Photography 101 – Basic Rules of Photography.

This following piece has been inspired by many a discussion with Bill on the subject of photography and all the idiosyncrasies that occur repeatedly it seems, as a result of those trying to define the pursuit of photography. My reasons for writing this particular piece are two-fold: I am deeply passionate about photography. I’m fortunate enough that I am able to dedicate my creative efforts to pursuing photography full-time, and although there is always more to learn with regards to any skill or form of art, I consider myself fairly adept at what I do, and knowledgeable about my craft and my art. My first reason then, is that I believe in sharing what I know with others. Inspiration drives innovation and thus the creative wheel keeps turning. My second reason is simply that I abhor mediocrity.

Photograph by William Klein.

Before we begin I have a couple of questions for all you photographers out there:

1. Do you aspire to be a mediocre, good, or great photographer?
2. Are you an artist or just a technician?

These are important questions because they will set the parameters of how far you will be willing to explore your art, and indeed how seriously you take yourself as a photographer, furthermore how seriously others will take you and your work.

Basic rules of photography and being a photographer (these are just guidelines by the way):

1. Say after me: “I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER”.You are an artist with a camera. You are not an amateur photographer, you are a PHOTOGRAPHER. If you think half-heartedly about what you do, then your work will always be half-hearted. Also calling yourself a PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER doesn’t necessarily mean your work is better than anybody else’s, it just means you are fortunate enough to get paid for what you do. The act of being a photographer does not need to be prefaced by anything. If you choose to preface what you do with a specific genre like ‘Street’ or ‘Portrait’, then that is merely a stylistic preference, but the fact remains you are first and foremost a PHOTOGRAPHER, and above even that you are an ARTIST, and the camera is your tool and light is your medium.

2. KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENT. I cannot stress this enough. Learn your camera inside and out. Understand what it does and what it can do for you. And yes, that means reading the manual, pressing all the buttons and testing it out. Do not fear the equipment, otherwise you will forever be beholden to its whims. There are so many good handbooks written for most cameras today that are affordable, simple and straightforward to use, so there is no excuse not to learn. I come across so many photographers who take good pictures for the most part but still do not understand the fundamentals of photography. They think they can buy a camera and that the camera will do all the work for them, and to some great extent many digital cameras will do just that, but your work will always be interpreted by the camera’s preset settings, and will likely be limited in its scope. You won’t understand what the shutter speed is, or what aperture and depth of field is, and when quizzed about such you will fumble and draw a blank. And to an extent that’s ok if all you want to do is point and shoot, and not have to think too hard about what you create. However, if your desire is to be a unique photographer, and a great photographer then as long as you don’t know how your camera works and how a picture is actually created by your equipment, then you will always be dependent on luck and be at the whim of the machinery.

In having control of your equipment you can then create the images that you want. It will also become evidently clear as to whether the equipment you own is actually up to the job of reproducing your artistic vision or not. Even a painter has to understand how to apply paint on a canvas before they can begin producing the kinds of images they desire, and that often involves a lot of experimentation as well as learning what you can about painting techniques and what the paint does and can do when it touches the canvas. Creating photographic images is no different. It is not a magical process with you at its mercy. Understanding how depth of field and exposure work, for example, is vitally important in knowing how to take a picture and in creating an image that fits your artistic purpose. Every great photographer in history knew or knows how their equipment functions, and through experience understands how light and therefore tonal values work in order to create certain effects. In fact, everything we see is evaluated in terms of the degree of the sun’s light refracting from surfaces in the world around us, and that is what determines colour and tonal contrast as translated through our eyes and by our brains, which I might add is a very unique thing from person to person depending on individual biology. Knowing your equipment then, also extends to understanding your own biological equipment as much as that is possible. Your artistic vision and impulse to press the shutter at any given moment are functions of your biological equipment. That married with your technical ability in using a camera is what makes you a photographer.

