10 Rules for Beginner Photographers: An Easier Path to Great Photos

I think photography educators teach and talk about photography to beginners in an overly complicated way. It’s all concepts, jargon, theories, and numbers. It should be focused on composition and how to take ‘better’ photographs as this is what most beginners join courses to learn.

I think what should come first is a few simple rules, so people can be enjoying making better photographs than they did previously without having to know complicated concepts.

This article is probably more about my shortcomings as a lecturer/teacher/instructor than anything else. Most photography courses start with the exposure triangle, now I don’t know about you but this thing to me years to understand, I’m not ashamed to admit that. I think I only truly understood it in depth when I had to teach it to others. I feel this is often the case for a lot of subject areas in photography.

Now I’m not saying for a second that the exposure triangle is unimportant, I think it is crucial, but maybe knowing it at the start is not.

It’s a cryptic Illuminati-looking triangle that has whole numbers on one side, fractions on another, and decimal numbers on the final axis. It is often indecipherable to people when they first look at it. For people who struggle with mathematics, it is an absolute nightmare.

The exposure triangle in photography that shows the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Illustration by WClarke and Samsara and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

I have seen so many puzzled faces over the last few years when I’ve been teaching the exposure triangle. To be totally honest I think opening with this on the first lesson of a part-time photography course, really puts people off. It can be very intimidating.

People do not want to understand optics or physics, they don’t want to know the zone system, they don’t want to be Ansel Adams, they’ve never even heard of Ansel Adams, they just want well lit, well composed, sharp pictures.

The book Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs by Henry Carroll has it right, but I think it’s one of the best if not the best books out there for beginners. It puts composition first and it includes works by some of the great photographers of our time. This is better for students’ visual education than some instructional photograph illustrating a concept or rule.

Start with composition and then build the technical stuff around this. If you give people, a few composition rules or ideas and then make sure they keep the shutter speed at around 1/125 to avoid motion blur and watch them grow.

I’ve been trying to distill basic photography teaching down to a short list of things I could teach my mother or my niece or my niece’s dog over the course of rain Sunday afternoon, and this is what I’ve got so far.

Hopefully this reads like a 12 Rules For Life but less complicated and controversial.

10 Rules for Beginner Photographers

Rule 1. Hold the camera properly. Hold it with both hands and close to you. DO NOT hold at arm’s length.

Rule 2. Use the viewfinder (if it has one). Do not use the LCD screen. DO NOT hold at arm’s length.

Rule 3. ISO: How low can you go? Go as low as you can go without introducing camera shake (see Rule 4).

Rule 4. Shutter speed: 1/125 and above for everything. It gets rid of camera shake. The smaller the fraction the faster the motion captured can be. If you start to use longer lenses, then use the reciprocal rule in order to eliminate any camera shake: make sure the shutter speed is at least as fast as the reciprocal of the focal length you’re using (i.e. one divided by that number).

Rule 5. Do not shoot in manual mode. It’s too complicated for you, you don’t need to know it. If Martin Parr doesn’t bother using it, why should you?

Rule 6. Composition: Study. Look at great photographers, study the history of photography, study all the other visual arts. Think about what is in the frame and what is not in the frame. If in doubt, see Joel Meyerowitz.

Rule 7. It’s all in the edit. I mean edit in both senses of the word — edit as in cut out the crap pictures and edit as in learn how to post process.

Edit: Robert Frank took around 28,000 photographs for The Americans. The final book contains 83 pictures. I’ve worked it out – 99.7% of that project was left on the cutting room floor or in this case, the darkroom floor.

Edit: Post processing is easier and smarter than ever. With AI and computational photography swiftly advancing. Photoshop, Capture One, Affinity, Gimp, learn how to use one or several. It’s not cheating and anyone who tells you it is either a liar or a bad photographer or both. People have been ‘editing’ photos in the darkroom since early in photography’s history. Photography is not reality it just looks a lot like it. Learn how to do it well and don’t make it obvious.

Rule 8. Point the camera at something you care about. Whether that is yourself, your family, friends, your pets, a burning injustice, a burning car, a classic miniature car. Alec Soth puts it best: “Try everything. Photojournalism, fashion, portraiture, nudes, whatever. You won’t know what kind of photographer you are until you try it.”

Rule 9. Technique is sometimes subjective. Think of Robert Frank’s use of unconventional framing and exposure in The Americans and his later near total deconstruction of the medium. Or Trent Parke and Narelle Autio pushing film to its limits to create the grainy, high contrast images in The Seventh Wave.

Rule 10. Break the rules.

About the author: Liam George Collins is a photographer and teacher living in Kendal, the gateway town to England’s beautiful Lake District. He is a Lecturer in Photography at Kendal College. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram.

Image credits: Header illustrations from Depositphotos