Rules in Photography

I believe that the hardest things in photography is knowing which rules to use, when to use them, how to use them, and when to abandon them. Rules in photography can be a useful tool, but they can also hold your photography back from achieving true greatness.

Many moons ago, when I was an art student in college, the approach my university took to teaching art was to discuss concepts like design, narrative, emotion, etc… but to spend very little time on technique, and hardly any on composition rules. Just enough technique was taught so that we could achieve our goals, and composition was rarely taught as a set of rules, although we did discuss the effectiveness of composition during critique.

During those days, I felt that this approach was not very effective. After all, how can one create stunning works of art if one did not have the technical skill to do so? I took also classes at another art college nearby whose approach was far more technically-based, and where they spent significant time developing hand-eye coordination and teaching composition rules. I felt that my art improved far more at the technical college since I was able to apply the new techniques and composition guidelines to increase the aesthetic appeal of my works by leaps and bounds. In contrast, at the college I attended, improvement came about through a difficult process of experimentation and discovery, if it came at all.

It was only quite a bit later that I understood why my college took the approach they did. First, let me address the issue of technique. Technique is indeed extremely important, and having a great vision is pointless if you do not have the technical mastery to pull it off – you could compose a great symphony but you still need musicians with the ability to perform it or no one will ever hear it. I still believe that my college could have spent more time teaching technique to help us get to the point where we can execute the artistic vision that was in our heads. But on the second issue – composition rules, which is the topic of this blog, I think that they were absolutely correct, and here is why. Composition rules exist because many years ago, great art masters spent countless hours practicing their art, devoting their entire lives in pursuit of creating an aesthetically pleasing image, and talented artists would learn from their life’s work and build upon them, devoting their entire lives advancing the art even more. What we learned from these masters became the rules of composition.

Composition rules are a shorthand for how great images were historically made. Because you are drawing upon the life’s works of generations upon generations of prodigious master artists when you use the rules of composition, your work will often achieve a much higher standard of excellence when following these rules than if you had to go it alone. However, you cannot have composition rules for an artistic vision that has not yet been invented – they are a guide to how things have always been done, not how things could be done. One of our goals as artists is to discover new ways of envisioning and portraying the world, to communicate these new ideas in new ways to an ever-increasingly jaded audience, and to challenge our worldview. You cannot achieve this by following rules – in fact, to do so it is imperative that you break them. Composition rules are a guide to the past, a convenient shorthand of cultural memory, not an arrow to the future. Following rules will rarely result in works of greatness. I am not saying that you should not use composition rules as it is not necessary or desirable to reinvent the wheel each time your create an art piece; in fact, I feel that it would be very wasteful not to learn from the collected knowledge of all the great artists of the past. But in order to truly advance the art, you have to break the rules, not follow them. Hopefully, if you succeed, your ideas will then lead to a new set of rules for future generations to get inspiration from.

Mark Teng

Levels of Photographic Excellence

What makes a great photo? Is it a photo that personally means something to you? One that wins photographic contest? Is it on the cover of a magazine? Or hanging in a museum gallery? What if it was never seen, hidden in a moldy basement, can it still be great then?


When you look at an image, you consciously and subconsciously evaluate the image in many different ways. I tend to break down a photo’s merits by levels, from the most important to me, to the least. As with all things art-related, this is a personal subjective opinion, not meant to be taken extremely literally or rigidly, and is not always linear. Sometimes a work of photographic art can stand just because it has amazing color or tonality. However, I find this framework useful because there are times when you look at a photograph you just took, and you find yourself questioning why. Hopefully this will help. So from greatest consideration to lesser consideration, here are the levels of photographic excellence:


The Story

Not all photographs have a story, but many great ones do. I don’t really think of a story line when I look at an Ansel Adams landscape, although that is not to say it does not have one (everything can tell a story if you think about it hard enough). But when a photograph has a strong story to tell, it will stand above every other consideration of the photograph. Yes, composition, emotion, lighting, perspective, etc… still matter, but in the presence of a powerful story all these attributes of a photograph are subverted to tell the story. At the end of the day, if your photograph tells a story, then while various other elements (such as the mood lighting or unique perspective) may enhance the story , the story stands alone and will sell your photograph.



