Learn these three rules of photography for better images

January 7, 2021

Well writers, here we are, 2021.

Yeah, we’re carrying over so much of what made 2020 awful. Nonetheless, the calendar change is a time of optimism. We begin anew. This will be the year we finish that manuscript, the year we land an agent.

And the year we make our photos better. Right?

We all know by now that being a writer means more than composing good stories, drafting and redrafting, and precision grammar. We have to build platform, and for many of us, we’re also building an audience online.

Writing used to be such a quiet, contemplative exercise. And it still is. I’m typing alone at a desk in my basement with headphones on, not because I’m playing music, but because I can hear my children running around upstairs acting like crazy people.

Today, though, we have to think about marketing ourselves as writers and our writing with intensity. The pressure to build platform is enormous. How many Instagram followers do fellow writers have? Oi, I have some catching up to do.

Since so much of what we do as writers includes non-writing activities like taking photos and posting them on social platforms, I want to share with you three foundational rules of photography you can put to good use during the year ahead.

These are applicable no matter what. If you rely on a cellphone or a fancy new camera showed up under the Christmas tree will all the features a budding image maker could want, these are tried and true rules.

Well, calling them “rules” isn’t quite right. Think of them as skills.

Rule of Thirds

Yeah, okay, I said these aren’t “rules.” But this one kinda is.

This is about as well-known, respected, and disregarded a “skill” in photography as they come. For writers wishing to up their photo game, it’s also one of the most important ones to learn and master.

At its most basic, the Rule of Thirds is about composition.

If you look through a viewfinder, imagine a set of vertical lines running through what you see, dividing it up into three columns. Now, also imagine a set of horizontal lines doing the same, breaking up what you see into three parallel planes.

The image above shows what I mean. You can see how the photo is broken into thirds both horizontally and vertically. And it’s no accident that I placed the boy’s eyes across one of the horizontal planes. Also, he’s perfectly situated in the center third column.

Here’s another example of the Rule of Thirds at work:

I photographed Autumn, a high school field hockey player, at her high school field just as the sun was setting. See where I placed her in the frame? And what’s equally important is she’s looking to her right (our left), and so I wanted to place her on the right vertical line, thus leaving space to the left. Why? Because it gives you a sense of what and where she’s looking.

When you go to photograph something today, start experimenting with the Rule of Thirds. The more you do, the more this becomes an instinct, and your image composition will improve.

Think about your background and foreground

Ah, yes, the three dimensions of an image. As one of this photographer’s favorite inspirations once said, in summary, to begin making better images, you have to think three dimensionally.

What he meant was this — The three dimensions are subject, background, and foreground.

The subject is easy to define. It’s what or who you’re photographing. Simple enough.

Where things begin to get really interesting, though, is on the matter of background and foreground. Let’s tackle background first.

Background is like the crust of a pie. The filling is like the subject, which of course, is the main ingredient of any pie. But pie filling without a crust isn’t a pie. It’s just filling. A good pie though combines great filling with delicious crust.

See where I’m going with this?

Background can make your subject pop, especially if the background is darker than the subject. That’s why when I’m photographing people, I’m always looking for shadows, especially if I’m outside. I look for shadows in the leaves of trees.

Backgrounds give you a sense of place, where the subject is and what’s happening. Think of it as your story’s setting or context.

But background isn’t the only element of composition you can use to give someone a sense of where the subject is and what’s happening. You can also use the foreground.

Look for something you can shoot through — a bush, a broken fence, rocks, an open door.

Take a look at this image of a groom on his wedding day reading a letter from his soon-to-be-bride:

Vernau Wolverton Wedding

Shooting through the door gives a sense of catching a fleeting moment, like you caught it out of the corner of your eye and you’ve turned to see what’s going on. And it also provided a sense of place. The wedding took place in an old farmhouse, which you can get a sense of given the lighting and the flooring and the furniture.

So think not just about the subject but how you can use background and foreground to provide context.

Understand your light source (and add some if you need to)

If you’re beginning to detect a theme on this site, it’s this – take your time.

The camera in your hand is a tool that you control; it does not control you. The application of that principle is to understand what you’re seeing, what you’re trying to create, and to go about doing all the things you need to do to create it.

And that means understanding light.

Josue and Michelle

I’m by no means an expert on the science of light.

But I do understand how natural light is cooler in tone compared to incandescent light bulbs, how the distance a subject is from a light source determines contrast, how to soften sharp light, when a subject requires harsh light, and when to add light.

Using light, manipulating it creatively, it’s really not all that hard to learn. But it does take practice. Lot’s of it.

Practice begins without even taking a single photo. Train your eye to see every situation — a family member reading a book in your living room, riding on a train, your child swimming in the ocean, sitting around a bonfire — as an opportunity to analyze light.

Ask yourself — if you had a camera in hand, what would you do with the light? Add some? Take some away (yes, you can do this)? Change your angle? Change where your subject sits or stands? What would you do?

You control what your camera sees. Remember that.

Take your time and determine what you need from a light source. Photography is the capture of light. Without it, you don’t have an image, just a dark screen.

Light is the paint. You can use it to make something dramatic, dreamy, dark, or any number of other adjectives. Light is how a photographer develops his or her style (along with a lot of other things). Use it to your advantage.

As you journey into 2021, work on these three rules of photography composition — the Rule of Thirds, think about your background and foreground, and understand how to use light.

You will immediately begin to take with greater consistency photos you can be proud of and gain a sense of control over your image making abilities.

I look forward to seeing what you create.

Dave Pidgeon is a photographer who writes and a writer who photographs. He lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife, Alison, and their three children.

More about Dave Pidgeon

Dave is the author of PidgeonsEyeView.com and lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife and their three sons.

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