Top 5 Essential Photography Tips I Can't Live Without

Top 5 Essential Photography Tips I Can’t Live Without


These are my big five photography tips which I would take with me to a desert island, the ones I can’t live without. For those who have not had the pleasure, that is a reference to the BBC Radio Four program, Desert Island Discs, which has been running for more than 70 years. The simple premise of the program is that guests choose just eight pieces of music they’d want if they were going to be marooned on a desert island.

Desert island

I think that these lists are much easier to complete if given criteria. This is my Desert Island Big Five. They are chosen on the basis that if you could only apply five ideas to your photography for the rest of your shutter button pushing days, perhaps on a desert island, these would be the ones which I would recommend.

#1 – Follow guidelines not rules

Did you ever see the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Captain Barbossa (played with menace by Geoffrey Rush) chastised the main character Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), that he could not do something, because “It is not in the Pirate Rule Book”. With great, exaggerated, cheeky charm, and great comic timing, Jack Sparrow replied “I do not think of it as a RULE book … more as GUIDELINES …”

It is my strong belief that all articles and photography tips, such as this one, should be considered in the same way. The first rule is that there are NO rules, there are only guidelines. You should do just as you like. If you enjoy taking the photographs, processing them, and then you enjoy looking at the results, that is enough. Pleasing yourself and no one else is absolutely enough.

If you want to take photographs of people’s feet, go ahead! If you want to take a photograph of … well, what exactly do you think this might be (below)?

What is it? It is actually the bottom of a curtain, with the morning light streaming in. Not a common photographic topic, but it is an image of reasonable interest.

There are no rules, only guidelines, Do what you like! Do whatever turns you on! I could live with that suggestion alone on my desert island.

This next photograph follows the suggestion of having no rules. I think it is unlikely that any rule is going to tell you to photograph the bottom half of someone’s face, right? This photograph also leads on to the next guideline.

#2 – Fill the frame

A good photography tip and guideline to live by is that the subject of the photograph should not be in doubt, it should fill the frame.

This is an unusual school building in Al Ain, in the UAE.

The photograph above shows the scene well enough. However what is interesting in the scene? The subject of the photograph is really the arches. If they are allowed to fill the frame, don’t you think that it becomes a much better photograph (as below)?

Then, I think the framing of the following photograph is quite interesting. There is no need to include the entire opening of the front of the shop, nor much beyond the stretched out arm of the potential customer. The subject of the photograph is the colored lamps and they fill the frame here nicely.

I think I will take this one. The brightly colored lamps are the subject here and there is no need to include any more of the scene to tell the story.

Put another way, look at whatever you are photographing, get close, then get closer yet again.

New Delhi train station.

This very handsome man sitting on the platform of the train station in Delhi caught my eye. It is an okay scene and tells a bit of the story of India. But he is really the subject, so get closer.


Then get closer again.

Is a star born? Fill the frame with the subject. This potential Bollywood star is the subject, so he should fill the frame.

As I have already mentioned, advice such as this is best taken as a guideline, not a rule. To prove that point, I agree with most people who seem to prefer the middle shot, the second one, in the above series.

You might say there are two photography tips in one here. First, fill the frame; secondly, get closer. However, both usually result in the same thing. There are other considerations, however, such as the engagement with a portrait subject, or the choice of focal length.

You can fill the frame or get closer according to whatever works for you. For Mr. Bollywood, my memory is of zooming in and moving closer to the subject.

#3 – Ignore the subject

So now you have decided on your subject and gotten closer. It may then seem a little contradictory to tell you to ignore the subject for this next tip. But your photograph will be better if you do so.

You have already decided that the subject is interesting. The decision has already been made that the face, that flower, or the landscape is worth photographing. The face, the flower, or the lake are not going to change much, right? So really, you do not have to keep staring at it, you can now let your eye wander away.

I suggest that it is a really good idea to let your eye take at least a quick look around the edge of the frame. As a general guideline, it is best to have tidy edges in your frame.  That means there is nothing sticking in and distracting from the subject.