This category of excellence underlies all photography but is especially important to the artistic merit of a photography – the type of merit that gets a photography on the walls of your regional art museum. When you look at a photograph that has stood the test of time, that will be remembered across generations, it is not the excellent composition, beautiful printing, or stunning color that matter – all that is just craftsmanship. It is the ability of the photograph to say or show something that the world has never seen before in quite that way. When someone sees such a photograph for the first time, he is looking at something that will alter his perception of the world, think of things in a completely different light than he is used to, shock his sensibilities, question reality, see beneath the surface, find new meaning in old things, and/or all of the above.


Ability to Evoke an Emotional Response

In today’s world, we are inundated with photographic (and video-graphic) imagery on a constant basis, so much that we spend little time looking on any particular photograph and have a hard time remembering even the most technically well-crafted photograph moments after seeing them. One way that photographs can stick in our mind and overcome our inherited visual ennui is to provoke a strong emotional response. To provoke an emotional response, a photograph has to be relate-able, and also authentic. Photographs can remind us of ourselves, our memories, or our hopes and fears for tomorrow. A photograph that does not provoke any emotional response has little chance of being remembered.



This is where we start the transition from the high-level artistic merits of an image into the technical side of photography. The first three levels above speak to the very heart of an image and can allow a photograph to break any or all the technical rules and still be considered excellent – if your photograph tells a story, changes a viewer’s perception of the world, or evokes an emotional response, then it doesn’t really matter at all how it did it. However, from here on, we start to transition to the technical side of photography, i.e. elements that can make an image great, but do not guarantee greatness on their own, but when used effectively can achieve greatness, often by accomplishing one of the three levels of excellence above.

Composition is the technical heart of an image – it is the way your eye sees the world, and how you choose to present that view to others in the form of a photograph. There are literally dozens of composition “rules” such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, perspective, the golden ratio, the odd-number rule, etc… However, one should bear in mind that the purpose of defining these rules are an attempt to elucidate and enumerate the qualities that make a great photograph retroactively, rather than a rigid framework upon which to create photographs of merit. For example, the odd-number rules states that photographs with an odd-number of repetitive subjects is more interesting that one with an even-number of the same subjects. Why should this be the case? I doubt anyone knows for sure although some may try to find an explanation. What we do know is that more often than not, we find that a photograph with three birds in a row more interesting than a photograph with two or four birds in a row. On their own, composition rules have little meaning – why even take photographs of birds for instance, let along three birds? What if two birds in that particular image convey exactly what you want it to, and three would have been too many? For this reason, at best composition rules are guidelines. But while rules of composition are nothing more than general and fuzzy guidelines, composition itself is vitally important to almost every image because it is composition that determines how every element in an image is presented to the viewer – i.e. it is visual organization in a visual medium. Without careful composition, a image is disorganized and falls apart, even images that are meant to convey disorganization must be composed in a way to convey that disorganization.

Although portrait photographers consider posing an art unto itself, posing the human body is simply another form of composition, except that it is the human body that you are organizing in the photograph.


Tonal Quality (Light)

Photography is literally drawing with light. Therefore, light is absolutely vital to photography in that there can be no photography without it. A photograph can stand or fall based on its tonal qualities. Our eyes are drawn naturally to areas of highest contrast in an image (and not, as is the common wisdom, to areas of greatest brightness). In fact, without contrast, our eyes are quite poor at determining the value of any particular tone in an image, not least because ambient illumination plays a factor in our perception of local brightness values in an image. Areas of high contrast stand out in an image, whereas areas of lower contrast blend in.



Finally, color can play an important role in photography, primarily by conveying emotion and adding contrast. All colors have a particular emotional response based on our social memory of events or objects that are associated with that color. Red and orange hues are associated with warmth but also danger. Blue hues are associated with coldness. Yellow hues are cheerful, grey hues are subdued. A successful image uses color or the lack of color to its advantage. Not every image needs to be in color, and often a black and white image will convey the intent of the photographer better than an image in color. However, since we do see the world in color, a color photograph will always seem more natural to the human eye than a black and white one. Additionally, complementary colors can be used to create harmony in an image, and non-complementary colors can be used to create vibrancy and/or contrast in an image. Remember that when using colors to make sure that the colors in your palette convey the desired emotional response and to consider removing all color (by turning the photograph to black and white) if they detract from the photograph’s message.


