The Ten Commandments of Photography by Nick Gleis

March 16, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

The First Commandment

Lighting Is Everything.

I can easily take a dull and lifeless image and make it instantly unique and interesting just by lighting it properly.

When I take a photograph I am simply capturing light -- and the feeling that light brings to a two dimensional plane.

My guide is simple.  On my planet there is only one sun.  For millions of years the human eye has known only one major light source -- the sun.  The human being is hard-wired as a species to accept the presence of only one light source or the images become surreal. That source usually comes from above, unless your subject happens to be standing next to an erupting volcano.

Now before you get your panties all in a ruffle, I know that statement is very broad. Not everything looks good lit by the sun, fire doesn’t always evoke images of Satin at play, and Frankenstein looked great lit from below.

But learning the “rules of lighting” is the most important thing you can do as a photographer. Once you know all the rules, then you can throw them all into the trashcan in order to tell your story in a dramatic and interesting fashion.

Great lighting first appears in art generally around the Renaissance Period.  But before you fall asleep reading about yet another artist who died about 700 years ago -- allow me to make a simple point.

There was once a guy named Da Vinci.  I’m sure you’ve seen the portrait of the very plain, but nonetheless very famous, girl with the half smile.  That was not Da Vinci’s only work, but it may be his most famous. Michelangelo was another guy creating art around the same time.  Even though Michelangelo never considered himself a painter, but rather a sculptor, he had a firm grasp on lighting. As a matter of fact, he understood it so well that Pope Julius II had him spend about four years on his back painting upside down on a ceiling.

Da Vinci, Michelangelo and thousands of other artists since then have known one very important thing.  In order to create depth and interest on a two dimensional plane you need to have highlights and shadows. The less the highlights and shadows, the less the depth.

Anyone who wants to be a great photographer should start looking at the paintings done by the masters.  You don’t need a Master’s Degree in Art History, though it wouldn’t hurt, but take just a few moments away from Facetime or Twitter and look at some of the great works done by our best artists. You might even have something to tweet about when you figure out why they sell for millions and millions of dollars.

In my opinion, the greatest portrait photographer who ever lived was Yousuf Karsh. Mr. Karsh had all the right stuff --  his lighting was dramatic, he captured the essence of his subjects, he knew when to break the rules of lighting to draw attention to certain parts of the image, and he was a master at the techniques available to him at the time.

It is no easy task to combine great images, abstract ideas that convey a message, superior technique, and dramatic lighting.  Another true master at that is Jerry Uelsmann. Way back in the mid 1970s I was fortunate enough to watch Mr. Ulesmann create a photograph during a workshop in Yosemite Valley.  There was a group of us gathered in Ansel Adams’s lab, and we were standing around watching a magician at work. Mr. Ulesmann lectured to us on the various techniques that helped him create some of his most stunning images -- and we were all just watching him like little puppy dogs waiting for a piece of bacon.

Mr. Uelsmann put a negative into the enlarger and projected it onto the easel. He then composed the image and made a sketch on the easel with a pencil. The sketch outlined the area of the image that would be part of the overall finished print.  He did this while talking about various aspects of that image, as well as the images to come. It was like a flim flam man calling our attention to something while he picked our pockets.

Meanwhile, after he had placed a piece of paper on the easel, he was casually talking and doing a little hand puppet dance in the light of the enlarger.  A little burning here and a little dodging there, no big deal. Once the exposure was made, he took the paper and put it into a light tight box while he prepared the next negative.

Following the completion of all the necessary exposures, he casually slipped the paper from the easel and slid it into the developer tank.

Then, as the image became clearer he rubbed the print in places here and there and -- Oh My God -- I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I have attached some examples of Mr. Uelsmann’s work, and believe me this is not Photoshopped. It’s the real deal.

Once we got over the initial shock of how easy he made the near-impossible look, we realized that Mr. Uelsmann had that image in his mind the entire time.  He knew what the rules were, and how to use those rules, to bring to life a whole new world.