Saul Leiter Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter Courtesy: Saul Leiter, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

Your equipment should not dictate what kind of photographic artist you are, meaning getting a better, or older camera lens, or using celluloid film or a Leica, or any high-end digital camera with a gazillion mega pixels will not make you a better photographer. Once again these are stylistic preferences, and will probably only go as far as earning your ‘cool’ points with other gadget nerds. The only thing that will make you a great photographer and artist is your own ability to push the boundaries of your art, meaning not allowing yourself to be restricted by the equipment – and if you do feel restricted by your equipment, then it’s a good sign that you know how it works and what it can do for you. Here’s the thing, if you love photography because of all the gadgetry and the prowess of having an expensive camera, then you aren’t really in it for the love of the art and producing great pictures, you’re just a technician and a gadget-monkey, and your work will likely reflect that. Once again, if that’s all you are striving for, then that’s ok. I won’t judge you for it. Neither will Bill, much.

3. YOUR CAMERA IS YOUR TOOL AND LIGHT IS YOUR MEDIUM. You are an artist whose tool is a camera with which you paint with light. At the very basic level a photographic image is an impression of an actual event that is represented in differing values of tonal contrast. How you manipulate light through the equipment is intrinsic to the kinds of images you are likely to produce. Once again, like a painter, how paint is applied to the canvas dictates the kind of image that is produced. Your goal then, as a photographer, is to understand how you manipulate light through your photographic equipment, in the process of creating your desired image, editing tools included. Now, you might be under the impression that in reality the camera does all the work with you merely pointing at a scene you like the look of and capturing what is there. THAT IS NOT TRUE AND HAS NEVER BEEN TRUE FOR ANY PHOTOGRAPHER AT ANY POINT IN HISTORY. Actual scenes in the world have to be interpreted and translated through the equipment so that, at best, the final impression or print represents what is being looked at by the naked eye. The lenses in your head and the lens of the camera do not function in remotely the same way. Camera lenses though seemingly similar, are extremely limited and rudimentary in comparison to the human eye, let alone what the mind can envisage, camera lenses simply cannot translate light and tonal contrast in the same highly complex ways. What you have to do then is to tune the equipment at your disposal so that it reproduces as close to what you physically see, or imagine you see, as possible. No mean feat, and the challenge that every good photographer faces.

In the production of any art your tools will always dictate to a great extent what you are able to produce, so by all means experiment with different kinds of photographic equipment and editing tools, analogue methods included. Even in the analogue days being a photographer and printing were two entirely different things. Few photographers developed or printed their own work as that was the job of highly skilled technicians (often the real artists) who understood the medium they were using and who could manipulate it to produce a desired image, within the parameters of the medium of course. Images in colour, for example, were notoriously difficult to produce because of the toxic chemicals involved, and the inconsistencies they afforded owing to requiring near perfect darkroom conditions in order to get consistent results, not to mention being highly dependent on the quality of the photographic paper available. The final image therefore, was far from being an exact representation of the actual event photographed, no matter the type of film used. However, these people understood how to get the best out of their creative medium in exacting their artistic vision. All great art is premeditated, a process of carefully and skilfully applied knowledge and planning.

4. YOU ARE AN ARTIST FIRST. Having an artistic vision is as important as the equipment you use. In fact, the first will dictate the second. Knowing the kinds of images you wish to produce with your photographic equipment will determine the kind of photographic equipment you need to do the job. When I talk about photographic equipment that includes camera, lighting accessories, editing tools, props, YOU, in fact whatever it takes to produce your desired image. Now, more often than not, as with any artistic pursuit it’s a case of trial and error coupled with a good grounding in the use of the tools and medium, and of course it is invariably a process of self-discovery. It is true to say that through practise you become the artist that you wish to be, even if at first you don’t know exactly what kind of artist that is. A willingness to explore and experiment is key in this process of artistic becoming, but mastery can only be reached once the use of your equipment becomes second nature. Then you can allow instinct to take over and for your true artistic potential to be explored.
Talent mostly comes down to technical ability, and the uniqueness with which you apply your technical ability in creating an end product. That is the definition of art. The importance is on HOW you use your equipment to perform the task at hand, not WHAT kind of equipment you use, though it can help. Ask any master photographer and they will tell you that photography is an art form, and they consider themselves artists.