Mark Teng,

Teng Photography, L.L.C.

New Camera Body or Lens?

You may have heard the old adage that it is better to upgrade your lenses than your camera body. If you ask the question on any photography forum which you should upgrade first, you will no doubt receive an overwhelming response that you should “invest” in lenses because they will give you the maximum increase in image quality and hold their value better to boot.

What is not often said is that this conventional wisdom is handed down from the film-era days, when the job of the camera body was significantly different from the modern day. In those days, your camera kit consisted of:

  • Camera body – an SLR or rangefinder camera whose principal job was to provide the mechanical instruments to hold and advance the film, open the shutter, mount the lens, and in more advanced bodies, provide light metering and autofocus capability. Other than these support functions, the camera body had very little (if any) impact on the image quality. If you used an external light meter and focused manually, the image quality was entirely dependent on the film and lenses you used, and the choice of camera body would be based on aesthetic and ergonomic preferences (not that those aren’t important factors, mind you).
  • Lenses – as with the modern day, film-era lenses focused light onto the recording medium (the film). Lens quality is critically important because imperfections in the glass can cause optical artifacts which are generally undesirable because they translate into distortions and imperfections in the final image. There is truth in the notion that lenses hold their value better than camera bodies, and lenses from the film-era days continue to be used in today’s cameras, sometimes without even the need of an adapter. However, lens design technology has progressed significantly since those days, and modern-day lenses are by-and-large technically superior to their film-era counterparts. This means that you can get still very usable film-era lenses at a substantial discount. Note that many people are fond of some of the characteristics of film-era lenses that might be seen as imperfections today and will actively seek out these retro lenses.
  • Film – this is where digital and film-era cameras diverge. Modern-day DSLRs house the recording medium in the camera body as a digital sensor. This sensor is fully integrated into the camera body, and the quality of the sensor directly impacts the quality of your final image. In the film era, film stock was the recording medium and was usually sold separately from the camera, so the camera body had little effect on the quality of the recording medium (and hence the final image quality) other than to dictate the size of the film sheet/strip that you could select. Because camera bodies had such limited impact on image quality in the film days, it was generally thought that money was better spent on upgrading camera lenses and high quality film than on upgrading the camera body. Today’s modern DSLRs on the other hand have sensors that greatly impact final image quality, since it is the sensors that determine the image resolution (megapixels), dynamic range, low light performance, noise, and color rendition, among other things.


So should you upgrade your camera body or lens first? Well, as with many things, that depends.

Firstly, you should always upgrade whatever needs to be upgraded first. What I mean by that is, if your camera body is good enough to do what you need it to, then there is no need to upgrade it as a priority. Of all the things that people tend to worry about when choosing a camera body, the number of megapixels usually tops the list. Megapixels is a measure of the resolution of the image file coming out of the camera, and affects how large you can print an image and how much you can crop into an image before you notice deterioration in image quality. If you want to print larger, then you need to provide greater resolution files to the printer, and this is most easily achieved by increasing the number of megapixels in the image file. However, generally speaking, it is the lens that most significantly affect factors such as image sharpness and contrast, two factors that most people are value highly in a final image. If you find that the image coming out of your camera is not tack sharp, and assuming you are already practicing proper shooting technique, then it is most often the lens to blame rather than the camera sensor. Also, each individual lens has different focal length and aperture ratio, and these attributes affect your ability to control perspective, depth of field, and framing in your image.

Therefore, my suggestion is to upgrade your camera body if you find that you are suffering from pixelation due to cropping in too tightly or from printing too large, or if you need non-image-quality-related improvements such as faster autofocus or shooting speed. Upgrade your lenses (or buy new ones) if you wish to increase image contrast and sharpness or if you want to shoot with a different perspective (e.g. a wider-angle lens to exaggerate near-far perspective, or a telephoto lens to compress distances). Buying specialty lenses can also allow you to shoot in ways that you have been unable to previously, such as very close to your subject at great magnification using macro lenses or by providing interesting effects (e.g. using Lensbaby or tilt-shift lenses).

