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Once upon a time if you wanted to take a photo you had to actually know how to take a photo. There were photography rules you had to follow. There were all these settings on the camera that required you to know what they meant or else you were likely to get back a bunch of dark and out of focus photos and those memories that you thought you captured were lost forever.

The good old days of film photography! Thankfully today’s technology allows everyone the ability to take good photos. However, if you want to take GREAT photos or if you plan on using a digital camera and not just your phone, then learning some basic photography rules is a must. You still have to know what all those settings mean and how to use them. At the same time, sometimes those rules can be broken.

Photography Rules: Lighting

Probably one of the most important photography rules is lighting. Lighting is everything! Without light there is no photo and if the lighting isn’t right it can throw the whole photo off. When you’re taking photos, whether it’s with a camera or your phone, pay attention to where the light is coming from. Watch for shadows and harsh light. Direct light is usually harsh and way too bright, especially on people.

You don’t want to put your family or friends facing the sun. They’ll have to squint their eyes and the photo just won’t turn out well. Of course, sometimes there is no way around this. We can’t move the waterfall. We could have shown up at a different time in the day though and the sun would not have been so harsh. Sometimes it’s more important to capture the moment. Just be aware of harsh light.

El Salvador Waterfall - Photography rules of lighting

Instead, look for spots where direct sunlight is blocked by trees or buildings. That’s hard to do if you’re on the beach but you can still put your subject facing away from the sun. In the case below, we were wearing hats which did help some so that the lighting on our face was not harsh. You can see some harsh light across our arms. But I think the hats saved the photo because our faces are fine.

La Libertad Beach in El Salvador - Photography Rules

Photography Rules: Focus

The second photography rule to remember is focus. Pay attention to what you’re taking photos of. These days we’re always in such a hurry to “get the shot” that we just shoot a ton and hope for the best. I’m guilty of it at times too. Take time to look around at what you want to photograph and set your shot up. Make sure what you actually want to photograph is in focus. If you’re in a big hurry you might end up with the tree in the background in focus and your subject out of focus.

Just take a few extra seconds to look at your viewfinder or phone to make sure things are in focus. In the photos below, you can see where everything is in focus in the first image from the table on the patio to the church far away. In the second photo, I was focused on capturing the beer and bluring out the background. You still know that’s a church back there but your eye is drawn to whats in focus.

Photography Rules: Composition

The third photography rule is composition. Have you ever been drawn to a photo without knowing why? You look at the photo (or even a painting) and you know it’s great, you feel it, but you aren’t quite sure why. Chances are, the composition played a factor. Composition is about the angles, the perspective, and rule of thirds. There are a lot of “rules” to composition: symmetry, patterns, leading lines, framing, and more.

This aspect of photography rules is about taking your time to compose the image. Yes, sometimes you don’t have that luxury but if you do, take the time to compose the image. You’ll be so much happier with your final image. At the same time, don’t feel overwhelmed by this one. Rules are made to be broken. Sometimes.

In the photos below, you can see how the close up photo of the waterfall is less interesting than the one from far away. In the further away photo you can see the river of water that comes from the waterfall (leading lines). This makes it a much more interesting photo.

Photography Rules: The Subject

The fourth photography rule is your subject. It’s real easy to just snap away at everything you see without thinking about what you’re taking a photo of. Then you’re left with hundreds or thousands of photos that have no real meaning. Take the time to make sure there’s something special about what you want to photograph.

You can take a photo of the ocean or you can take a photo of a fisherman standing in the water trying to catch something. Which one will be more interesting? Plan your images. Think about what is making you want to take that picture. What is it about your subject that makes you want to take a photo. It could be as simple as seeing someone, such as the fisherman, doing what they’re doing. But if you interupt them and get them to look at you and smile, well now the subject is less interesting.

In the photos below, the one with the boat is just more interesting than the one of just the water.

Photography is both simple and hard at the same time. It’s incredibly easy to push the button on your camera of the scene or subject but without knowing photography rules, you might not get a great photo. Take your time and practice these rules. After a while, you won’t even have to think about it anymore. It will all just come naturally and you’ll know what to do or not do to get a great photo.

Read about the photo gear I use when I travel.

Picture of canyon in Nevada - Take better photos - Photography Basics

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