6 Industry “Rules of Thumb” Every Photographer Must Know
Learning from the industry’s long history
Photography — and photojournalism in particular — can be a strange profession. It blends creative and artistic choices with a massive amount of technical detail, often involving numbers-driven calculation, and knowledge about the physical properties of light, film/digital sensors, and more.
A good photojournalist has to have a keen eye for a great shot, empathy for their subjects, a knowledge of the subtleties required to document the world accurately and journalistically — and at time, the ability to calculate an exposure number in their heads, or at least balance of variety of technical factors (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focal length, etc.) to make sure their shot actually comes out.
Photography also has a rich history, extending back over 100 years. From the very earliest days, the field has focused on documentation and journalism. So there’s a lot of accumulated knowledge, gathered by millions of photographers and passed down through generations, that can guide the working photographer today.
Some of it is new (like knowledge focusing on copyright and legal issues), and some of it — like the near-sacred relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and film speed — dates back to the very birth of the field. This knowledge is often expressed in mantras, sayings and concepts that capture important things photographers have learned over generations of practice.
Here are six industry “rules of thumb” that everyone working in photography should know.
The Best Camera is the One You Have
Photographers often joke about being afflicted with GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It’s often tempting to think that a new lens, upgraded camera body, or bigger strobe will make you a better photographer.
Sometimes gear really is important. Especially for professionals — whose livelihood relies on getting as many usable shots as possible — the right gear makes a big difference. I took this shot in San Francisco’s Castro District from a moving car, into direct sunlight, for example. A phone camera wouldn’t have gotten anything useful. But with my pro camera, I was able to get a photo with a unique look that captures a feeling of movement — and also the changes happening in this dynamic part of the city — and has run in the BBC, Eater, and the Bold Italic.
Historically, changes to photographic gear have allowed new kinds of photography, too. Matthew Brady’s “portable” camera allowed him to document the American Civil War, and Leica’s innovations in the 1930s led to lenses that were good enough to produce high-quality photos on 35mm film, revolutionizing photojournalism.
But in many cases, the quality of a photo is more about the skill and knowledge of the person behind the camera (and in the darkroom, or digital editing suite) than the camera itself. Cellphone photos taken by an experienced photographer will probably look just as good as photos taken on a professional camera by a novice.
Why? It’s not necessarily that pro photographers possess some magical skill. It’s more that photography in general is all about balancing limitations — the light available to you, the speed of your film or digital camera, the movement of your subjects, etc. Pros spend years honing their craft, and learning to balance these limitations to get the best possible shot in a specific moment.
This leaves them well equipped to balance one more limitation — that imposed by the equipment they’re using. Whether that’s a $17,000 Leica camera or a two-generation-old Android phone, pro photographers can recognize the limitations of their equipment and adjust to work within them.
Sometimes those limitations are actually beneficial. Working with a 50 year old camera with no light meter, a fixed aperture, etc. imposes all kinds of interesting limitations that a pro can use to create a photo that’s unique and interesting.
That’s why it’s really true that “the best camera is the one you have.” Taking great photos isn’t about choosing the best gear, or acquiring a ton of it. It’s about learning to work within the limitations of whatever gear you have available. If that’s a pro camera, great. But if all you have is a cameraphone — or an Instamatic camera from 1964 — you can still take great photos with it.
This sounds like a 1960s top-hits radio lineup. “Bob, letttssss go ahead and announce the Sunny…Sixteen!!!”.
But it’s actually a fundamental rule that allows you to quickly get a rough estimate for the shutter speed, ISO and aperture settings needed to get a good exposure, even without a light meter.
The rule is this: if you’re in bright sun at an f16 aperature, then your shutter speed is 1/your ISO. So if you’re shooting 100 speed film or have your digital camera set on ISO 100, with an f16 aperture, your shutter speed would be 1/100 of a second in full sun.
Why is this helpful? Because you can take the basic rule, and adapt it to get a reasonable exposure value for variety of settings. Shooting at f8 instead of f16? Halve your shutter speed to 1/200 or 1/250, and your exposure will still be balanced. Shooting with a 400 iso film at f16? Use 1/400 instead. Are you in partial shade instead of full sun? Halve your shutter speed to 1/50.
Lots of old-school photographers have internalized this rule so fully that they can calculate exposure values in their heads within a few seconds.
Today’s digital cameras have a built-in light meter, so you’re rarely required to calculate exposure yourself. But it’s a valuable skill to have, in case your camera’s meter is getting confused by a particular scene, or if you want to make a strategic choice, like underexposing a scene by a few stops to emphasize the shadows.
Like navigating with a GPS but still knowing how to use a map, there’s also a benefit to understanding the basics of the aperture/ISO/shutter speed triangle, so you can better understand the choices your camera is making on your behalf.
This rule helps to understand and express those decisions. And if you ever find yourself shooting analog film — especially in an old camera with no light meter — you’ll find that the Sunny 16 rule is extremely helpful.