One final thing to note: while it is true that lenses do generally hold their value better than camera bodies as they do not get outdated as quickly, remember that if you upgrade your camera body, it will affect the image quality of all of your images regardless of which lens you use, whereas if you upgrade a lens, it only affects images taken with that particular lens. Also, note that if you are a beginner, often the biggest upgrade gear-wise that you can get is neither lens nor camera body, but artificial light such as an off-camera flash. While it can be quite tricky to learn to use artificial lighting correctly, once mastered, it can make an enormous difference to your photography far beyond what upgrading your camera body or lens can provide. Of course, there are also non-gear-related ways to improve your photography, but that is the topic of another post.

Mark Teng.

Teng Photography, L.L.C.

Before You Buy – Tips on Researching Camera Gear

So you are interested in a new piece of gear: perhaps its a new camera body, or a used-but-still-good-condition lens that you found for a bargain on E-bay. However, you have no idea if the new item is actually an upgrade from what you already own: are you just suffering from a case of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) or will the new gear allow you to take better photographs?

Photography is both science and art, and therefore the reviews that you find on the Internet for photography gear can be both objective (science) and subjective (art). Some sites, such as DXOMark report measurable and repeatable statistics such as image resolution, dynamic range, and MTF charts. Others give you real-world usage feedback that can be more subjective, such as the ergonomics of a particular camera body or the color and skin tones coming out of a camera’s files.

So how exactly can you research a new piece of gear before making a potentially expensive purchasing decision?


Try Before You Buy

By far the best way to see if a you will like a new piece of gear is for you to actually take it for a test drive. If nothing else, you can try visiting a local camera store to handle the camera in person and see how it fits in your hand – a subjective matter that no amount of online research can adequately answer. Most larger metropolitan centers have local camera stores that stock popular camera bodies and lenses on display. For those of us living in the U.S., Best Buy recently introduced “Camera Experience Shops” that carry a much wider array of camera gear than the regular stores, and these can be a good way for you to try out that new camera you have been eyeing before buying. Better yet, Best Buy actually offers free photography education classes that you can register for each month at these special stores (check out: Best Buy Camera Experience Stores.) Now, if you find that you do like the camera or lens, I recommend that you do at least consider buying it at your local Best Buy since these camera experience stores can only exist if they continue to generate a profit for the parent company. And you do get to take the camera or lens home with you right away – no shipping delay.

If you live in a smaller town and don’t have access to a local camera store, you can still try out a piece of gear by borrowing or renting it. One way is to join a local camera club, which, by the way, can do wonders for your photography. You will generally find that fellow members will be quite helpful in gear advice and letting you try out their gear. One way to find a local camera club is through Meetup. A Google search for “camera clubs near me” could also yield several results. Another good place to find camera club flyers is at your local library, community center, or community college or university.

Another alternative if you don’t belong to any clubs is to simply rent: LensRentals will drop-ship camera gear to any location within the United States, and you can use them to try out a new lens or camera body to your heart’s content and return it afterwards, or use your rental as credit towards purchase if you decide to keep the gear after the rental period.


Check Out Real-World Examples

The second best way to evaluate camera gear before making a purchasing decision (next to trying it out in person) is to see example shots that others have taken with the same gear. While camera reviews and scientific tests have their place and provide valuable objective information, unless you plan on using your camera to shoot test charts exclusively , what really matters at the end of the day is the subjective look of the photographs coming out of the camera – do you personally like the way the images are rendered? Real-world usage of a camera or lens differs from the sample images you often see on professional review sites in that these images are taken by regular camera enthusiasts and non-professionals and can provide a more honest “behind the scenes” look at the quality of images that you will likely actually get. Don’t get me wrong – there are many advantages to reading professional camera reviews – the results they publish conform to specific benchmarks and are designed to be repeatable, and since it is usually the same person or same couple of people evaluating the various gear, it reduces variability in results due to user experience and skill. I highly recommend reading high-quality and reputable camera gear review sites for such objective reviews, but they are not, in my opinion, the best source if you want to actually see the kind of images a camera produces in the real world. For real world images, the best place to do your research is Flickr. You can search Flickr’s database for any particular camera body or lens (e.g. “Canon EF 85mm f/1.8”) to bring up literally thousands of sample images posted by ordinary people (as well as professional photographers). For convenience, you can also join a Flickr group dedicated to a particular piece of gear, and scroll through the massive archives of photographs contributed to the group by the Internet community.


