Rules for Good Photography

I think now, more than ever, it’s hard to tell what makes a “good picture.”

Photography, like all art, is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc, etc. And with Photoshop becoming such an integral part of the work process, it’s getting to the point where the old “rules” for good photography are being tossed out the window. I think that’s just fine, and I’ll tell you why.

Before I became the world-famous photographer that we all know and love, I was a Disc-Jockey. I worked in radio and nightclubs all over the country and was a firm believer in the “rules” that govern the trade (that’s right, there are rules). For example, when working a nightclub, you start with a song that has a low “beats per minute” count. Then, you mix into a song that’s a little faster, then another one faster still, until you eventually have reached a plateau and your dance floor is really dancing fast. Then, you drop back down to a slower song and start all over again. Your dancers wander over to the bar to get refreshed (cha-ching!).

At one point in my career I was hired to open a nightclub in Dallas and was having a meeting with the corporate DJ (yes, there is such a thing) and the other DJ who would be working the club with me. At one point during the meeting, the corporate guy made reference to the natural progression of the dance floor and the other jock said, “Why?”

At first I thought, “Oh my God, this guy doesn’t know how to spin.” I was wrong.   He knew all the rules, he just didn’t believe they were always necessary.   “Why can’t you jump all over the place with the music, as long as it works?” he asked. I thought he was nuts. That’s not the way it worked.

You can probably guess what happened next. We opened the club and I followed the rules while the other DJ went nuts, reacting to the crowd, trying new things, etc. It didn’t always work but when it did it was awesome … unlike any other club in town. Suddenly  I was forced to realize that whatever works is the right thing. Our nightclub soon got a reputation as a “party place” because you never knew what would happen next, you just knew it would be fun and fresh. I quickly began to toss out the rules I had lived by for so long.

Whenever I find myself critiquing a photograph I remember that experience. It’s important to know the rules because they will help you take better pictures, but they are only a starting point. From there you must find your own way and develop a style that is unique to you. If that means that you blow-out the highlights or crop outside the grid … so be it. If your photography sells and is liked by your clients, then it’s good. Even if it’s not well received, it’s still yours. This is one of the reasons that I never participate in group critique on a photography website. I can’t tell you how to make your picture better, only how to make it more like something I took, which isn’t necessarily better!

Take my favorite pet peeve: Selective color. I’m not a fan. I think it is overused and almost always done poorly. I frequently get the impression that the photographer has done it simply because they can and it adds one more “creative” image to the mix.   “Ohhh…. the picture is black and white but the flowers are in color!”   That’s fine where the flowers are the focus of the shot but I see it so many times where the flowers are just a tiny part (my personal favorite is the full formal wedding party picture with just the flowers in color). But here’s the thing:   I don’t make the rules. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s “bad”… just that I don’t like it.   Every great artist has been told that they were wrong to paint the way they did.   “Selective Color” may be the next big thing for all I know.

My point to this whole rambling post is this:   Don’t always follow the rules. Don’t always believe that everyone else knows more about what’s “good” than you do (unless it’s me because I am the bomb).   And, be careful when you ask for advice because any critique you receive will be specific to that person’s personal style, not yours.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Great post. One rule I never follow is getting the white balance accurate, because I always end up changing it to whatever I think looks the prettiest in Photoshop. Sometimes I try to get the white balance how I like in-camera, but it’s usually not accurate.

  2. The white balance issue is something I am on the fence about quite often myself. When shooting events, it’s just pointless because the light is changing so much that you are going to have to fix it in post anyway. When doing portrait work in studio I will usually set a proper balance because nothing changes. Even with proper balance I still do some fine tuning on anything I print.

  3. I agree about don’t using web to get critiques. But use web to market yourself instead he he he..

    Anyway, I still believe it is essential to get a mentor or a role model where you can look up and learn from. Without that, you will feel your work is excellent because you like it. But a lot of time, it is not the case.

    It is hard to get a good mentor, if you have one, you’re lucky 🙂

  4. I think there HAVE to be “rules”, in the sense that good pictures have something in common that helps you distinguish them from less-good pictures.

    (If all good pictures were completely unique, there would be no way to make sense of them and no point to the exercise of trying to make them.)

    The kicker is that your rules may be completely different from someone else’s, so the only way to discover them is for yourself. The only way I’ve found to do that is to set aside some time a few times per year and look really hard at pictures I’ve made that I like — to try to analyze WHAT I liked about them, in hopes of finding ways to make more like them.

    It’s a somewhat grueling process, and sometimes produces completely inexplicable surprises (I wrote about this recently on my blog: )

    But in my experience, it seems to be the only way to get anywhere — assuming your goal in photography is personal artistic development, as opposed to, say, sales success. (If your goal is sales success, you need to be studying your customers to find out what they consider a salable picture… a somewhat easier task, since your success at guessing it can be measured in dollars.)

    Maybe this is the mark of a giant ego, but generally I haven’t found studying other photographers’ work as useful, except maybe for identifying directions I don’t like. Of course there are other photographers whose work I DO like, but analyzing their pictures doesn’t seem to tell me much that I can use for myself — possibly because I can’t compare their intentions to their results, the way I can with my own pictures.

    So yes, it’s a very hard job. But on the other hand, we’ve got our whole lives as artists to do it! And what else would we be supposed to do with our time?

    PS — I suppose a good mentor might help; I wouldn’t know because I’ve never had one. But doesn’t that simply shift the question from, “What is a good photograph?” to “What is a good mentor?”

  5. I couldn’t have come across this article at a more perfect time. I recently joined a photo critique group in hopes of receiving constructive criticism on a few photos. I can’t believe how CRITICAL some people can be, especially without knowing a photographer’s true intention. Once a photographer picks apart my photos, I get a chance to view and critique theirs. Sometimes I like the pictures, other times I feel indifferent about them, and can honestly say I don’t know HOW to critique them. What am I even looking for? I find that what I tend to focus on is not the true subject matter. Does that always matter?

    If half the comments I receive are negative and the other half positive, what am I to believe? It’s so frustrating and a bit discouraging as a new photographer because I just want to produce great photos. I think I need to join a different group.

  6. First, examine the true purpose of the critique. For example, if you asked me to critique a photograph I would first want to know what it’s for… what it’s supposed to “be.” You can’t critique a Jackson Pollack painting the same way you would a Monet or a Rembrandt. You can’t critique an image intended for a wedding client the same way as a boudoir or something that is supposed to be more abstract.

    You are dead-on about knowing the intent of the photographer. I think the best critique you can get is from someone who you are trying to emulate (to a certain degree). Ask them, “What would you have done differently.” Then decide if you like the idea or not.

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