Photography is an artistic endeavor, and art is strongest when it includes an intuitive aspect. That's how a photo becomes your photo, not just a nice-looking photo. And while reading art criticism can help develop intuition, it's even more important to just perceive a lot of art. Photo exhibitions, books, online galleries, etc that you view will all go into your brain and get mixed around. Then you start taking pictures and reviewing your own work, to see what worked and what didn't--for you, the artist.
To be a strong photographer, there's no substitute for just looking at a lot of photography and taking a lot of pictures. Articles like this can give you mental tools to reason about what you're feeling, but the essence of art is the feeling.
The one simple piece of advice for landscape photographers is that you're taking a picture of light. Most of the example photos in this article were taken in interesting light. A lot of them would be boring photos (despite strong composition theory) if taken at noon on a clear day.
Edit to add: I incline toward landscape photography myself, and two books that have really stuck with me are Examples by Ansel Adams and Mountain Light by Galen Rowell. Hearing (well, reading) from the artist about their decisions in making a striking image provides a more subjective perspective on photography--a good counterpoint to what I'd call a more observational or analytical approach like in the linked article.
One of the best parts of photography is the speed at which you can have a conversation with your own visual system, refining it in the process.
Understanding art can be thought of as getting bored and finding something new, which is no longer boring, and repeat. Eventually you find yourself bored by almost everything, but with an intense passion for succinct relatable expression. This is often mistaken for pretension, and many do skip the process altogether; most unfortunately, even people calling themselves artists do so.
My point is all these composition rules are great; it’s invaluable stuff. But, you will get bored of them, and that is the beautiful part.
Composition is also about tension/resolution, much like music. You can increase tension, but that doesn't mean you're actually breaking rules.
At the end of the day, I am actually a rigid rule follower in my output. Most of the rule-breaking takes place in my imagination. I find myself giggling to myself on film sets regularly, for example. Or at bus stops for that matter. This is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
"Whereas an accomplished jazz musician knows the rules, a master knows when to break them."
Which doesn't capture artistic intention, motivation like your notion of boredom, and the implied seeking of novelty, until that too gets boring.
I always heard that as well. Cinematographers love this phrase, but I totally agree. That saying leaves the concept less than dependent on personal experience. I still don’t understand why, but the purest of expressions seem to come as side effects of the engagement process; not as rewards for accomplishments. So, one must engage and be honest as they can with the act itself, which isn’t to say one must suffer, but just aim to be in touch with their own experience with the medium. I will admit I personally suffer, but it’s not helpful.
In a way, you train your neural networks to see by looking at images, then, while actively photographing you outsource decision making to your own trained neural networks.
After a while you can predict the best camera position, settings and get a tingling sensation moments before an interesting situation (in street or event photography) happens.
I think we may see more algorithmic camera apps in the future, possibly AI powered.
Today we're able to take hundreds, even thousands, of ridiculously high resolution photographs of a scene. We can program our cameras to do automatic bracketing so we're sure to get the right exposure, and if not we can fix it in post. We're no longer limited to composition before we capture the photo as we can import a series of photos into Photoshop and create panoramic, HDR, composites, and just about anything else years after an event.
I think there is definitely some value in learning a few of these rules because they do help you take better pictures when you don't have the luxury of time to experiment, to plan or control your environment. A prime example is taking photos of your kid at a sporting event. Understanding lines of sight, directions of travel, the rule of thirds, and knowing how to frame the subject can really help you to capture the emotion felt in a very fleeting moment.
I've participated in online photo review communities that almost always seem to end up bickering about composition and other rules as if they were absolutes. Such discussions can often miss the underlying art, or photographer's message
However, some caveats:
Almost all of the pictures used as examples are landscapes where people are not present or are mere compositional comments. In street or portrait photography, technical composition rules may be subordinate to the photographer's narrative. A better title for the article might be 'definitive guide for landscape photographers'.
All of the pictures use ambient light (admittedly some of the light is stunning, but it is all supplied by nature). Adding controlled light (e.g. flash but also studio lighting) can give a lot of additional compositional control. See  for examples.
There is no mention of considering how the picture will be used when considering composition. In commercial photography, the composition may have to fit a specific page aspect ratio, and include empty spaces where text or other elements can be added. Not taking this into account can limit the commercial use of the picture.
[Edit] Another way to get interesting compositions is to use different compositions than the other photographers. Simply crouching down to ground level is a good way to do this. Putting on a much wider angle lens can also help.
If I would teach people one thing about photography. Is learning previsualization.
