20 Golden rules of photography

Table of content:

  1. Shoot at ‘one over focal length’
  2. Shoot exclusively in Raw format.
  3. Always use Aperture Priority!
  4. Expose to the right
  5. Shoot at ISO100
  6. Focus on the eyes
  7. Narrow for landscapes
  8. Focus a third into the scene
  9. Multiple AF points for movement
  10. Keep things simple
  11. Follow the Rule of Thirds
  12. Get down to eye level
  13. Don’t forget the background
  14. Include leading lines
  15. Don’t forget the foreground
  16. Balance the sky
  17. Slow down water
  18. Keep the sun over your shoulder
  19. Get your timing right
  20. Shoot at the golden hours

When transitioning to an interchangeable-lens mirrorless camera or DSLR, there is a significant learning curve ahead. There are numerous ways to expose and compose a photo, and certain approaches yield more successful results. While the perception of a good shot may vary, there are essential guidelines that greatly enhance the chances of capturing a winning image. Below, we have gathered 20 timeless principles to assist you. By adhering to these fundamental tenets of photography, you will undoubtedly enhance your success rate.

Let’s commence with camera settings, the rules to be followed before raising the camera to your eye. Then, we delve into focusing: the crucial rules governing the desired sharpness in different parts of your image, as well as the intentional blurring effect. Subsequently, we explore composition—the elements to include in the frame and, equally important, those to exclude.

Lastly, we examine the rules of understanding and responding to light, as it plays a paramount role in the success or failure of a photograph. However, it is worth noting that rules can be bent, so we will also highlight instances where you can disregard the golden rules.

1: Shoot at ‘one over focal length

Camera shake is a sure way to spoil a shot. It’s caused by involuntary movement as you take a photo handheld, and the cure is to shoot at a shutter speed fast enough to make this movement imperceptible. However, the longer the focal length, the faster your shutter speed will need to be. A safe margin is to match your shutter speed to your lens’s effective focal length. So a 300mm lens requires 1/300 sec or faster – but on a camera with a ‘crop sensor’, such as a 550D, 60D or 7D, you’ll need to multiply the focal length by 1.6x, giving a shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec.

Break the rules! A lens or camera with built-in image stabilization compensates for camera shake, enabling you to shoot at slower shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible.

2. Shoot exclusively in Raw format.

When capturing images with your camera, you have the option to shoot in either Raw or JPEG. JPEG files are processed by the camera and often appear more visually pleasing straight out of the camera. However, they offer limited flexibility for post-processing and correcting potential issues in your shots. On the other hand, Raw files retain all the data captured by the camera, including information discarded in JPEGs. This allows you to salvage poorly exposed images and extract more tonal detail from correctly exposed ones.

Exceptions to the rule! In certain types of photography, such as sports where a large number of rapid-fire frames are captured, shooting in Raw format may become impractical. In such cases, opting for JPEGs is the preferred choice.

3: Always use Aperture Priority!

It’s common to think that it’s best to use Aperture Priority exposure mode for situations where depth of field is critical, and Shutter Priority when shutter speed is key. However, for many photographers Aperture Priority is their go-to mode 90% of the time, as changing the aperture also selects a matching shutter speed – widen the aperture to shoot faster, close it down to shoot slower. You have a much more limited range of apertures than you do shutter speeds; a lens might only go between f/4 and f/22 – a five-stop range – whereas shutter speeds have a much broader range of between 1/4000 sec and 30 secs, or 17 stops. So, if you use shutter priority mode, it’s more likely that the corresponding aperture will be out of range.

Some specialist techniques, such as panning, demand a precise shutter speed, and sometimes nothing beats using shutter priority. Similarly, in some situations (such as when using studio flash), manual exposure can be the best option.

4. Expose to the right

Check your histogram regularly when shooting, and apply exposure compensation (typically you would press the +/- button and scroll the thumbwheel) to keep as much of the graph to the right as possible. But as your camera’s sensor records more detail in shadows than in highlights, enabling you to get the most out of your images at the editing stage, be careful not to go too far and bunch pixels up at the right edge of the graph – these ‘clipped’ highlights hold no detail.

Break the rules! If your subject is predominantly dark, or ‘low key’, exposing to the right creates a dull wash of midtones. Be subjective!

5: Shoot at ISO100

It is generally recommended to use ISO100 or the lowest possible ISO setting to minimize digital noise in your images. Higher ISO settings can introduce unwanted noise. However, modern cameras are adept at controlling noise even at high ISOs, so don’t be afraid to increase the ISO if it means avoiding a blurry shot.