Review Sites

Finally, I recommend that you visit reputable camera gear review sites prior to making a purchasing decision. Why? Because these are still basically the only practical way to obtain objective information for comparing scientifically how a camera or lens performs compared to others on the market.

The industry standard for scientific benchmark testing of camera gear is DXOMark. This site provides scientific measurements and scores for a wide variety of camera bodies and lenses, and the “DXOMark Score” is an oft-quoted statistic by professional camera reviewers. Be warned that it can be difficult to properly interpret the numbers and charts on the site, and the site does exclude many third-party lenses and bodies. However, if you want to get “just the numbers” on a comparison between two camera bodies or lenses, this site is authoritative.

Another really useful site is Photozone, which relies on gear donations for their reviews, so naturally not every new lens or camera body will have a review on the site, but for those that are available, they do a really excellent job of evaluating the gear in an impartial and objective manner. They have a very consistent testing methodology which makes comparisons between different cameras and lenses much easier, and they rate lenses based on optical quality, construction quality, and value for money.

Other good review sites include Imaging ResourceDP Review, and Camera Labs. It is beyond the scope of this blog to delve into each site in detail, but I do encourage you to check out these sites as they provide very high quality reviews. Finally, you can always turn to Youtube for camera reviews from people such as Tony and Chelsea Northrup and Dustin Abbott. Youtube video reviews tend to go into more depth than written ones, but tend to cover only the more popular items from the major manufacturers.

Mark Teng.

Teng Photography, L.L.C.

Professional Photography on a Budget

Technically, professional photography is any type of photography that generates income. There is no gear requirement other than that the image capturing device must be sensitive to light. However, when we think of professional photography, there are certain expectations – we need to be able to handle a variety of projects and shooting conditions and deliver respectable image quality to the client. Therefore, it is easier to conduct professional photography with a modern DSLR than a pinhole camera constructed out of cardboard. But what if you are on a budget? Here are some tips for getting pro-level gear on a budget.

One of the common things that people do when they get serious with photography as a hobby or business is to buy a consumer camera kit package, which usually contains a crop-sensor DSLR such as a Canon Rebel or Nikon D3xxx-series camera with one or two kit lenses and some other accessories thrown in (as of this writing, the kit price ranges from $450 – $850 depending on model and promotion). While this is a fine way to start out, there is an even better option: buy used. Suppose you want to take portraits. You can purchase a Canon 5D full frame camera body for around $300 used. Add a fast prime lens such as the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 for around $80 (used). Finally, round it off with a Yongnuo YN-560IV flash YN-622C transmitter for around $110, and you have a complete portrait kit for around $500, about what you would have paid for a consumer camera kit.

If you are wondering why one would opt for used equipment (such as suggested above) compared to buying a new consumer kit, well there are several advantages. For one thing, most professional photographers tend to prefer full frame cameras because they represent an optimal balance between size, price, and image quality. Cameras larger than full frame tend to be very expensive, bulky and heavy, have limited flexibility when it comes to usage, and are usually quite limited lens and accessory selection. When you start getting smaller than full frame sensor size, you start to sacrifice image quality and low-light capability. However, one an even more important reason to use full frame cameras vs. smaller sensor sizes is the ability to isolate your subject from the background using shallow depth of field. The smaller the sensor of your camera, the greater the depth of field you will have at any given aperture and focal length. When shooting portraits, you want as much control over depth of field as you can get, and this is one reason why many portrait photographers before using full frame cameras in the field. Note that if you are shooting on a background (e.g. in a studio), then this is far less important as you usually want the background to be in focus anyway.

But even if you are unsure about the genre of photography  you want to shoot, it is a good idea to at least consider buying full frame-compatible lenses, because full frame lenses can usually be adapted for use on a crop sensor camera, but not the other way around. Therefore, building a full frame lens collection is a form of future-proofing your hobby or business for the future.

Mark Teng.

Teng Photography, L.L.C.