This is a very interesting and exhaustive guide. It's great for analyzing photos that work and explaining why they do work.
I think photography (for beginners) should be about personal fulfillment, capturing memories and telling stories.
Along with that (as others have pointed out) just learn about the rule of thirds.
You can practice previsualization all the time and like anything else, it's something you get better the more you do it. For example, my default street photography lens is 28mm. I think shooting with long lenses is not intimate. After many years, my eyes see in 28 and I know more or less what the frame will be once I look through the camera. I've usually taken the photo in my head before I even lift the camera. Sometimes the result is better than what I imagine, sometimes is worse.
Same goes with the light: if you want to know how the camera sees the scene, squint -- it would compensate for extra peripheral light.
But for beginners I believe there are just two simple rules that help a lot to create nice pictures:
* Rule Of Thirds (most camera's have an option to turn this on visually)
* Give people room to look. So when someone is looking to the right, place them in the left of the picture so they have "room" to look to the right.
Understand and embrace exposure compensation. If your camera doesn't give you rapid access to that control, get a new one. (Thankfully most cell phone cameras do these days.)
90% of crappy Facebook pictures could be made passable if the subjects were correctly exposed. Too often, bright or dark backgrounds are exposed as a dull grey, leaving subjects washed out or in shadow.
If the scene is bright ("high key"), nudge that knob up so it looks bright. If the scene is dark ("low key"), nudge it down so it looks dark. This can completely change the dynamics of a photograph for the better, and will allow you to more readily focus on the aesthetic aspects of photography such as composition.
Even supposedly unrecoverable washed out highlights are surprisingly recoverable on newer cameras. For sure there are exceptions (bright snow scenes for example), but it's rare I will touch the exposure comp dial today.
Exposure metering is pretty great nowadays anyway (even on modern cellphones like the Pixel/iPhone), I love how you can effectively spot meter on the iPhone just by touching anywhere on the viewfinder.
I agree that tap-for-spot-expose is nice, but insufficient if your subject should be bright or dark. E.g. taking a picture of a high- or low-key mural.
But: I also agree with you that when you want to go a step further you can use things like exposure to express your feelings even more.
It's kind of like saying, "a virtuoso can make beautiful music with an out-of-tune guitar". That's very true, but beginners should still tune their guitars.
Feelings don't matter if you can't see the subject because your point and shoot exposed for the bright background. That's frustrating and gets in the way of producing a shot you're proud of (e.g. by using the framing techniques you suggest).
I think most cameras today create great picture quality in auto mode. Lime a guitar with autotune.
But a perfectly tuned guitar can still be played bad.
So I think there are 2 simple rules that will give you a nice simple song: rule of thirds and space to look.
Take SnapChat for example. It's a great gateway into photography, because it's fun and accessible. But god forbid you ever pose a subject against a white background. You're just looking at a grey mess with a dark blob in front of it.
At least the camera app on my Motorola sprouted a compensation dial a couple years back. That made me very happy, and comfortable enough just to carry my phone around for casual photography.
To mirror your reply, a perfectly composed picture where the subject is just a black blob against a generic blue sky exposed to middle grey is still a bad picture. I'm not disagreeing with your advice; but I don't think it's either-or.
Modern sensors gave the software enormous ability to extract details and do exposure compensation on shadows and only shadows in post processing, especially if the scene is stored in RAW format. There's however nothing that the sensors can do with the washed out highlights - that information is gone and no post processing can do anything about it. So the basic rule of shooting a scene that has brights and dark elements is to always underexpose to get the bright details in as it keep the option of bringing dark details out.
Someone just getting started in the hobby is much better served by learning to turn a dial on their point-and-shoot than messing around with developing raws. Minimizing the turnaround time between shooting and results is crucial to promote development of aesthetic sense and appreciation for the hobby that is necessary to justify the investment in learning the development process.
* look at (and fill) the edges of the frame. Too often, we look at the part of the picture we are interested in (often the center), and ignore the empty/ugly space around it. Look at the edges, and the center will take care of itself.
This article hits on a key thing - the main things controlling the quality/interest of a photo are composition, subject, and exposure. The main dimension "really good camera!" helps in these days is resolution, which has approximately zero to do with photo quality.
edit: I have a print of a favorite photo of mine above my fireplace mantle. It was shot with an old Motorola RAZR, at 320x240px. It's pixellated like crazy in print. It's also full of high-contrast problems - a large blown-out splotch off center from directly facing a light, and the mere shadow outlines of numerous hands in he air in the foreground (it was shot at a Flaming Lips concert). It's epic and beautiful. Why? Good composition, and interesting subject matter (hands in the air, facing a shadowy barely-recognizable human outline).
