Here are a list of guidelines that I deploy almost automatically after 30 years of shooting.
I have not arrived, photographically speaking or otherwise. I am still searching for ways to improve all the time. Many have stated they want to improve their photography on this blog ... and I sure do.
Before I tell you my general guidelines, think about this question, "Do you really want to improve your photography?"
If the answer is "yes", then you should be willing to work at it ... and don't expect for the muscles to show up when the weight set gets delivered to your door step. We couldn't tie our shoes without practice when we were young ... and yet many expect good photography or computer skills to be something for which you just flip a switch and it's there. OK, here are my rules.
What Makes A Photo Appeal To Others (IF You Care)
I say "IF You Care" because you don't have to care what others think. I enjoy photography and I would still take pictures even if I was the only one who liked my photos. I get all kinds of time while taking pictures to think and to process events of my life. Photography is like therapy to me. So, in a real sense I think you need to enjoy photography first for YOU! So if you want your photos to appeal to others ... that's another more difficult discussion. Read on.
1. There are no rules.
The first thing I recently heard a teacher say at an introductory digital photography class was that "in photography, there are no rules". I thought, "But what about the rule of thirds, and the rule of movement and ... the rule of flying monkeys." Apparently, there are no more rules. Agnostics!
Well, It's true. I do have countless photos that disobey all the rules I thought existed and yet have extremely important photographic value to me, if for no one else.
However, I suggest you read up on general rules of photography, practice them ... and then try to break a few. See if you can't break the rules and discover good photos. I bet you will sooner than you think. Oh, and by the way, I'll bet learning some of those basic rules will be good for your photography most of time. Most book stores offer a wide selection of information on introductory photography.
Expose yourself to Rules for Good Composition
Make sure you have a good understanding of the Rule of Thirds, Balancing Elements, Leading Lines, Symmetry & Patterns, Viewpoint, Background, Depth, Framing, Cropping, and Experimentation.
Practice is the key. Most of these rules I have learned with a camera in my hand ... not a book. But it is worth reading to get a head start at the art of composition.
2. Take a basic digital photgraphy course.
What? That's totally stupid! Why I have owned this here digital camera forever and of course I know exactly how to take pictures. All you have to do is set the camera to Auto and Aim and Fire. NUFF SAID!
Well, actually that is what most people do. I have been at this for years and I learn about the cameras I use all the time. Mostly by accident.
Some community colleges offer very affordable classes on photography. You will be stretched, especially if you tend to shoot your photos in Auto mode. Auto is OK, but please understand that the camera is doing 90% of the thinking and in some cases 100%. If that's what you want, that's OK. But please realize you are not in control of your photos and it is difficult to improve in Auto mode. Auto mode also limits your ability to really go after the effect you may wish to shoot.
So ...Here's how I shoot. BUT, ... I don't recommend this until you learn a bit about what you are doing. Take a class please. You are worth the hard earned bucks. The good training of the sniper is used in every gun they shoot. I trust there will be better cameras available down the road that you will want ... and if you learn more about the science, math and art of photography ... it'll be transferable brain power.
So, here's what I do now.
I always try to shoot in Shutter Priority in ISO 200. I actually shoot in Shutter Priority and Aperature Priority at the same time in my head. I understand that the faster I shoot, the less depth of field ... meaning the lower (bigger opening) Aperatures. More on this later. All this is done by understanding what is going on with all the variables and I don't want to make this sound really hard. So I am going to shut up on this and just repeat ... if possible take a class. It's a great way to meet others in your area who also love photography.
3. Think critically and BE critical of your photos.
Many of you look at the photos posted on this blog and have been very kind with your comments. I really appreciate that. I don't even mind when you offer suggestions to improve or give another perspective. I always learn. I have been known to shoot as many as 1500 photos in the evening hours of a weekday. I have been known to shoot thousands on a weekend. I also once shot over 4000 in Sydney Harbour, Australia in about 8 hours.
The world doesn't see all of those photos. Many I throw out right away. Not perfect to me = trash. My loving wife will sit beside me while I throw out photos ... wondering why. Some of those general rules and guidelines to good composition ... are worth knowing. So I have developed a very critical eye for what I might show off. Learn some of these tips and ask yourself how the photo could have been better. Be critical of yourself. You can take it! After all, most people are their own best friend!
4. Listen to feedback from people who are blunt and honest.
Seriously, these are things you never ask your mother ... unless she's rare! You need to find people you respect and you need to brace yourself and not be fractured if their opinion is different than yours. I am often stunned at what photos receive the most comments from people. Some of my most favorite recent posts were called "Runaway Rail Car" and "Rail Turn Bridge". They didn't get much notice. Why? I dunno! I love them. People that don't know you have no trouble being blunt and honest. We need to find people that will do this for us. The most painful way to get truth is to ask a blunt person we trust if they like a specific photo. Some of you may be ready for that but often that is life threatening or marriage splittin' talk. Offer 10 photos and ask to have them ranked. Then ask why some were better than others.
