You’d expect a book on photography to have a striking image on its cover. Yet the clever cover of the recently released Photography Rules: Essential Do’s & Don’ts from Great Photographers (Frances Lincoln Publishing, 2020), with two lens diaphragms—one red, the other green—superimposed against plain white, could hardly be more compelling. Certainly, it’s hard to see a photograph, or even multiple photographs, getting across so, er, plainly the essence of this book.

And what a tremendous book it is!

In Photography Rules, editor Paul Lowe curates some 200 essential mantras and bite-sized dos and don’ts by a Who’s Who of famous (and not-so-famous yet hugely influential) photographers spanning decades, genres and cultures. The great photographers from history who offer their wisdom include Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaadt, Robert Capa, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, and Richard Avedon.

Plus, you can glean inspiration and insider tips from some of the most well-respected living photographers: Ed Kashi… Joe McNally… Annie Leibowitz… Swarat Ghosh… Shahidul Alam… Juno Calypso, among many others.

Each page bears a snappy title that encapsulates the rule or tidbit of advice: “Watch the background,” and “Limit your tools,” for example. And that iconic nugget from Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” As you see from the images, their kernels are more fully developed, while Lowe’s own succinct comments put each photographer’s pithy “do or don’t” in context and boil it down to a specific rule, often with a closing commentary on how best to put the advice into practice.

The images below are, presumably, from the UK edition. My U.S. edition extracts the essential quote and displays it in larger type above or adjacent to the photograph, with the full text per below. And the colored bars are gone, providing a cleaner plain white background throughout.

Super insightful stuff from the masters! Presented in easy-on-the-eye, easy-on-the-mind format.

The book is broken down into three chapters:

MAKING PHOTOGRAPHS
Spanning the spectrum from composition, working with light, and more esoteric elements such as “drop the mask of the subject” (Philippe Halsman) and “Strip it back to the essential” (Richard Avedon), this chapter focuses on practical tips for taking great photographs or establishing your genre.

ON BEING A PHOTOGRAPHER
“Play with preconceptions”… “Break the rules one at a time”… “Photograph with all your ideology”… and “Shoot what you love” are aspects of the insider guidance on creativity, attitude, finding your personal vision, etc.

PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE
“Support others… take care of your friends,” suggests renowned gallerist and curator Laura Noble. “Don’t rush it,” adds British portrait photographer Kate Peters. “Kill your darlings!” suggests Magnum’s Global education Director, Shannon Ghannam. “[If] you can’t be brutal with your own images, find someone you trust who can.” And “Know why you are doing the work,” says Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam, whose accompanying image of a servant watching the family TV from the veranda tells a truly compelling story.

“Mizan used to work at my mother’s,” he writes. “His jobs included cleaning the room where we watched television. But he wasn’t allowed to watch TV with the rest of us. He would watch his favourite programme, Alif Laila, sitting on the veranda outside the TV room, through the open doorway. I published it in the Drik calendar and gave a copy to Mizan and one to my mother. The next day, Mizan sat inside to watch TV with the rest of us. It was a small thing in some ways, but it changed Mizan’s life and my mother’s and certainly changed mine.”

Some of the contributors add practical lists, such as “The rules of doing a photobook kickstarter” and Oracle picture editor Neil Turner’s seven pointers that illustrate his tip to “Develop good business sense.” Throughout, Paul Lowe adds his own indispensable guidance. The result is a gold-mine of succinct dos and don’ts on developing your career, marketing yourself, working with clients, collaborations, etc.

Oddly, or all-too-modestly, there’s no bio on Lowe, an award-winning photographer (his work has been published in Life, Newsweek, Time, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Observer and The Independent amongst others) and Course Director of the Master’s program in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.

Whether you’re a complete neophyte who shoots with a cellphone, an accomplished photographer looking to up your DSLR skills, or like myself a professional who knows there’s so much more to learn from our peers, this book offers plenty of inspiration and should be an indispensable part of your bookshelf.

Disclosure: I’d like to thank Frances Lincoln Publishing (Quarto Publishing Group) for providing me with an advance reader copy.

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Christopher P Baker

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Christopher P. Baker, one of the world's most multi-talented and successful travel writers and photographers has been named by National Geographic as one of the world's foremost authorities on Cuba travel and culture. Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 as 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' he has authored more than 30 books, leads tours for National Geographic Expeditions, Edelwiss Bike Travel, and Jim Cline Photo Tours, among other companies, and is a Getty Images and National Geographic contributing photographer.