If it Bleeds, it Leads
This one is sadly often accurate. This is an observation/commentary on journalism as a whole, but photojournalism is often no exception. The stories which capture the public imagination are often negative or sensational ones about things like crime, tragedies, political strife, and the like.
Often this is problematic. Sometimes, it’s also necessary. Photography has helped to shine light on the tragedies and atrocities of war, and swayed public opinion about conflicts. And as the Economist points out in a beautiful recent piece about photography during Covid-19, photography has always had a close relationship with the macabre, documenting tragedy and resilience alike.
For me, this rule of thumb is a reminder of the importance of always approaching photography with a sensitivity for your subjects. If you capture sensational materials, they’re probably going to be sensationalized. If you capture 100 photos of everyday subject matter, and one photo of something strikingly emotional, it’s probably the one photo that’s going to get amplified.
This is not necessarily a problem. Sometimes it’s a good thing. I’ve been extremely involved in documenting Covid-19, and I’m proud to have played some part in capturing this historical moment, interpreting it through my own lens, and providing a record for future generations to see what life was like in these incredibly challenging times.
But it underscores the importance of treading especially carefully with these sensitive subjects, and having a heightened awareness of the impact your images could have — both now, and when future generations grapple with them decades down the line, and use them as a way to look back and analyze a historical moment.
I find the descriptions in articles like the Economist’s about photographers grappling with what to depict, what needs to be shared versus what is too personal, etc. inspiring. All photographers should be grappling with these kinds of questions in producing their work — especially during times like today’s.
If You Paid Admission, Ask Permission
Photojournalists in the United States enjoy broad protections under the First Amendment. The free press is sacred in America, and we have a broad ability to take photos a variety of contexts where this would be impossible in other countries.
While the First Amendment provides broad protections for news gathering, there are some situations where you want to make sure you’re taking extra precautions. Photographing on private properly during paid events is one of those situations (Caveat: I’m not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. Consult a lawyer for definitive answers to your own legal questions — I’m just sharing my advice as a working photojournalist).
A general rule of thumb in the industry is “if you paid admission, ask permission.” So if you’re walking around a city street, you can probably photograph freely. But if you’re in a museum, a concert, or another event where you had to pay for access, you might need permission to shoot. Check with whoever runs the event or owns the venue.
Even this can have limits. Investigative journalists have been allowed to photograph on private properly to document things like labor abuses or environmental violations, despite not having permission from a property owner. But for most day-to-day photojournalism, if you paid to get in somewhere, you’ll want to ask for permission before taking and publishing photos.
Don’t Mess with the Mouse
This is another one dealing with photographic rights. While again, the First Amendment provides broad protections to American photographers (and many other countries have laws protecting journalists, too), some companies are known for being extremely litigious. Disney is one of those companies.
“Don’t mess with the Mouse” is a reference to Mickey Mouse. It’s an industry joke — but also a cautionary saying — about avoiding certain trademarked products or characters in your photography, when it’s broadly know that the owners of those products won’t want their brands photographed or spread around.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that one can never photograph these subjects. A photo showing someone loading the Disney+ streaming service is probably fine. The service’s launch is a newsworthy event that should be documented. But I wouldn’t set up a bunch of Mickey figurines on a backdrop and take close-ups of them.
Some of these litigious brands can be surprising. Little Trees air fresheners, for example, are known to protect their brand rabidly. The best bet for photographers is to talk to others in the industry to get a sense for what brands and other materials are problematic. Trade groups like the Digital Media Licensing Association (I’m a member) also provide lists of problematic content for their members, which can help avoid challenges from protective brands.
F8 and Be there
When legendary crime scene photographer Weegee was asked about his technical philosophy, he reportedly said “f8 and be there.”
The actual tale of Weegee giving this response is probably apocryphal. But the phrase “f8 and be there” has become one of the guiding concepts of photojournalism. The message is simple. f8 is a versatile, “middle of the road” aperture which is available on nearly all cameras, leaves most things in focus, and still lets in an acceptable amount of light.
“Be there” is all about presence. To get great shots, photographers have to be out there engaging with the world. It’s a profession that’s built on adventure, direct engagement with the environment, being willing to have and “bring back” new experiences, connecting to your subjects and yourself, grappling with your own perceptions and those embedded in the world around you — and otherwise being “present” in the moment and the place that you’re photographing.
What Weegee is saying is that technical perfection doesn’t matter. The important thing is to choose technical settings that are good enough, and then just to “be there” — out engaging with the world, with yourself, and with your subjects. More so than equipment, exposure settings, subject choice or anything else, that’s the key to a great photo.
Every photographer develops their own style, and their own way of engaging with the world. But these industry “rules of thumb” can help you learn from the experience of other photographers, and apply knowledge from the industry’s long history as you proceed along your own photographic path.