Admission of guilt here. I am painfully blunt with family and some of them have returned the favor quite nicely. Truth told ... I have often said stupid things unintentionally. If I tell someone ... say a son or a daughter-in-law that makes awesome spaghetti that I think a photo is so-so ... it might be over magnified by their perception of my knowledge on photography. They might actually value my opinion more than I thought and if I appear to be hoe-hum on the photos it can be discouraging when not intended. Lesson here ... make sure you forgive the IDIOT (me) if he/she does something like that to you because they were not aware, too tired, or a million other things.
Once you learn what makes a good photo for others ... you won't need to ask as often. If this is just too painful you need more reading from guideline books.
5. Define your subject.
Choosing a photographic subject is often more difficult than you think. Let alone the obvious issues with subject selection, many are surprised after looking at their photos that the subject they thought they chose ... wasn't the subject.
So how do you choose a subject? The subject IS NOT what is in the middle of the photo. The subject is chosen when you depress the camera fire button and you hear (on most cameras) a soft beep. That beep means the auto-focus system has chosen a subject and has locked on it. If you continue to press the fire button ... you get a photo that focused on something. That something is the subject. It may not be what you wanted so you need to learn about your camera.
As soon as I buy a new camera, I choose the center of the viewfinder in the camera as the focus point. I lock out the multi-focal point averaging system nonesense where the camera tries to take all things into consideration and choose the best overall focus distance. I don't like to let the camera make my decisions. So I set the center of the view finder as the only reading for focus distance.
Lesson here is ... just because grandma is in the middle of the photo doesn't make her the subject. If the wall 20 feet behind her is in focus with her shotgun hanging there ... that just became the subject. Maybe next year grandma.
Note: I'll mention here that if you don't wait for that beep sound before you fire your first round (so to speak) and you press all the way all at once. It may not give the camera the opportunity to get the best focus of the shot. I call this "mashing". Some people mash the button and wonder why it's outta focus. Slow down a tiny bit. In other words, hear the beep, then fire.
There is another problem people deal with on multiple round shots. This is where you see a guy on a motor bike coming towards you and you start to fire and hold the button down for 8 shots. Then go racing into the house to see the results on the computer. Then they are disappointed because the closer the bike got to them the worse the focus was. This is because of the depth of field limitations were based upon the first shot when the beep sounded. When you are going to take shots like this try to fire 2 shots, lift your finger enough to make the camera recalibrate (beep) and fire 2 more, lift, fire 2 more, lift, fire 2 more. It really is easy when you get used to it.
All these tips are based upon DSLR cameras.
6. Focus, reposition and shoot.
This is key to everything I shoot. It is easy for me because I have done this for years. I actually believe it is the most reliable way to declare your subject and make sure it is in focus no matter where it is in the photo.
Remember I set my camera so that the focusing distance is ONLY measured in the center of the camera. So let's say I want to focus on a tree. I aim the center of the camera at the tree and push the fire button just until I get the beep sound. Then I hold my finger in that half depressed state and quickly reposition my photo so that the tree is in the bottom right section of the frame. Then I continue to push and take the photo. As a result, I get the beautiful farm fields and the setting sun to the left side of the photo while making sure that my tree is in focus.
This is just an example of what I mean by focus, reposition and shoot. At first you will think this feels weird. If you do this for a week, you will learn to do this easily keeping the subject in focus without placing the subject in the dead center of every photo.
Remember the subject IS NOT what is in the center of a photo. It's what your eye is naturally drawn to when you look at the photo. Your eye naturally will seek things that it sees clearly and that may not be what is front and center.
7. Clear the clutter.
This is where I think people struggle the most in their photographic efforts. I actually believe that clearing the clutter is the key to good composition. There are exceptions to EVERY rule (that doesn't exist). I am not talking about a Christmas morning where family is opening presents and you have to clear away the wrapping paper before you shoot. At Christmas a trashed floor with wraping IS part of the story.
For example, I recently saw a photo of a person wearing a nice suit. The person was the subject of the photo but the room had a Christmas tree, a guitar propped against the wall, a dog running in front, paintings on the wall, other junk (clutter), coffee cups, and even lights that were in the background appearing to grow out of the persons head. I was asked to comment on the photo. I said, "Hey man, look's great", and quickly handed it back. I felt like asking for an 8 x 10 glossy. It was exhibit A on how to do so many things wrong. Now keep in mind that I REALLY believe that if that person enjoys that photo ... more power to him. Keep on going. Don't change a thing and live it your way. I really believe that. In other words, ... who cares what I think?
