Ten Photographic Principles

Ten Photographic Principles For 10 Creative Photographers

Ten Photographic Principles For Creative Photographer

As an educator in photography, there comes a time when you want to express more about your core values in photography, like photographic principles, rather than just talk about the technical attributes of f-stops and shutter speeds. Ten Photographic Principles. Ten Photographic Principles

Usually, these tidbits are dispersed in a more random manner (one or two at a time), so I compiled what I believe to be ten principles that are important for a creative photographer.

They are not listed in any particular order of importance because I believe they are all of equal value. I hope that some or all of these principles will be beneficial to your photography.

jim_altengarten © Jim Altengarten

My Top Ten Photographic Principles

1. Believing is Seeing

Imagine an overcast day with a soft rain falling. I planned to leave the warmth of my home and drive a little over an hour to photograph at Mt. Hood, Oregon. Should I go? I keep thinking that there must be photos to be had in this weather, but that little skeptic voice in my brain keeps saying: “Yeah, I’ll believe that when I see it.”

The idea that you’ll believe it when you see it is an attitude that will cripple your photographic creativity. The reverse, believing is seeing, will propel you to newer insights and rewarding images. Ten Photographic Principles

Let me give you an example. We were at String Lake in the Grand Tetons and one of my students said that he just couldn’t find anything to photograph. I told him that I’ve published 10 images in the area along the shore from a bench about 12 feet away to the next parking area.

I asked him to see how many of those he could find. About 45 minutes later he wandered back and very happily said he had 7 great photos, but could not find the other 3.

I told him that I really have only published a couple of images from that area, not 10. Since he believed that there were 10 “great” photos to be had, he went out and found 7. Believing IS Seeing!

There will always be times when you feel like you just can’t find anything to photograph. At that point, try to slow down and keep telling yourself that there is something here…. just look for it. Once you find that one image, the rest of the images will come quickly. Ten Photographic Principles

jim-altengarten2 © Jim Altengarten

Ten Photographic Principles

2. Take Five or More Photos of Any Subject

Many times when you go to a location you’ve already seen images from the area – through the internet, in books at the library, or you’ve stopped at the visitor center to look at area postcards. It’s a great way to learn various techniques, but when you do this, it can also suggest a certain way of photographing the subject.

This can be a great inhibitor of creativity.

It is O.K. to take that “postcard” photo and get it out of your system, but after that, search for at least four other ways to photograph the same subject. After two or three images, all of those preconceived notions about how to photograph the subject will be gone. Ten Photographic Principles

The rest of the photos become more personal and will have an entirely new look.

Consider the lead image at the top, as an example. It is Moraine Lake in the Canadian Rockies. Most people tend to photograph it at sunrise from the top of the “rock pile” at the end of the lake. By moving a quarter of the way along the lake edge, I was able to capture the morning light hitting the peaks with the boat dock in the foreground. Ten Photographic Principles

This is different from the typical sunrise photo and therefore much more rewarding to me.

Keep asking yourself those “what if” questions. What if I change this or change that? What would the image be like with a different lens, or not setting up my tripod at its full height, or with a different white balance, or a filter, or a vertical orientation, or, or, or….?

Most people find that the 4th, 5th and 6th images are their favorites because they are more personal. In order to be successful, you need to ask yourself what elements of a scene or subject made you want to stop and create a photograph. Ten Photographic Principles

Once you can articulate that, try eliminating or de-emphasizing any extra elements.

The composition is similar to a great chef creating a dish. Take a little of this and a little of that, mix it together by trying new combinations and a new masterpiece has been created. Ten Photographic Principles

12 Tips to Beautiful Photography – Photography

jim-altengarten3 © Jim Altengarten

3. Keep Your Mind Open

If you happen to be a landscape photographer, listen to Mother Nature. Sometimes you may go out searching for the great wide-angle landscape photo only to find a washed-out or overcast sky. In this case, Mother Nature is saying that this day might be devoted to macro work or more selective focusing on parts of the environment.

Keep your mind open to all kinds of photography at a location, not just one particular view of the area.