Great camera, indeed.
So I crop 1/5 of the image and boost the exposure 2stops. If I do that with a camera just a few years old, the result is terrible.
Now obviously, if the image is bad or completely uninteresting to begin with then no technological thing is going to help. But it's nice crutches for beginners. After I cropped my image to 1/5, I learned what I should have done. In the past, that was a really expensive lesson (the photo was ruined). Now I get the lesson AND the photo.
"That's so kind. You have a great mouth!"
(Saw this in a comic somewhere - sadly, I can't find it any more).
When I showed it to family members, most of them liked it. Then one of them asked "What camera did you use to take this picture?"
I said "Just an old 6x6 Japanese box, loaded with Portra 400"
Maybe someday I'll visit that place again, shoot a 4x5 and make really huge print of it :D
I've mainly found exposure to be much easier to manage with a good camera.
† Tip: (thank you non-discoverable UI) The default iPhone app can lock AE/AF by loooooong-touching until it locks, and you can adjust exposure compensation by sliding up and down, but the former is a AF lock (not a manual set) and the second one is both highly imprecise and takes ages to go through large ranges when AE screws up. ProCamera's UI is both much more intuitive, responsive, and full-featured.
My 300 EUR camera can focus on the eye, and my 1.8f lens will make the background blurry. All I add is rule of the third. The camera will also measure the exposure according to the face.
And suddenly I made a photo that other people find aesthetically pleasing.
It's going to be interesting ones artificial blur / bokeh and AI compositions are mainstream.
The book basically consists of him walking you through how he made some of his great photographs. What the location looked like, which angles he considered and why some worked better (compositionally) than others. It was really eye opening and completely changed the way I walk around and take photos! (from random snapshots to well considered compositions)
Highly, highly recommended.
If you take it literally, then "No!"
Most photographers zoom out a little so they have room to crop. This is especially handy in landscape photography, because of the need for full front to back sharpness. Unless you have a fantastic lens/camera system, you cannot go down to f/22 and expect a sharp photo. But if you widen the aperture your depth of field is limited. So landscape photographers often zoom out and shoot at f/14 or wider, and then crop to what they initially wanted to catch.
So yes, fill the frame, but only after cropping.
Finally, I tend to agree with one book I read. When it comes to landscape photography, just remember two rules:
1. Convey depth (landscape photos are best when you have interesting elements both near and far).
2. Utilize balance
All the other rules you tend to see tend to either support one of these two. If they don't, ignore them. There are several composition tricks to convey depth. But if you just learn the rules individually, you'll end up with compositions where you have multiple elements conveying depth (one is enough!)
Plus when you zoom out and crop you waste sensor resolution and photon gathering power...
Plus, even an expensive camera suffers at f/22. The only thing you can do is use tilt shift and an actual larger aperture.
Interesting - any real world tests to demonstrate this? When it comes to DOF, I'm not interested in logic or theory. I've seen too many flamewars that involve only theory and no actual field tests.
>Plus when you zoom out and crop you waste sensor resolution and photon gathering power...
I started digital photography on 2 MP. Then moved up to 8 MP. Then to 16 MP. From my experience, the difference between 8 and 16 MP is fairly small. The only benefit for me to go to higher resolution at this stage is the ability to crop and still get high resolution. Without cropping, I don't benefit from extra megapixels.
I'll concede the light per pixel point, though.
https://i.imgur.com/GtljNmg.png top is 50mm, bottom is 100mm
Why? The antialiasing filter and demosaicing destroy detail at a fixed scale relative to the captured image.
A few quibbles:
1. The goal is to maintain the DOF distance. For 100mm at f/32, if you go to 50mm, you need f/8.
2. The assumption is that the lens is as sharp at 100mm as it is at 50mm (on some lenses this is a terrible assumption).
I tried a similar experiment comparing 25mm with 50mm (f/5.6 vs f/22). You can see the results at https://imgur.com/a/ik6qe5K
To me, they are almost identical - with 25mm seeming a tad bit sharper. In a way, though, you're right - the difference is so small that I might as well shoot at f/22.
100mm at f/32 is the same as 50mm at f/8 only if you don't crop 50mm by 2x.
These are both excellent lenses, and at f/32 and f/16, optical quality basically ceases to matter.
Instead of prescribing a particular process of composition, the books focus on clearly outlining the variables you control while taking a photograph. Once you've internalised the boundaries of the space you're working in, it's up to you to decide how to navigate through it.