Distracting things on the edge of the frame take away from the subject, the blue smiley face.


Here is an example. A small girl in Cebu, in The Philippines.

I am not saying that it becomes a much better photograph once edited. However, with a slightly tighter crop, and a bit of Photoshop to dull of the distraction in the top left corner, the photograph is more concentrated on the subject, and it is a better image.


Please note that recognizable shapes, the triangle over the girl’s left shoulder, and bright colors, as in the top left, tend to be especially distracting.

The image below was taken for a client in Qatar when Doha’s new airport was being built.

Is it just me, or is that portion of a circle at the bottom, in the front of the frame really distracting? It is very much just a small detail, but it is surely attention to such details that is going to move your photography forward. Next time, when you take a similar shot, you might frame a little bit more precisely. I would like to think that I would. I certainly do not like fixing things in Photoshop, but this is better, isn’t it?

Again, you might say that this is two rules, sorry guidelines, in one. However, I think that it is a natural consequence of looking around the edges of the frame that you will also check the background. This is one I did not get quite right. These people are not flattered by the pole growing out of his head.

The well-known bird photographer Scott Bourne once said that he looked around for a good background then waited for a bird to fly past. You would have to ask him, but I do not think he was joking.

For showing off a cheeky little face, plain white works well. I wanted to photograph a number of the children who lived in a house and just plonked them in front of a plain wall. I found a good background, and waited for the children to fly past!


But that does not mean that you must have a plain background. It is a question of checking out the edges and being aware of the background. Sometimes the background can even become an important part of the photograph.

Stairway from heaven?

Here is a contrasting background using complementary colors.

#4 – Atomic powered

You may well have heard that you should work the scene. I was only ever half sure what that meant. It might help you, as it helped me when I heard the simple advice, “move your feet”.

Then I later heard that idea expanded upon, and an image from my high school science class was revived. The image is of an atom, with the nucleus and electrons (have I got that right?).

By SVG by Indolences.Recoloring and ironing out some glitches done by Rainer Klute. – based off of Image:Stylised Lithium Atom.png by Halfdan., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link


The nucleus, the red and black middle, is the subject. You, the photographer, are the electrons, the blue dots. You are moving over, under, and around the subject. Standing tall, crouching low, walking left, walking right, and working that subject. Looking for the best way to show what you want to show, to tell the story you want to tell.

Created by working the scene and trying different camera angles.

It is not normal to take a photograph of the top of someone’s head. But I hope you agree that this makes an interesting image (above).

Nor is it normal to angle your camera at 45 degrees, tilted over from the horizontal, then point the camera up at an even steeper angle. But this image below seems to tell some of the stories of Singapore’s Clark Quay and the Central Business District. The situation has been worked by moving the camera out of its traditional position in the horizontal and vertical axes.

You must take the shot above, it is mandatory, but it has been taken quite enough times, hasn’t it?

Then, by walking round this very famous building, you can see it in a different way, one that tells a bit more of its glorious tale. The side of the Taj Mahal, as shown below, has its own beauty.

So, the fourth guideline is that you should move around your subject like electrons move around the nucleus of an atom.

There is a bonus to this guideline as well. There is a clear implication that if you have decided that a subject is worth taking one photograph of, you should take ten! If you ever shot with film, you’ll understand that the incremental cost was quite high. When David Bailey shot six rolls of Kodachrome, it probably cost $200. Now, in the digital age, the incremental cost is negligible. So do not be shy about taking more photographs.

#5 – Guideline of Thirds

This is the famous, Guideline of Thirds.

Have you heard of it before? Perhaps not, but you may well have heard of the Rule of Thirds. Like many other clichés, it has attained that status because it works! It is so well known but, even then, I have heard people get it wrong. Still, though, I think it is better thought of as the Guideline of Thirds in my opinion.

In your mind, divide the frame by drawing two equally spaced vertical lines, and similar horizontal lines. The image below tells the story easily. This guideline works well with a square frame too, and we would then be able to describe it and use it as a tic-tac-toe board.

