35+ Rules and Guiding Principles in Photography


A primary question in photography is, “What is composition”? Photo composition governs the manner in which our eyes travel through an image. It defines how objects within an image are placed relative to each other in such a way that generates visual excitement. Used correctly, it transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Over time, various rules or norms have developed that determine the best relationship among these elements. Composition is the established roadmap that guides our eyes through the details of a photograph and gives primary importance to the subject in relation to the supporting elements. Since the early heliographic engraving in 1825, a system of visual themes has been documented. These patterns of the masters have developed into a system of rules or guidelines.

The term “unbreakable rule” is an oxymoron at best. If rules are made to be broken, then why do we have them? However, my favorite quote about them is as follows: “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.” In photography, our rules are important, yet at the same time unimportant. A great image surpasses all rules, yet sometimes a broken rule completely destroys a photo.

In photography, we have two rather distinct levels of rules. Some are guides. Others are suggestions. Some are major. Others are minor. The issue is that we do not really know which ones are which. Only the end result, the photo, determines if the rule was important. However, the approach of the amateur differs from that of the experienced photographer. The novice should study the masters, review the rules, and see when their rejection makes the image.

Rules Perhaps Left Unbroken

The first category consists of rules that should perhaps never be broken, or at best, sparingly. These are rules that relate to infractions that somehow jump out of a photo and cry “snapshot.”

1. White balance, Image Sharpness, and Proper Exposure. These are critical!

Way too blue.

2. Straight Horizon Line: Thirty degrees crooked can be fine, but three degrees off is always bad.

Crooked horizon line – Definitely not good

3. Separate Subject From Background: This is done by either utilizing depth of field or exposure density.

Depth of field – Controlling it and then ignoring it!

4. Border Patrol: As you finish post-processing, survey around the border of your photo. Are there any distractions there? Content Aware them away.

Content Aware can be a photographic life saver (for certain genres of photography).

5. Overly Strong Post-Processing: The entire photo need not have strong changes. Use a layer mask, and paint in non-affected areas from the original. This is especially true for faces.

Over post processing is easy – Taking breaks while working in post is important.

6. Hands and Feet Whether animal or human, if you show knees or elbows, you better show feet and hands.

Clipping of a foot and a hand – never good!

7. Travel into the Photo: If the subject is running, sailing, or traveling, simply make sure it is in the direction towards the center of the image. A photo where the subject is leaving the image simply says the area behind the moving subject is not that important.

Moving towards the center

8. Selective Color: As Scott Kelby says, “Nothing says 1980 like selective color.” The point here is that just because Photoshop allows one to use selective color does not mean it is a good idea to do so. It is simply dated.

Selective color – We all do it, but perhaps we shouldn’t.

9. Square Things Up: When the geometry of buildings is a key to your photo, make sure parallel lines remain parallel. As with horizon lines, a little off is usually bad, but way off is acceptable.

Squaring up – This relates to a matter of degrees

Techniques or Guidelines to Always Consider

This second list consists more of a series of established techniques rather than rules. These are guides and approaches that are pleasing to the eye. They are not a must, but understanding their power and influence is essential for any photographer.

10. Rule of Thirds: This gives the photo a place to breathe, yet some photos cry out to be centered.

The Rule of Thirds establishes the placement of the tower.

11. Horizon Line: Keep the horizon line of your photo away from the middle of the image. Place it on the first or second guideline from the Rule of Thirds.

Using the Rule of Thirds for the horizon line

12. Rule of Odds: Three objects in a photo are helpful in preventing the viewer from dividing the image into halves.

Three is better than two.

13. Point of View: Normally the point of view is directed straight at the subject. Altering it forces the viewer’s brain to actively focus which creates an added interest in the photo.

Looking down from a distance or looking up close changes the entire relationship with the subject.

14. Leading Lines: Have your major lines lead the viewer to the subject rather than branch away from the point of interest.

Leading lines draw one into the image

15. Symmetry: Providing symmetry in a strange way actually tricks the viewer into seeing two related images, which increases the strength of the photo.

Two images form one. Symmetry within the Ferris wheel, the train, and the buildings actually contribute to a sense of triple symmetry.

16. Fill the Frame: All areas of the image should complement or enhance the subject.

Filling the frame

17. Balancing Elements: With photos that involve an off-centered subject, place something in the vacant section of the photo to enhance or balance the photo.

The subject on the right is balanced on the left.

18. Left to Right: This is one of those subtle suggestions that as we in the West read from left to right, the action in our photos should also go from left to right.

Moving as we read

19. Patterns: In photos where the subject is basically geometric, make sure the lines and angles again complement each other.