5. CARPE DIEM. Turning opportunity into a great work of art is the bread and butter of a photographer, it is the sole purpose of our photographic pursuits. How many times have I heard the feeble excuse from many a good photographer when given praise for their work, that they didn’t create the scene before them but merely got lucky when pushing the button on the camera? Too many, believe me, and it’s pure hokum. It drives me nuts. Not often do photographers take into consideration the creation of opportunity in the taking of a good picture. You had to get to where you got to in the first place, and to have seen what you saw in the way that only you saw it before you even considered taking your camera and doing what you had to do in order to capture that particular image. Yes, God, the Universe, Whoever may have created the scene before you, and some ‘luck’ may have been involved, but you were there to capture the moment when you did under its unique and fleeting conditions, and that’s what makes it special. What’s more, all the edits you do thereafter are your own adaptation of the initial event. As photographic artists we are very instrumental in the manipulation/creation of the final image/print, therefore, taking ownership or credit for your art, the work that you do is also vitally important in the pursuit of photographic excellence, and in creating an artistic identity. It’s more than ok to feel proud of the work you produce. You should. It’s your right, and it’s also ok for others to know that. Being passionate about what you do will keep your creative juices flowing, and you will allow yourself to seize the photographic opportunities as they arise. Your passion will also inspire others, and that in itself fuels further development in photographic equipment at the very least!

6. TRUST YOURSELF. Trust that your eyes combined with your brain can spot the perfect composition in nanoseconds, far faster than you are able to consciously be aware of it. We call this amazing ability ‘instinct’. It has been scientifically proven that the brain is predisposed to recognise certain patterns inherent in nature and to respond accordingly by releasing endorphins when eyes are clapped thus. Many experienced photographers will recognise precisely such a moment as the moment they see something that piques their interest and pressing the shutter button in time to capture it. More often than not it is experienced as an impulsive act with little awareness as to why the photographer took the picture at that particular moment, with the fineries of such an experience later being revealed in the darkroom, often to great delight and surprise, and often in very complex ways. Particularly true of street photography or photojournalism where for the most part you are shooting spontaneously, and sometimes blind. That being said, even when the creation of a photographic image is premeditated, an initial spark of inspiration is still required in order to formulate the resultant scene. Biological instinct aside, trust that any knowledge you acquire with regard to photographic technique and artistic composition, if practiced enough will become instinctive after a while, so the act of taking good pictures will become effortless. It doesn’t mean perfection every time, although it might as in the case of photographers like Vivian Maier, but it will stand you in very good stead to consistently produce good quality work.

7. CREATE YOUR OWN DAMNED RULES. When becoming a proficient photographer you must create your own parameters to work within. Nobody knows better than you what your photographic purpose is, what your particular vision is. Emulating your favourite photographer, or pandering to some mythical rules about technique or style is great if that’s what appeals to you, but you will greatly limit your ability to stand out from the crowd, you will stifle your creativity and you will drown in the sea of sheepdom. In fact, don’t even follow the rules/guidelines that I’m setting out here today. Decide for yourself how you wish to pursue your photographic experience and art. YOU decide what the rules are. Every great photographer was and is a pioneer in their unique style and technique. Be one of THOSE photographers. Don’t be a sheep. Greatness is different from sameness, remember that.

Photography by Garry Winogrand. Don’t be a sheep. Be the kid next to the sheep.

My final word on this is to say “Mazeltof!”, I wish you all well in your photographic endeavours. If you think artistic greatness with regards to photography is not for you then that’s more than fine by me. Hey, I didn’t say artistic pursuit wasn’t cut-throat…!
Carving a path through the creative mire is hard work and takes dedication, especially when everybody and her dog has a camera these days, which is why it’s important to ask yourself the questions set out at the beginning of this intelligent rant treatise. The first hurdle in becoming great at anything is in recognising that you are great before you have even attained greatness. BE a great photographer. OWN IT. Make it your own thing. And if it’s not really your thing, then be willing to accept your lot, or just put the camera down and take up tiddly-winks instead. Like I said, I won’t mind. Neither will Bill. Really we won’t, at all.