You now have a frame divided into nine equal pieces. Three equal horizontal sections, three equal vertical sections, hence the name thirds.

Place your subject on those lines, and the most significant items on the intersections of those lines. Got a tree? Position it on one of the horizontal and vertical lines (where they intersect as seen below).

A river might be placed along one of the horizontal lines.

Place the most significant items, the sun, the human eye, or a cat walking across a street, on the intersections, where the vertical and horizontal lines cross. These are called the power points.

Combining all three, you will have this as your composition.

Very simply, the accepted wisdom is that this arrangement below.

Looks more interesting, more dynamic, than this.

Of course, you cannot move trees and rivers and other stationary objects. However, you can move around and practice the fourth guideline. Often you can find a position where the major elements of the shot are aligned with the thirds, or somewhere close.

If you consciously practice using the rule of thirds it will be a good step in the right direction to creating more interesting photos. Stick with it, practice, and you will soon find that you do not have to really think about it. It soon becomes instinctive. Later you might move on to other guidelines for composition. There are many others, but if I could choose only one to take and use on my desert island this would be it.

I can tell you that this was taken with no conscious application of the Rule of Thirds. I would suggest it has at least some interest. And, lo and behold.

Here is another example.

I know with absolute certainty that The Rule of Thirds was not in consideration when I took this street shot in Jakarta, Indonesia. I wanted one of the drawings to be fully in the frame and as he is the artist, I wanted his hands in the frame too. Again, I am not claiming that this is a great work of art, but I think I can claim that it has some harmony and cohesion. Throw the grid at it and we see . . .

His hands and face, sit pretty much on the intersections of the lines.

A modest realization along the way, with this aspect of my photographic journey, was in respect to the horizontal lines and the placement of the horizon. Still not a rule, only guideline, but it seemed to me that if the sky was interesting, and it was the major subject of the photograph, then you might want to put the horizon on the lower third line. That simply gives more of the frame over to that stormy, wispy cloud-filled, or deep sunset filled sky. Simply, it is consistent with the guideline of fill the frame with the subject.

Boracay sunset, Philippines.

If it is the land which offers the subject for a photo, it usually works if you place the horizon along the upper third.

Beautiful Philippines golf course.

As I have already suggested, there are other compositional guidelines, which you might move on to using at a later date. But the Rule of Thirds, or as you might be better thinking of it, Guidelines of Thirds, is a very good place to start.

In summary

Looking at and understanding light, using a frame, empty space, leading lines, symmetry, contrast, and so on – there are many good guidelines. But these are the five essential photography tips which I would choose to use if I could select no others.

  1. Follow guidelines not rules
  2. Fill the frame with the subject
  3. Check your frame edges and the background
  4. Move yourself
  5. Guideline of Thirds

I would recommend that you could survive very well with the above big five on a metaphorical or, indeed, literal desert island.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Richard Messsenger is from Nottingham, England, and is currently based just north of Manila in The Philippines. Photographic opportunities of all hues present themselves daily. However, he like projects with parameters to work towards, targets to aim for. Older, hair too thin, belly too fat, knees wobbling, but he still enjoys using his talents and enthusiasm to make photographs.

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  • Jessica Ruach

    Oy vey, a spammer in our midst.

  • JR

    This is a fantastic article Richa rd. Really useful and reinforcing what I’m trying to apply these days. I just so happen to have just gotten back from India and tried to apply some lesser taken shots of the Taj. Hope you like them.

  • JR
  • JR
  • JR
  • JR
  • George McCane

    This article reminds me of a quote by Picasso “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”. Richard’s article really makes this point clear. I think that zoom lenses have made us “lazy” as photographers. Richard’s point about the atom and the electrons is very valid as well. It is important to walk around your subject, you might be surprised at what you will find. Hoffmann has a great book called “Photography as Meditation”. It is important to clear our minds when we are out taking pictures from the daily grind of events that are happening all about us. You will be surprised at what you find when you really get into your subjects. At least I find that to be true for myself.

  • Richard Messenger

    I do not think this is really the place for photo critique … but I think I can safely say … LOVE the reflection … think the silhouette is really good … not sure the pattern works so well.

