Learning the rules

I’ve been stymied the last few days about my response to the Find Your Eye prompt about exploring the rules I use for photography, especially in the context of how those rules might limit my creative expression. The objective of the exercise was to evaluate those rules to determine their usefulness for me at this point in my photographic adventure.

After much thought, I finally decided that I don’t know the basic rules of photography well enough to even apply them, never mind modifying or discarding them. So, instead, I’ve set myself the task of reviewing the several photographic books I have in order to glean from them photographic rules that I can use to develop my technical skills, keeping in mind as I go the goal of creative expression in the images I take.

I built a simple matrix to record the rules I find and my reaction to them. Here’s the first entry:

Rule Source Reaction/Evaluation
Set camera up for expected conditions and/or desired results (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, mode) Personal experience[this will usually be the author’s last name and a page # reference] From the school of hard knocks: I discovered when I downloaded some photos from a short downtown walk that I hadn’t re-set the white balance of my camera from fluorescent to something more appropriate for outdoor shooting (in this case, cloudy). Fortunately I was shooting in raw and was able to adjust the white balance during post-processing. Note to self: check camera settings; shoot with intention.

I hope this process will also help me better understand some of the terms and conventions of photography. One example is f-stops: I’ve always been confused that small number f-stops (e.g., f/4) indicate a large diameter lens opening while large number f-stops (e.g., f/22) indicate a small diameter lens opening. Reviewing Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure over the weekend, I came across a discussion on the topic that included the following formula: 

lens focal length




diameter of lens opening





















Learning about this formula and then taking a few minutes to apply it has made a huge difference for me. I now have a mental image of this formula and if I get confused again, I’ll be able to visualize the result of dividing a lens’s focal length by the f-stop to determine the diameter of the lens opening. Talk about a liberating moment! Having settled this one question for myself, I now have renewed enthusiam for learning other photographic concepts and techniques.

As I contemplated this assignment, I came across a quote that summarizes my self-imposed rule-seeking exercise:

It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them. ~T. S. Eliot

And another more aspirational quote that I hope to successfully apply one day:

There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs. ~Ansel Adams

2 thoughts on “Learning the rules

  1. Great, great thoughts. It sounds like you made a breakthrough here, even if you struggled a bit at first. Having that “a-ha” moment on f-stop is probably worth everything! I’ve found that my learning is always a spiral. I go around learning what I can, and then when revisit a topic, I always find something new that builds upon what came before. Wonderful quotes too!

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