Should the mood take me, I might just write about the mystery and magic of Depth of Field next. Just as a recap for those whom this tangly little concept may have become fuzzy again. See what I did there…

Seriously, I’m just playing… I’m not really this obnoxious.

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11 thoughts on “Photography 101 – Basic Rules of Photography.

  1. Excellent, inspiring post, and good, sound advice. There are two ways in life to become great at something. The first is to be unique and work your ass off. So is the second way.

    See, I lie sometimes. There’s only one way.

    And, as you say, becoming great by emulating someone else means that, if you’re very, very lucky, aficionados in the future will look at your work and label it “Photography by You in the School of So-and-So.” No one remembers Rembrandt’s apprentices, and yet people buy cameras, effectively purchasing paints and canvases, learn nothing about color and composition, and think that if they paint-by-numbers they’ll achieve greatness. A unique mediocrity is always better than an imitative greatness.

    And you’re very sweet; I’ll judge the hell out of a fool. Judge Judgey McJudgerstein, that’s me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I must go on a course to learn this infernal machine n that case as reading technical stuff … no matter how straight forward sends me spare and cross eyed.
    When I had my OM10 it seemed simpler, yet the images I am turning out these days with the digital Canon seem better.
    Maybe they only seem better because of my failing eyesight?
    *Shrugs*

    Liked by 1 person

    • The images you are turning out these days are great, Doug. You must be doing something right!
      The best way to learn a new machine is to use it, press all the buttons and see what it does, or doesn’t do!
      Each camera has its limitations, but a lot of that can be surpassed with good editing tools. As Bill said in his previous post, the Nik Collection tools are free, top-notch professional software and safe to download. Also, they are fairly straightforward to use with all the preset filters. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article, you said it the way it needs to be said. I always say to people who are just starting that “know your equipment” is the ONLY ESSENTIAL part, but nobody wants to hear that. My friend recently bought an expensive camera so he wanted me to teach him how to be me 🙂 and, like a true master, I said to him: first, learn some technical / scientific stuff about light, color, lenses, sensors and how they actually work together in a camera, and then come back 🙂 And he looked kinda disappointed.

    Anyway, I got tons of photos waiting to be shown to the world, but most of them need to be edited, and that is the part I just don’t like, there’s no “action” there. Maybe you could write something about that. Maybe my eyes are just not open for the magical beauty of editing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading Bez, glad you enjoyed it. For me I love editing as much as I love being out with the camera. The editing is where I make the images look exactly how I see them when I take them, and sometimes not, sometimes more than they were originally. I’m all about telling stories with my images, and engaging people on some kind of level that inspires them in some way, even if it isn’t always obvious. I want people to react to images, and for them to stop and look for longer than just a split second. Good structural composition is part of it, but there is only so much you can achieve inside the camera. The rest of the magic happens in the digital darkroom. Plenty of action if you have an active imagination. 😉

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      • Well, I guess my problem is that very often I don’t know what I want. I mean, at first I know exactly what I want to change on a certain image, but then I get some new ideas so I end up having six versions and I can’t decide which one is the right one, and then I get bored.

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        • Nothing wrong with that, I mean having several versions of an image. I often make multiple versions, all of which are good enough in themselves. But I suppose, it really comes down to what kind of an impact you want to have on your chosen audience, if you choose to show you pictures, that is. Your audience won’t care either way whether one version is slightly different than the next. They don’t know what you started with and what you were trying to do.
          Every edit though, needs to begin with the question: what do you want people to look at in your photo?
          Because that will dictate, for the most part, how you need to edit the image. That stuff can be taught, and I have written about it on this blog. Though I think it might just need a rehash, especially with regards to digital editing tools.
          Me and Bill, we started a series on the art and history of street photography some time back, and it was meant to cover compositional and editing techniques, but we didn’t get much of a readership, and it was a lot of work, so we stopped. I could talk about it for hours though.

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