post it anyway as I'm strange like that ;)

This also makes me wonder about our target audience. I doubt that many of us are buying one photos from other nature photographers, though there is one Miguel Lasa image that I must have. That said, does it really matter what we think over what the customer / John Q. Public thinks?

Don't get me wrong, I think we have some valuable insight here I'm just contemplating the meaning of life a bit today :D

Steve Foss
01-14-2008, 11:10 AM
Jim, I've had similar experiences happen several times with customers and prints. Usually, it's my mate, Lisa, who's looking over my shoulder and elbows me as I'm passing over an image I don't like and says: "Hey, dummy, that one's great!"

Almost invariably, she's seen something in an image that I've missed, something that makes it popular among print buyers. Some of these images, like yours, aren't good technically. Others have comps I don't like, but it's well known that photographers look at and evaluate images much differently than the buying public.

I suspect, but am not sure, that most of the critiques on this and other boards are based loosely (and sometimes not so loosely) on magazine publishing criteria. I've had ongoing contact with a few avian glossy mag editors who have looked at and commented on my work, and their thoughts are very close to what I most often see posted in avian critique forums.

We know that stock photography (for ad campaign clients, for one example), editorial publication photography, fine art print photography (and the list could go on and on) have different needs and conventions.

I'm not saying that critiquing images based on magazine publication standards is at all a bad thing. Such markets are the big goal for many an avian photographer, after all. And I may be wrong in my assessment, but it's what I've seen and thought to this point.

Fabs Forns
01-14-2008, 11:13 AM
Hi Jim,

Fascinating debate, ans as one who likes breaking rules, I must add that having them makes a lot of sense.

Diagonals for instance. The are strong compositional elements because they add tension and impact, versus all horizontal or vertical lines that result in a soothing but less interesting mood.

Rules have come out, at least most of them, from the Great Masters of all time, who unknowingly wrote them.

Cropping is a different story and you should do it according to your application. For instance, I would crop tighter for web, versus leaving more space for a print, versus even more for editorial use.

And yes, non-professional folks could love an image that has many technical flaws, but there must the element of visual impact and attractiveness, otherwise, what do they like?
And, if you are looking to sell prints on an art shoe, you are catering to the general public, and if you submitting for commercial use, you are targeting educated eyes. So it boils down again to intended use and applications.

Be happy :)

Pete Woods
01-14-2008, 11:32 AM
My view is that Rules are guides and can be very useful in certain situations, I am also of the ilk that rules are made to be broken..
I do not think in photography they should be classed as Rules at all. These are tried and tested methods of photography that can if wanted be applied when taken photographs. It is in the eye of the photographer taking the image and being armed with as much information as possible can help make the right decisions on the composition of the image.
The images you take will not please everybody and posting them on forums will get both positive and negative responses. it is the person who posted the image to take from the responses what he or she will.

I personally enjoy the comments good or bad and will take what I need from the responses.

Mike Moats
01-14-2008, 07:00 PM
Hey Jim, the rules of composition have come from (as Fabs points out) the great master painters from way back in time. They were founded on the fact that most people viewing their images found them more appealing when these rules were applied. I always start off composing an image with these rules and then do a little tweak here or there depending on the composition. I think its great to think outside the box once in a while, but overall I think in most cases the rules work the best. If you want to set yourself apart from the pack then breaking the rules is the way to go. You have to do what makes you feel good about your images, but you have to be able to take the rejection if your vision doesn't work with the masses.

Jim Poor
01-15-2008, 07:36 PM
I hear ya. Maybe I'm wired differently (not the fist time I will have been accused ;) )

Arthur Morris
01-17-2008, 09:32 PM
More than 24 years ago, I refused to join a camera club because they had rules for art. Now I have about 50 rules that I teach quite regularly. And for the most part, they pretty much work... Trouble is, I break them every chance that I get, every time I have a good reason to do so. FWIW: I only press the button to make an image that has the potential to make me happy. Never to I compose with a potential buyer in mind.