    Thank you for the very kind comment.

  • Richard Messenger

    Thanks Jessica … I think it is gone now … there’s usually one or two for each article.

  • Richard Messenger

    Good to see you George.

    Thank you very muich for the kind and thoughtful comments.

    You might enjoy this one – – there is a follow up which might be published in June … further thoughts in the area of being fully mindful of what you are doing.

  • esoteric2000

    Illuminating, insightful and inspirational.

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  • JR

    Thank you Richard. Much appreciated.

  • Richard Messenger

    Too kind … thank you.

  • Jason Daquiz

    You said “Desert Island”? I say Dessert in mind. Another lesson learned about “Guidelines” of thirds. Actually I’m not aware of using it because when I first read about the rule of thirds, it is easier for me to break the rules than to follow it. But as you have said, stick with it, practice, and you will soon find that you do not have to really think about it. Nice article sir!

  • George McCane

    Richard, I think an article about being fully mindful of what you are doing would be very appropriate for a forum such as this. Susan Kanfer posted an article on called “One Subject, Endless Possibilities”. While many people are satisfied to see and take just one picture of a particular scene, it is amazing at what scenes are actually contained within the one scene that you captured. I often tell people for every scene you photograph, I can often see six or seven that you missed, just because you did not look close enough at what you were photographing. The area of “Contemplative Photography” is a eye opening experience and more of us should participate in it (at least in my opinion).

  • Richard Messenger

    Nice to see you Jason – thank you for the comment.

    Do you mean that, like me, you enjoy a dessert? Ice cream and pie perhaps?

    Yes, I spent a while trying to beat the ‘thirds’ and have long practised trying to get some sort of balance across the frame, but that is a whole big topic AND it is surprising how often the end result ends up being at least a nod in the direction of ‘thirds’. The point being that if I could choose only one, GoT would probably have to be it.

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  • Akbar

    Great read Richard!

  • bioprofe

    Love the tips, Richard! You certainly have gained the expertise to write them! You should do an e-book of all your pics! [Food for Thought!]

  • Richard Messenger

    Thank you Akbar – good to see you.

  • Richard Messenger

    Thank you bioprofe!

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  • Crysania

    The photography tips are always great! But I have to correct your movie quote from Pirates. The quote about being more like guidelines is actually said by Barbossa when Elizabeth confronts him about the pirate’s code. She says he has to take her back to shore and among other things, Barbossa points out that the code is more like “guidelines” than actual rules. (The bit about guidelines was used a couple more times in the movie, but never by Jack!)

    But I do love that the “rules” are more “guidelines” too. Same in music (I’m a composer as well). I always remember my composition teacher telling me I had to learn the “rules” of music so I knew when I was “breaking” them for creative effect.

  • Richard Messenger

    What can I say? You are not wrong! I bow to your superior knowledge. I’ve been attributing that incorrectly or a very long time. Thank you.

    Breaking the ‘rules’ and still achieving something that works is not a bad motivation, is it? I do think there are a number of analogies between music and photography. For a start, there are comparisons between analogue and digital reproduction.

  • Jack62

    In Bruce Barnbaum’s book “The Art of Photography” he discusses “Exploring Photographic Myths” and among them on p. 272 is the “Rule of Thirds”. Interestingly he discusses the origin of this “rule” and the fact that it best belongs in the trashcan. It makes for interesting reading if you can gain access to the book, as does the book in the whole.

  • Richard Messenger

    I have not read that book. I’ll try to have a look.

    However, in the interests of clarity, when I wrote the article, I made the choice not to undermine RoT,. It did not seem right to recommend it, then to criticise it in the same breath. The criteria for the article was the five that I would hold to IF there was nothing else I could refer to. As i said “Later you might move on to other guidelines for composition. There are many others, but if I could choose only one to take and use on my desert island this would be it.”. To be more specific, my journey has included a long time battling with, trying to defeat RoT. I now look for some sort of balance across the frame. However, that often works out to be something which looks a lot like ‘thirds’ and, frankly, it does work pretty well.