But if you want others to see what you see as a subject. Move in close on that person so I can see them. I don't care what their shoes look like. Do you understand what I am saying?
That same person showed me a professional photo taken of his mother. It was black and white and beautiful. Great composition. So I asked the person which they liked better. He agreed it was the photo of his mother that was best. I asked him why and he could name several good reasons that cleared clutter on his own. If you are willing to think critically ... I believe we all can find ways to improve our photos. Sometimes this is a pain. Look at your photos and see if there are things you would crop out during the photographing process rather than after the fact.
8. Try crazy stuff.
This is a return to the 60's suggestion! Learning photography begins after you take a class, put down the book .... and pick up your camera. Have you ever just sat and fiddled and fiddled and fiddled with the buttons, taking pictures to see the results? This is why digital photography is so much cheaper than film. With film ... ya better know what your doing, unless of course your filthy stinking rich reading this blog on a yacht at a dock in some far away place sucking down drinks with umbrellas delivered by a kid named Chachi. Digital allows you to try things and not pay for the education. I spent thousands in processing years ago and sometimes the photos were disasterous. Fortuneately, it never happened at a wedding, the no-no of do-overs. Um, about the photos ... um, not so good.
Pick up your camera, get it off AUTO mode and learn how it reacts when you shoot in different modes. Recent photography class assignments were to take a photo in AUTO and the same photo in another mode to compare. After you learn what you are doing you will almost always like the photo that was NOT taken in the AUTO selection. Oh, however, I do sometimes recommend AUTO mode ... like say if your drunk. Otherwise never.
9. Shoot, shoot, shoot.
The more ya shoot the more you learn. The more you learn the higher your percentage of good to so-so photos. I have so many photos ... I try to not show 99 out of 100. Sometimes I arrive home after shooting for 6 hours and my wife asks how was the trip. I'll say 7! That isn't 7 out of 10. That is 7 out of 431 that I think are killer good. Funny sometimes they don't get a reaction from others but remember ... it's those 7 that I live for getting and I don't care what anyone else thinks of them.
You will quickly have numbers higher than a 7. And then something is going to happen. You will take a stunner that is priceless to you. You will look at it and say, "that's the one." And then you will store it in a seperate a file and start chasing more in that class of photo. And you'll hit again, maybe on a different subject but another that is clearly better than 99% of your previous class of bests. That is progress.
Shoot, shoot, shoot. You will learn. Also if you are young (under 45) please realize that your best days in photography may be still ahead. I did not have the patience to shoot like I do today when our kids were all at home and the world was constantly spinning with noise. Sometimes I thought photography was boring. Just realize a stage of life may come that is better suited for your photographic interests so learning as much as you can will be really incredible when your are more mature! HA! Keep on shooting.
10. Yeah! What Charlotte said. Get up and go somewhere.
One the first suggestions was by Charlotte! Absolutely right. I call it the "Oh, gee, my photos are so boring" problem. I live in Illinois and I had to travel all the way to Australia to see birds and butterflies that looked beautiful and weird. I was entranced to their beauty and even the God that would make such beautiful things for us to see. OK, so I had a bit of a photographic awakening to my scenery in Illinois. I realized in Australia that the corn fields of Illinois have a majesty beauty that is unique too. The Northern Cardinals of our back yards are incredible to see in snow.
On this trip to Washington and Oregon I am seeing mountains that we just never see in Illinois. They are unique to this area. In a few months I will spend time in Arizona. I can't wait.
I am saying this because no matter where you live, you are near a unique world that only you can photograph. Those things you see are likely strange for a person from Indonesia or South Africa. Do your best to explore anything you can in your world. Find out what is happening around you and go to photograph. You will discover a whole world of subjects. When I bought my first good camera back in 1980, I sat in my parents home and took about 24 photos (film) of their TV set. Well, I am living proof that you can learn, you can be creative and you can improve.
Get up and go for a walk or a drive. Keep your camera ready at your side. Don't leave it all boxed up in case you have to stop fast. Keep it ready to grab fast. I drive down the road with my camera in Shutter Priority, ISO 200, and ready to fire at 1/320 of sec. You know why? Because if a deer jumps out and it's set at 1/60th the photo will be blurry. If a turtle is walking accross the road ... I have plenty of time to slow down that shutter speed. I drive expecting stuff to happen.
Well, that's a start. There's a whole lot more and certainly better written tips at your local book store ... but there ya have it. I will come back periodically and add detail to these points and others if I think it is noteworthy. Best of luck to you all.