Just my few cents worth in a good thread. later and love, artie

Jim Poor
01-20-2008, 08:34 PM
FWIW: I only press the button to make an image that has the potential to make me happy. Never to I compose with a potential buyer in mind.

That's a great place to be! Has it always been that way, or did you get to a place where you now have the option to make images for yourself rather than anyone else?


Steve Bein
01-21-2008, 12:32 AM
I have considered rules as guidelines. Frequently, when followed, I find that I like the image better. Sometimes, the guidelines lead me to ignoring them and trying to make a stronger image differently. I never try to break or follow the " rules", but to look at the image that pleases me most. Others like certain things and will buy or love an image regardless of if it follows rules or not. Find your own loves and personal guidelines, learn from the masters and then find your own pleasures from which to create. Isaac Newton, a master and creater to whom our society owes much said he has seen further because he stood on the shoulders of giants. That is a great philosophy from which to grow. Take all the comments people make, accept those that work for you and accept that others may have different viewpoints and ideas. Several photographers have told me, shoot where others have not gone, go lower, higher, closer or farther might be the creative thoughts to consider. A friend, George Steinmetz shot for NG and did shots form a powered paraglider in Chad and Ghana. His shots gave perspectives that had not been seen before. He created wonderful images. The world of photographic creation is waiting for you, enjoy the journey.

Sid Garige
01-21-2008, 06:34 AM
If you analyze any rule and why it became a rule its very easy to understand why its important to follow them.

Taking rules of 3rd. Its important because we all have binocular vision. if we present the same image to monocular vision guy its not going to be a happy story.
There is science behind the rules and science is never wrong.

BTW, we all talk about breaking rules. If we look very carefully, there will be some rule in advanced composition that will be applicable on every good image.
Most of us will say i broke rules because we are limited in knowledge.

Arthur Morris
01-21-2008, 08:27 AM
That's a great place to be! Has it always been that way, or did you get to a place where you now have the option to make images for yourself rather than anyone else?


Hi Jim,

It has always been that way not only with my images, but with everthing else. When I first committed to leaving teaching, folks told me that you cannot make a living photographing birds. I said, "Thanks for the advice." When I started my tour business I wrote, I know where the tame birds are. I can get you close. I can teach you to make better images." Tom and Bonnie Murphy, good friends who run a great photo tour business at Yellowstone, told me, "You can't say stuff like that. You need to be more modest." I said, "Thanks for the advice." Now every IPT is sold out miles in advance... With apologies to Ol' Blue Eyes, I have always done it my way. And it has worked out quite well. <smile>

later and love, artie

Ed Okie
01-21-2008, 11:37 AM
Unspoken by all, yet written within each response: One must learn basic rules... to become skilled enough (and smart enough) to make additional judgment calls adaptive to a given situation. Akin to learning the mechanics of operating a camera... until that aspect becomes intuitive and second nature, creative judgment is seriously hampered. Possibly 95% of people never truly get past this barrier of mechanics!
As to Jim's comment about "critiques (often) all saying the same thing," that's a valid observation. Noteworthy critique-capability requires knowledge depth, a broad perspective, plus writing skills... few people have it all in their tank; repeating what someone else said is a more comfortable (for those brave enough to even take pen in hand). In most instances, though, critiques are unnecessary: simply look then flip the page. Perspective is the asset gained, subconscious or otherwise.
But basic rules... yes, ya' gotta' learn 'em!

Gerald Kelberg
01-21-2008, 11:56 AM
There is science behind the rules and science is never wrong.

Sid, I hope you had your tongue planted firmly in your cheek when you wrote that! ;)

But I agree with the sentiment that we might think we are breaking the rules because we don't know all the rules. FWIW, I am currently working my way through Michael Freeman's book "The Photographer's Eye - Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos". I find its a very useful introduction to design and how it can be applied to photography - or not - as your whim takes you!


Dave Edwards
01-25-2008, 05:51 PM
It seems to me that it has been missed in this discussion that the "rules/guidelines" do not apply equally to all subject. I believe the rule is the vision of the photographer when he presses the button. With the exception of contract work to get a certain shot.