Keeping your mind open also pertains to your mental state. If you are irritated or thinking of some problem, you will not be creating good images. That is definitely one of the top photographic Principles. Ten Photographic Principles. Ten Photographic Principles

Here are a couple of ways that can help clear the mind of negative forces.

Check into some Zen photography classes. Walking and sitting meditation are great ways to clear the mind – be mindful of just walking or sitting, be mindful of your surroundings or be mindful of the sounds you hear. Do anything in a mindful way – concentrate solely on one task.

You may find cleaning your camera gear helps to alleviate a busy mind. After a few minutes, your mind will be clear and you will begin to see again. Ten Photographic Principles

Keeping an open mind also means trying new things. There are always new techniques to learn and practice. By trying new things, whether they work or not, you will only improve your creativity.

Photographic principles: image of mountains flowers and reflection on a lake by Jim Altengarten.image of mountains flowers and reflection on a lake by Jim Altengarten

4. Use Every Lens in Your Bag

Most photographers have a lens with focal lengths that they prefer. When one gets in the habit of using the same lens for every image, one gets stuck with a certain perspective on the world. This hampers our creativity.

Try this approach. Use every lens in your bag at each location. This will take you out of your comfort zone. It also forces you to see the world in a new way. Ten Photographic Principles

Once you get used to using all of your lenses in one location, it opens up your mind to all of the possibilities at each subsequent location.

Yes, you’ll be spending more time at each location, but you’ll come away with rewarding images and a new perspective on this wonderful environment in which we photograph.

5. Photograph Your Values

Some of you will be fortunate enough to publish your photos in a magazine, book, or online. That will be very rewarding. However, all of us can publish our life in our photos by photographing the values that we have. Believe me, this is much more rewarding.

How do we photograph our values? There are two different approaches. Let’s say that one of our values is “integrity”. One approach is to identify the essence of integrity. How do we know when someone has integrity?

How is integrity expressed? Once we determine those answers, we can search for situations that contain integrity as we defined them. Ten Photographic Principles

The other approach is not to photograph integrity, but to photograph WITH integrity. What are the professional standards to which you adhere?

As an example, here are some of mine on the subjects of nature and wildlife:

~ I will not bait wildlife – offer them food to get them to move in closer.

~ I will not interfere with wildlife by getting too close.

~ I will not pick flowers because they are in the way of my subject.

~ I will not go beyond a barrier that is placed there to keep me from going forward.

~ I will not photograph from a location that would be dangerous if a non-photographer saw me and wanted to go to that location.

What are your measures of photographing with integrity? What other values are you going to incorporate into your photography? Ten Photographic Principles


6. Utilize the Seven Available Exposure Values

I use the term “exposure values” to mean the combination of f-stop and shutter speed either provided by the camera or manually set by the photographer.

In any photographic situation, there are at least seven different combinations of f-stop and shutter speed that is available to the photographer. Many people restrict themselves to only a couple of these values because they do not realize that all the values are available to them due to the lighting conditions.

In low light situations, you can use a small aperture as long as you are able to stabilize your camera in some manner. In bright light, you can use very wide apertures if your camera can shoot at very fast shutter speeds.

Why is it important that you have seven exposure values available? Creative photographer needs to know that they are not restricted in their interpretation of the scene in front of them. Different exposure values provide a variety of interpretations in terms of depth-of-field, freezing or blurring the movement, etc. Don’t restrict your ability to be creative by limiting your choice of exposure values.

7. Be Childlike

Provide a child with a small stick and sit back and watch. Within a few minutes, that stick can be a sword, a baton, a pencil, a magic wand, etc. A child’s imagination is not restricted in the same way as an adult’s imagination. Things flow more easily when you are young. Ten Photographic Principles

As an example: Several years ago I was with a group at Yellowstone National Park. We were walking past a mineral pool of water. I stopped one member of the group, who I knew liked to create graphic photos. I asked him what he thought of the tree stump lying at the edge of the pool. “Not much,” he said.

Then I had him zoom in close with a telephoto lens. I asked him what the stump looked like.