6: Focus on the eyes

in portraits In portrait photography, achieving sharp focus on the subject’s eyes is crucial for creating impactful images. Use single AF points and manually select a focus point that aligns with one of the eyes. This ensures that the viewer can connect with the subject. If shooting from an angle, make sure the nearest eye to the viewer is in focus.

7: Narrow for landscapes

shallow for portraits Aperture selection determines the depth of field in your images. For landscapes, use a narrow aperture (around f/16) to maximize the sharpness throughout the scene. In portraits or action shots, opt for a wide aperture (such as f/1.4 to f/4) to separate the subject from the background and draw the viewer’s attention.

8: Focus a third into the scene

When capturing landscapes, focus on a point about one-third of the way up from the bottom of the frame. This helps achieve a larger depth of field, ensuring sharpness from the closest point to the camera to the infinity point. Calculating hyperfocal distance is one approach, but using Live View and zooming in to check focus precisely is a practical alternative.

9: Multiple AF points for movement

When photographing moving subjects, use multiple autofocus points in combination with continuous autofocus and burst mode. This allows the camera to track the subject as it moves through the frame. For static subjects, employ a single AF point and switch to One Shot AF mode.

10: Keep things simple

Strive for simplicity in your compositions by selecting a camera angle and position that eliminate unnecessary elements. Zooming in, changing shooting positions, and adjusting angles can help simplify the frame and avoid cluttered compositions.

11: Follow the Rule of Thirds

Instead of placing the subject in the center of the frame, apply the Rule of Thirds. Divide the image into thirds both vertically and horizontally, and position key elements along these lines or at their intersections. This composition technique often leads to more pleasing and balanced results. However, certain scenarios like reflections or symmetrical architecture can benefit from centered compositions.

12: Get down to eye level

To capture more engaging portraits of subjects smaller than you, such as animals or children, get down to their eye level. This perspective provides a more natural viewpoint and avoids uninteresting foregrounds. It also allows for creative background blur.

13: Don’t forget the background

While focusing on the subject, be mindful of the background. Avoid busy backgrounds that distract from the main subject. Ensure there is enough distance between the subject and the background to achieve a pleasing blur when using a wide aperture. Compose the shot to include interesting elements throughout the frame, balancing the subject with the surroundings.

14: Include leading lines

Incorporate lines, curves, or shapes that lead viewers’ eyes from the edges of the frame towards the subject. Well-positioned leading lines, such as fences, roads, or natural features, can guide the viewer’s gaze effectively. Avoid lines that lead out of the frame unintentionally.

15: Don’t forget the foreground

When photographing landscapes, don’t overlook the foreground. Including something of interest in the foreground adds depth, scale, and perspective to your images. Tilt the camera downward or shoot from a lower perspective to incorporate an engaging foreground.

16: Balance the sky

When faced with a scene where the sky is much brighter than the landscape, consider using graduated neutral density filters (ND grads). These filters gradually transition from clear to semi-opaque, allowing you to balance the exposure between the sky and the foreground. Alternatively, you can take multiple exposures, one for the landscape and another for the sky, and blend them in post-processing.

17: Slow down water

To convey a sense of movement and drama in scenes with water, use a slower shutter speed. This blurs the water and adds a dynamic element to the image. If the available light is too bright for achieving a slow shutter speed, employ a neutral density (ND) filter to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor.

18: Keep the sun over your shoulder

Position yourself with the sun behind you to ensure even lighting and avoid exposure issues caused by backlighting. For more depth and texture, slightly offset the sun from directly behind you, introducing side lighting. Shooting into the sunset can create atmospheric silhouettes by reducing the exposure.

19: Get your timing right

The timing of your shot can greatly impact the final result. Consider factors such as lighting conditions, tides, and the position of the sun or moon. Look for breaks in the clouds, optimal natural lighting, and unique moments that enhance the scene. Plan ahead using resources like tide charts and sunrise/sunset calculators.

20: Shoot at the golden hours

Avoid shooting in harsh midday sunlight. Instead, take advantage of the golden hours, which occur around dawn and dusk. During these times, the sun is low in the sky, casting a warm and flattering light. Portraits and landscapes benefit from this soft, golden glow. Using a reflector can help bounce light back onto your subjects even on overcast days.

Break the rules! Carry a reflector to bounce light back onto your subjects, and you can shoot portraits and still lifes whenever you like, even on overcast days.

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