Use ‘The Two-Minute Rule’ To Create More Interesting Photos

Click. Press the playback button. Look at photo. “Mehhhh.” We’ve all had it happen — the photo on the back of our camera does not match the vision or intent we had when we clicked the shutter button. To help myself in these situations, I follow “the two-minute rule” to create more interesting photos.

I’ll get to how I use those two minutes… in a minute. But first, what are interesting photos?

“Interesting photos” is a framework I use to evaluate and critique my photos that revolves around the goal of creating photos that hold the attention by being unique, rare, or different. The building blocks of interesting photos are subject, light, composition, and processing. Each of these building blocks can be evaluated individually and collectively to assess the level of uniqueness, rarity, or difference in the overall photo. It is common to have one element carry the weight of interest in the photo, such as with an amazing sunset where the light does all the work of creating interest and almost any composition or subject will look interesting in that light.

My usual reaction to not liking the photo on the back of the camera was to move on to a different photo. I’ve learned from experience that is usually a mistake. Here’s why: when we take the time to create a photo, it is usually because something has drawn our attention. We’ve noticed, consciously or unconsciously, something interesting. The challenge now is to create a photo that reflects that interest that originally got our attention.

Rather than being overwhelmed with options for how to potentially create an interesting photo, I give myself two minutes to see what I can discover with my camera and this scene. Working in two-minute increments is enough time to explore possibilities, and feels like an easy investment of time that is not overwhelming. If you’re with other people, it’s also lots easier to ask for two more minutes than for a half hour. Just don’t tell them you might be asking for two more minutes ten times.

Here’s the mental checklist I run through when using the two-minute rule:

Technical Stuff

  • Is the photo sharp and in focus?
  • Is the part of the photo I want in focus?
  • Is the exposure where I want it? When in doubt, go a little brighter, a little darker and “just right”

Composition Stuff

  • Are there any distracting elements in the frame? If yes, can they be physically moved? Faster to remove in processing?
  • Is the subject where I want in the frame? Different framing options? Vertical? Horizontal?
  • Can I create a more interesting perspective on the subject? Closer? Farther away? Above? Below? Light behind? Where else could I move the camera and my feet?
  • Depth of field check: Do I want, and can I get, background blur? Change aperture to change focus of photo.
  • Appearance of motion: Could I use motion of subject or camera to tell a more interesting story. Adjust shutter speed as needed to achieve desired appearance of motion.
  • Would a different focal length (wider or more telephoto) help create interest?

Processing Stuff

  • Have I created an exposure that is within range of correction in software?
  • Can I crop out distractions/unwanted elements without compromising composition?
  • Are distractions removable in software? Recompose to hide/avoid?

Creative Options

  • Could HDR help technically or aesthetically?
  • Multiple exposure?
  • Tripod for long exposure and potential motion blur?

Running through this mental checklist (feel free to print one out and add your own items!) goes quickly with a little practice. When all the questions are answered and options have been tried — and the two minuter timer has concluded — it’s time to look at the images that have been created. I suggest doing a sharpness check by zooming in to 100% to check focus on the camera screen before moving on to a new composition. Remember, we can fix and adjust color and exposure, but we can’t fix sharpness with software. Yet…

What happens when the two minutes are up and you still haven’t created the image you want? I think there are three basic options. First, try another two minutes. In the image sequence below, I created 73 photos in 17 minutes, as I went through my two-minute checklist several times.

Second, realize that this photo just may not be happening right now. Maybe you need more interesting light, or a different lens, or something else is missing right now and a return visit might be needed to create the photo you imagine. And third, sometimes a scene is interesting to look at, but may not create an interesting photo in the conversion from real-world to the two-dimensional world of the photograph. If that’s the case, enjoy the moment(s) and what was learned about the creative photographic process.

The next time you look at the back of the camera to review a photo and think, “Mehhhhh,” remember that something drew you to the scene in the first place, and you may just need two minutes to discover it.

About the author: Michael Sladek teaches digital photography at Highline College near Seattle, Washington. He enjoys dad jokes, doughnuts, and helping others discover the fun of creating photos they love. Stay connected with Michael on his website, YouTube channel, and Instagram.