Within 30 seconds the “child” within him provided four or five interpretations of the stump and its reflection in the mineral pool. My advice to him was to “go play with it”.

Approach your subject with a child-like attitude. Try to see your subject in different ways. Look at the scene as a graphic image instead of one with different elements. Keep your mind open to the many different possibilities of how to photograph the scene that is in front of you. Don’t be an adult and restrict yourself to that “postcard” image that I mentioned previously. Ten Photographic Principles


8. Stay Out Late – Get Up Early

We often talk about the “magic hours” that surround sunset and sunrise. During these periods the light is really wonderful. However, it is surprising to me the number of photographers who pack up their gear the moment that the sun dips below the horizon.

It is the period after the sun sets that often provides real magic. True, there are times when nothing happens, but when it does it is worth all of the times that were futile.

A similar thing occurs at sunrise. Usually, there are several photographers who arrived well before sunrise that is set up in their positions. About 5 minutes before sunrise, the latecomers attempt to squeeze in among the other photographers. Ten Photographic Principles

Sometimes they are successful, other times they are not. However, they have already missed the wonderful dawn light that precedes the rising of the sun.

In the mid-summer, sunset is very late in the day and sunrise is very early in the day. It may not be possible to do both and still get enough sleep to stay awake. If you can only do one, my suggestion is to stay out later than a sunset or get up early enough to appreciate the splendor of the dawn light.

Photographic principles: action image of elk swimming in lake by Jim Altengarten.

9. Know When to Pull the Trigger

It is fairly easy in action photography to know when to press the shutter button. We usually want the action to flow into the scene, not out of it, or we want to capture the action at its peak moment.

Photographers should acknowledge that pressing the shutter button is not a random act like most other forms of photography. You must have the patience to wait until everything is the way you want it before pressing the shutter button. Ten Photographic Principles

Pressing the shutter button should be a conscious act – an acknowledgment that everything is the way it should be in the scene. Think of how many times you’ve made a picture only to find out that there was something there that shouldn’t have been there. Patience is a virtue….exercise it.

There is another trigger that photographers often pull too quickly. That trigger is the delete button on their digital camera. If an image looks bad on the LCD monitor, then, by all means, delete it. However, I see too many photographers just guessing that they won’t like the picture and delete it.

My rule is to enlarge the picture on the back of the camera to see if there are any glaring errors. If so, delete the image. Ten Photographic Principles

The rest of the images I save for review. When I look at the images on my computer screen, I immediately put aside the images that are publishable. The remainder of the images (if they do not have any glaring faults) are put aside for a couple of weeks and then evaluated again. The ones that don’t make the cut this time are deleted.

I think it is important to allow ‘time distance’ between when you created the image and when you make a final decision on keeping the image. If you make the decision too close to the time you made the image, your view of the image may be distorted by your memory of the situation where you made that image.

Our images cannot capture the entire scene that was in front of us. Ten Photographic Principles

We can only capture a part of it. Often when we look at our photos we are comparing the photo to our memory of the entire scene. The memory always wins. Allow some time to pass so your memory of the scene is not as strong and you will appreciate your images more. Ten Photographic Principles

10. Practice, Practice, Practice

There is no doubt that practice will improve a photographer’s skills. If you do not photograph regularly, it can take a while to get going again. Let’s hope you can apply at least some of the ten photographic principles.

Most people think there is nothing interesting in their neighborhood.

If you are applying the ten principles in this article, that view should change. Practicing at home can really help your creativity because you will begin to believe there are good images to be had and that leads to the realization that good images can be found everywhere. Ten Photographic Principles

Let me end with one of my favorite stories. A well-dressed couple was waiting to cross a street in New York City.

While the light was red they both scanned up and down the street looking for something. They tapped the shoulder of a man standing next to them, who happened to be Leonard Bernstein, a very famous composer.

The man asked Mr. Bernstein, “How do you get to Radio City Music Hall?” Mr. Bernstein replied, “Practice, practice, practice” Ten Photographic Principles

by Jim Altengarten
Images and text: © Jim Altengarten. All rights reserved. Ten Photographic Principles

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Ten Photographic Principles