Put another way, there may be definite rules for what makes something look pleasing, but a good photograph is not necessarily the most visually pleasing image. A great photographer has developed the intuition to know how to mix pleasing and disturbing elements to create a profound effect.
I think I just don't have an 'eye' for what makes a good photograph.
I have taken some photographs I love, but they aren't technically good and are only good to me (because of the memories with the photo or who is in the photo).
It's annoying as I love it, and I love going out and practicing more. I've read lots on composition etc and how to use my camera but I find it so hard to actually picture the scene in my head and what will make a good photo.
Also, what are peoples throw away rates like? If I go out for a day with the camera and take say 20 photos. I might save 1.
This is a dilemma of lots of people who shoot professionally - they have photos that they want to keep because of the subjects/moments/memories which are objectively not as good as the photos that could take with the same subjects/moments/memories if they had approached them more as the professional shoots -- they did not.
The solution to that is simple - two different collections. One for the 'Personal photos' and one for 'Excellent Photos'.
> It's annoying as I love it, and I love going out and practicing more. I've read lots on composition etc and how to use my camera but I find it so hard to actually picture the scene in my head and what will make a good photo
Never take one photo. In fact, never take two or three photos. Take dozens photos even if you are just tapping a button on your phone camera app. Move phone left. Move it right. Change angle. Move closer. Move out. But keep pushing the button. After that pull the photos for the same scene into a strip and do an edit. First cull obviously bad photos - out of focus, washed out background if you did not want it, weird dude sucking on his thumb in a corner etc -- you took a dozen photos of nearly the same scene so it is not like you don't have a room to cut. After that do a tennis tournament. Compare two photos side by side. Pick a dinner. Delete the loser. Walk this down to 1 photo for that scene and be amazed at how much better that photos is than the one you thought you were going to get.
> Also, what are peoples throw away rates like? If I go out for a day with the camera and take say 20 photos. I might save 1.
If you have people in the photos, then keeping one in twenty for a day of shooting is a very high and unnecessary precious keep rate ( please don't take it the wrong way ).
It's also great for static things with too little light and no tripod. With enough attempts, at least one of them will be a lot less blurry than the average.
In good light with static objects, I'll take a handful of shots even of the same framing. Even though one "would be enough", and nobody would notice anything wrong with it, if you take a bunch and compare them you can get rewarded greatly. The focus will never sit in the exact spot.
I'd recommend consuming A LOT of photography if you want to get better. Pick a subject matter you want to get good at (landscape? fashion? black and white portraits? etc.) and immerse yourself in the works of the greats of that field. Go to photo galleries, museums, etc., when looking at the picture try to imagine how the image was framed, what choices the photographers made; and then try to emulate a bit of what you see in your own photography.
> I don't understand at all the urge to take huge numbers of shots and sort them out later, when I can do it in my head before I press the shutter.
If you're commercially shooting a sporting event/wedding/etc., I can definitely see the value in that approach. Unless the client specifically requested a film shoot, and understood the tradeoffs that come with it, I wouldn't be comfortable shooting those kind of events in medium format.
Nice on you for going 4x5. The results are heavenly - I haven't dipped a toe in it yet because you start being very constrained by the weight + size + setup time of your gear...
Also study non-photographic books as well. I'm mostly interested in shapes and patterns, that's why I read architecture books as well.
BTW, for this learning purpose, I made a decision to only shoot film (mostly 35mm, sometimes medium format). I usually have the Nikon F2 and Minolta spotmeter ready in my bag. Whenever I feel bored at work, I grab my camera and wander around, looking for anything interesting.
By interesting, I mean anything. It doesn't have to be socially profound. It doesn't have to be 'decisive' ala Henri Carier-Bresson. It doesn't have to be dramatic like golden hour scene. Sometimes certain patterns in the window or a small crack in the well can be interesting too. You just need to see them carefully.
If I'm shooting 35mm, 10 out of 36 frames is good enough. Or if I'm shooting medium format, perhaps 5 or 6 out of 12.
Never immediately throw your bad photos. See if you can notice any mistakes/improvement possibilities.
Most of Ansel Adam's photos are crap. How am I so arrogant to say this? Because most of everyone's photos are crap. You just see the good ones.
This was true even in the film days. Read books by photographers who worked in the film era. 1 in 20 is a pretty good rate.
Otherwise it's very comprehensive.
Generally I just go by feel when composing, but these guidelines do match my photographic instincts.