Curious about my photographs?

My father had two main rules for photography, and I have not forgotten them in the 50 years I have photographed. He gave me a Brownie camera in Mexico when I was 7, about the same time I got a rock hammer and chisel. He paid for the developing and printing only after I had pasted them into an album, complete with laboriously typed labels. We went back and forth between black paper and white, with shimmery interleaves, or without. I still have those childhood albums, yellowing and cracking on those acid-filled papers.

Here are my father’s two rules for photography.

1. Worry about the edges of the photograph. The center will take care of itself.

2. Never cut the feet off people in a photograph.

You would be surprised just how far those two rules can take you, so I was surprised when I asked my youngest sister if she remembered any photography tips from our father. She did, most definitely, and there were again two rules, but they were different. The rules she got were:

3. Have some contrast, some red if possible, in every shot.

4. Have something old and something new, so don’t leave out the telephone wires, or the street sign.

My sister and I are not so enthusiastic about rule 4. Sometimes those wires just aren’t so great. Maybe my father has a whole book of rules, and shares them according to mood. I guess when I started we didn’t use color film, and when she started it was special. We had those simple fixed-focus cameras, and took fairly terrible photographs with them, and could never get very close to our subjects. My father made us feel our photographs were special, and so they were.

I can add a few new rules I may try to follow in addition to the ones from my father. I’ll have one for general, and one for people, just as he did for me.

5. Always angle your camera level, or up, not down. This one requires a lot of squatting, and you can’t easily see through one of those old-fashioned view-finders, but it gives a fresh look.

6. Use a fill flash if you are photographing faces outside.

If you can remember two rules, those first two of my father are as good as it comes, I think. But if you love rules, here are a couple more.

7. Always carry your camera, and be sure to take many photographs (and short videos) of the mundane and everyday in addition to the extraordinary.

8. Choose a fresh angle, and think about capturing emotion.

I’m afraid my family and friends may be getting sick of all the photographs I take. Sorry!

OK, I talked with my father, and he said that rule # 3, about red was actually my grandfather Opi’s rule. And the two rules that he came up with are entirely different. Here they are.

9. Have a geometry to the photograph, a U shape, or a diagonal, a pyramid or a rectangle, but the objects in the photograph should follow a basic shape.

10. Have at least two interesting things in every photograph.

So, there you have 10 rules, mostly about composition, but not entirely. Take a lot of photographs, and put them up on the web with a Creative Commons, or one of the GNU licenses.

I have two cameras right now. One is a Canon PowerShot S95 and it is new and wonderful. The other is an Olympus E620, with some nice lenses, a couple of standard zooms, with a 1.4 teleconverter and a nice macro lens. I don’t use either very expertly, and becoming more knowledgeable about my cameras is on my perpetual things-to-do list. The Olympus is small for an SLR, but still so much larger than the little Canon.

Along with my students, and particularly with David Brown, I’ve done some nice videos, I think, for teaching, mostly, and you can see a lot of them at strassm on YouTube, or at As with all my stuff, they are CC 3.0 licensed, meaning you can use them, take them, provided you keep my name on them and the CC 3.0 license.


Back when I got my first camera, my dad had a good Leica.


See, I was careful not to cut out the feet, even though with my Brownie, I had to guess. Unfortunately, I cut out my sister!


Right after I got my first camera and rock hammer, in Mexico.


This is my favorite picture I took when I was 7 years old.


I pasted them in here.


Unusual perspective, prized by my dad.


Unusual subject, two interesting things, Mobil Station near Riverside, CA.


Something old, something new.


Keep it out of the center.


I don’t know what caused this, but I like this photo a lot.


Does this count as good geometry? By the way, we were at Joshua Tree National Park, about 20 hours from Houston by car.


This one is messy, but captures the feeling. I wonder how many birds these chop up?


Back on the coast, this willet is safe. Note the two interesting things, the uncentered focus.


Back in Houston, this gentleman at Lowe’s helped us buy a new stove. See, I included the feet, captured a little red, and there are two interesting things, at least if you need a new washing machine.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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