All Thumbs Today

Photography Rules of Thumb – Dennis

Introduction: I’m not sure why rules of thumb are called rules of thumb. I do know that if you are an Eskimo who is building a kayak then you would use the length of your arm from your elbow to your fingertips as the measurement for the deck opening. So maybe thumbs were once used as some kind of anthropomorphic measuring stick for short things. For our purposes a rule of thumb is a technique or procedure based on experience and or common sense that is accepted as a broad standard that is generally correct but not bound to absolute scientific standards. In short, rules of thumb are mostly true most of the time.

I know several people who are “all thumbs” when it comes to photography and I can show you photos with their thumbs sticking in the frame to prove my point. So based on the concept that people who are all thumbs have ten of them, here are the Ten Photography Rules of Thumb.

1. Rule of Thumb: Shutter speed can affect the sharpness of hand held shots, especially when using longer focal length lenses. The safest minimum shutter speed should be reciprocal to the focal length of the lens in use, 1/200 second for a 200mm lens or 1/60 second for a 50mm lens. Better yet use a tripod whenever possible.

2. Rule of Thumb: A polarizing filter will almost always improve the color saturation of water and foliage in addition to cutting glare on glass and metallic surfaces. The affect is strongest when the filter is at a 90-degree angle to the sun. Using polarizing lenses on extreme wide-angle lenses can cause the color of the sky to look uneven. That is because the polarizing affect varies with the angle to the light source and a wide-angle lens covers more area of the sky.

3. Rule of Thumb: Landscape photos can often be more dramatic when shot in vertical format. It is often a good approach to make at least one exposure of an interesting subject in both orientations because people will want both. It’s not a bad idea to make a few in camera “duplicates” at the same time in case a negative or slide gets damaged. I like vertically framed shots in order to include a section of clear blue sky when there is haze near the horizon.

4. Rule of Thumb: When you include far and near subjects within the same image choose a small aperture to increase depth of field. Then remember to focus on a point about a third of the way between the nearest and furthest details. The range of focus is typically 2/3 more behind the point of focus than in front of it, so by focusing on the near or far details you are actually wasting a lot of the area of sharp focus. You may want to consider buying a camera with a depth of field preview feature.

5. Rule of Thumb: Try to frame photos of people and wildlife against simple backgrounds that do not detract from the main subject. Look for interesting backgrounds that include contrasting colors or shoot against a saturated blue sky. Watch out for bright highlights or distracting objects protruding in along the edges of the frame. Use large apertures to throw the background out of focus and make the sharpest area of focus on the eyes. Watch out for shadows falling on the subject unless it is for effect. Remember that film cannot see as wide a range of contrast as your eyes.

6. Rule of Thumb: Shoot at different times of the day. Beat the tourist crowds by getting up early and maximizing your shooting day. Have a long break at noon and then scout out locations for your evening photo shoot. Continue shooting until then sun goes down. Twilight is a great time for architectural shots because the light from the sky will be at about the same intensity as the light coming from inside the buildings, and you will still be able to see the outlines of the buildings against the sky.

7. When shooting sunsets it is best to aim the camera just above or to the side of the brightest part of the sky to exclude the sun from your meter reading. It is also a good idea to bracket your exposures in 1/3 stops for slide film and whole stops for print film. Try framing the shot so the sun is partially hidden behind another object and use a small aperture to create a diffraction star. Remember to keep shooting after the sun goes down.

8. Rule of Thumb: When taking photos of landscapes reflected in water it is best to use a ND graduated filter over the top half of the frame to equalize the contrast of the scene. I usually use my polarizing filter in conjunction with the graduated filter for maximum control. When using filters in combination it is always best to use a tripod for maximum support and effective composition.

9. Rule of Thumb: The major drawback of shooting photos with available light is extreme contrast. You can minimize contrast by selecting views that are framed to exclude the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows. Remember to selectively use fill flash if your camera has this feature, but use caution because too much flash can create an unflattering effect.

10. Rule of Thumb: The typical problem of using camera-mounted flash units is caused by the drop off in light intensity the further the light travels from the flash. To avoid underexposed backgrounds make certain that the distance from the camera to the subject is at least five times more than the distance from the subject to the background. Because we are accustomed to light coming from overhead it is often preferable to bounce the flash off the ceiling or a wall when it is practical.