    I would be very interested if you could give us some idea about Bambaum’s point(s).

  • Jack62

    I will get out the book and see if I can summarize his point or lacking that attach a copy if the copyright folks won’t jump on me. Will try and get back soon.

  • OldPom

    Very interesting article. Comparing the illustrating images would perhaps be made easier if the layout by dPs were with the subject images side by side instead of vertically above each other requiring constant scrolling up and down , up and down. We can assume that the images in an article like this are correctly exposed and focused and it is the framing and composition that is the subject so a bit of size could be sacrificed without losing the point being made. No offense intended, just a suggestion to the editors !

  • Richard Messenger

    That would be good. It may well be helpful, for myself and others, to have some ideas of the questions raised about the worthiness of RoT. You must be your own judge, but summarising what you believe the points of any sort of writing, surely is not an infringement of copyright.

  • Richard Messenger

    Well … yes … and no. Yes, you’re right, it is an editorial decision to major degree. Yes, you’re right, I’ve thought a couple of times about combing to one image, so they in effect side by side. But, I think you probably have some idea already, that there are all sorts of compromises with publishing web pages. For a start, no one writing a web page has any idea about the size or resolution of you monitor. Also, sometimes, as the photographer, I am not so happy that the images are already reduced to only 717 pixels. Here is my suggestion. I do not know which browser you use, but it certainly works in Chrome and Firefox. Simply hold down the control key, then use the mouse wheel to scroll in and out, and easily get two, or more, images on the screen at once.

  • OldPom

    Thanks Richard.. I use Firefox and your suggestion works just fine. We live and learn even in our dotage !

  • Richard Messenger

    That’s what I like … a happy ending!

  • Jack62

    I posted it two days ago. Any thoughts.

  • Richard Messenger

    Very sorry Jack, I didn’t see that.

    Mmm? What are his points? That the original proposal was based on statistics, does not, per se, mean that it is invalid. It could still be true that Bob Dylan is the greatest single pop artist of all time, even though the statistics, his sales, would say otherwise.

    However, to hold it up as some gold standard, the epitome is clearly very short of the mark too. I’ve never belonged to a camera club, and I think I might know why?

    As I think I’ve suggested in the several articles I’ve written, certainly in this one, I do not think there are many, if any, hard and fast rules. Photography is frequently a game of compromises.

    If you were starting to learn the craft, and you were to try and adhere to exactly to RoT, that would not be a bad thing. However, if you never tried to break free of those constraints, your photographic journey would be a short one, wouldn’t it?

    Phew! I thought this was going to be a short answer. Even now I’m not sure I am answering.

    RoT would be the only rule, IF you could apply no other. That was the premise of the article.

    For one thing, if we call it GoT, the Guideline, and do not adhere to such exact application, you’ll end up with the photographs I gave as examples. In neither is the horizon on the third.

    As I think I said, I try for some sort of balance within the frame. You might want to look at David DuChemin’s discussions of Visual Mass. And! Just sometimes, that gives me a shot which also follows GoT..

    Hey Jack! This is good. It is good to be caused to think these things through. I am not sure I have nailed the answer you were looking for even now. I have an excuse for my shortcomings though, as Sunday bought a new girl in our family!

    Visual Mass … could be an article.

    Baby Photos … could be another!

    Any further thoughts?

  • Jack62

    Your answer is fine. I agree that it is a good starting point. Your article was very good also. I just thought as you photographically mature on that desert island you might not want to continue to stick to the GoT rigidly. Anyway, good exchanging ideas!

  • Richard Messenger

    Thanks Jack.

    I have seen now, that our editor did rather alter the emphasis. RoT is ABSOLUTELY NOT a tip I could not live without. It is the compositional guideline which I would take, IF I could only take one, to my desert island. Yes, as I have tried to say, it is not uppermost in my mind, in fact it is several steps back in my mind.

  • Chile

    The last 3 pictures in #2 meme worthy. Just sayin.

  • Richard Messenger

    I am not sure what you mean – is it a good thing?

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