Symmetry in a city

20. Children: The rule here is simple. Hit a knee! Eye-level with an adult is different from that of a child. Shooting down at children is usually bad unless it is exaggerated.

Be on the level of the child

21. Backgrounds: Always be aware of your backgrounds. Strange colors, out of place objects, and misdirected light can distract the focus away from the subject. The purpose of the background is to complement and draw attention solely to the subject.

The importance of backgrounds

22. Framing: Whether with a scene or a portrait, sometimes careful framing can bring the eyes of the viewer directly to the focus of the photo.

Framing the subject

23. Depth or Flatness in the Image: The problem is when neither is obtained.

Depth of images controlled

24. Centering the Dominant Eye: If the dominant eye is centered in the image, it gives the effect that the subject is following the viewer around the room.

The centering of the dominant eye

25. Cropping: Many photos, like those involving sports, require a tight crop. The emotions and actions are the keys to these photos, so crop tight.

Cropping for the action

26. Control of Colors: Be aware of colors as you shoot. Coordinate the colors in the image. Learn what colors work together and which do not. On the color wheel, opposite colors are complementary and work well together.

Subject color related to object color

27. Geometry: The creative use of geometric shapes in a photo helps create dynamic tension between the subject and the background. However, do not overdo it!

The geometry of a city.

28. Juxtaposition: This is when the photographer uses two items together within an image to illustrate contrast or similarities.

Each image has either contrasting or similar features with help draw the viewer’s eye in more closely.

29. The Quest for Emotion: Emotion is what separates the smile from the human condition. It should always be the ultimate goal.

An image that elicits joy or sorrow in the heart of the viewer is key.

30. Simplicity: Many times the photographer can overthink the process, and the result becomes confused. Sometimes the best is “simply simple.”

Not complicated, not complex, but simple.

31. Having Fun: Look for those unique aspects of culture that serve to make people laugh.

Fun with a camera.

32. World without Color: Seeing your surroundings in Black and White with the absence of color allows an inner beauty to come to the forefront. Sometimes color can conceal the true nature of an image. B&W facilitates the return to the early days of photography.

Agra and Okinawa without color

33. Diagonal Lines: They help create interest as they provide avenues for the eye to travel through the image. They also add a feeling of action which makes the image more dramatic.

Pathways through the image

34. Negative Space: There is a large portion of empty area surrounding the main subject which aids in highlighting the important positive space. Together, negative and positive spaces define the image.

Negative or purposely unused space to accentuate the subject

35. Sun Behind You: In the early days of film photography, when all one had was a camera with a set meter and slow film, this was perhaps the golden rule. However, now the reverse is probably true. Today for portraits or scenic shots, the photographer generally wants open shade or the sun on an angle. With careful utilization of post-processing, one should not be afraid of having the sun behind you. Highlights can be controlled and shadows opened.

Controlling the sun in front

Some Subjects Better left Unphotographed

There are some subjects that we all shoot that are over time better left alone. This is something Scott Kelby talks about in relation to railroad tracks, dogs, and street people. The reason for the first two is perhaps simply because they are shot so often. However, while shooting people down on their luck, the question is more related to a sense of intrusion and respect. They are also the low-hanging fruit of street photography.

When photographers take a photo of someone living on the street, they are acquiring something of value to themselves, yet leaving nothing to the poor subject. Personally, this is something I do at times only after interacting with the people and giving them something in return – like a meal. We get a photo, and the subject gets food.

One modern-day item can be added to the no-shoot list. This relates to people on phones! These images are definitely becoming commonplace. Every street photographer has them. They can also be added to the items that are the low-hanging fruit of street photography. Shooting someone on a phone anywhere is beyond easy. We all shoot them, but we have to realize that they are becoming visually routine.

These are the only two phone photos I ever show. The reason is the color coordination in the first and the angle of view in the second.

Scott also talks about not shooting dogs or cats unless they are obviously part of an assignment. However, sometimes a picture of a canine or feline actually becomes a portrait.

Rover and Kitty


Whether we consider the above as a collection of rules or techniques, they are important for all photographers to consider in the creative process. Sometimes it is only a matter of taking a few steps left or right. Those few steps, however, can be the key to a dynamic photograph.

Lastly, the paramount rule for any photographer is to study the works of others. Whether it is Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, or the fellow photographers in your club, it is important to see how others tackle the creative process. The greatest school of photography is an extensive collection of Photo Books. The goal is to establish your own photographic vision, and this can only be obtained by studying the visions of others.

About the author: Charles Levie is a photographer and math educator based in West Friendship, Maryland. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Levie’s work on his website, Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram. This article was also published here.

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