Today’s world has changed. Photoshop and digital images have redefined the way that we produce images -- but the previsualization of an image remains all important.

The Second Commandment

Previsualization is Paramount to a Great Image.

Ansel Adams was a great photographer and was the leader in the black and white photographic technique. But while Ansel was a wonderful man and lots of fun to be around -- if you got him talking on the subject of darkroom technique it became like speaking to Albert Einstein about the theory of relativity as it pertains to space travel.

Ansel wrote several books that were essentially the must-read textbooks on the Zone System. The Negative, The Print and The Camera was a series of books that explained the ideas and techniques used to expose, process and print images using the Zone System. The books, although very informative and technically advanced for their time, were difficult for the average student to understand.

Minor White then wrote a book on the subject of the Zone System that helped clarify some of the advanced technical language.  In his book he talked about a technique that he called Previsualization.

That word has always stuck with me and has greatly influenced my work from early on.  Minor White wrote, “Different levels of photography require different levels of understanding and skill. A ‘press the button, let George do the rest’ photographer needs little or no technical knowledge of photography. A zone system photographer takes more responsibility. He visualizes before he presses the button, and afterwards calibrates for predictable print values.”(Taken from The New Zone System Manual by Minor White.)

He was saying that it isn’t the subject that determines the outcome of a photograph – it’s the imagination of the photographer who creates the image.

With the various digital techniques available today, and in the years going forward, more and more photography will be about knowing in advance what you want the image to look like, rather than simply recording what’s there.

Knowing the final outcome of a photograph -- then going about gathering and assembling the various parts necessary to make that vision a reality -- is the photographer’s canvas and paint that will become his final work of art.

While many of my photographs are commercial by nature, virtually all of the images I create have some degree of previsualization applied to them prior to pressing the shutter button.

For example, when photographing the interior of a jet aircraft, I want the viewer to get the feeling of the surroundings -- to actually feel the fine leather, the lush carpet, and the unsurpassed workmanship that goes into the woodwork. I also want to project a spacious feeling, no matter how small the aircraft might be.

Back in the 1980s I was flying from Detroit to Long Beach, CA aboard Mr. Lee Iacocca’s Gulfstream IV.  Mr. Iacocca was not aboard the aircraft and I was sitting in the forward lounge area. As we reached our cruising altitude I saw that we were above some big, fluffy clouds and the sun was shining very brightly. I had been working all night and was quite tired -- and perhaps that lack of sleep opened my mind suddenly to what was all around me.

For years I had been photographing aircraft with the window shades closed. This was due primarily to the fact that opening the windows would present a whole new set of technical problems that, at the time, I didn’t have an answer for.  As I sat there it suddenly struck me that I wasn’t capturing the “feeling” of flying in a Gulfstream. Closing the shades and not allowing the viewer to “feel” the sky flowing through the interior had suppressed the visual impact of the large cabin and big windows.

Needless to say, since that time I do a much better job of capturing the ambiance of the aircraft interior, rather than simply recording what is there.

That is previsualization applied to a commercial subject.  On the other hand, a good friend of mine whom I grew up with takes the process of previsualization to the next level.

Huntington Witherill is a renowned photographer whose work has been featured in galleries and museums all over the world.  

Huntington’s work is the opposite of simply recording objects. He takes some of the simplest compositions, and through the use of previsualization -- and a vast pool of technical knowledge – he turns them into works of art. You can also view more of Huntington’s work at

Whether you’re trying to enhance a photograph for commercial purposes, or trying to produce a pure work of art like Huntington Witherill and Jerry Uelsmann, it is important to realize that Photoshop and a digital camera cannot make a great, or even good, photograph by themselves. They are just additional tools in your bag of tricks.  Just as a nail gun makes a carpenter’s work easier and faster, digital tools such as Photoshop simply give the photographer a faster and better way to achieve a final image.

The Third Commandment

Thou Shalt Not Overuse Photoshop.

About the turn of the century Adobe Photoshop began to dominate the post-production world of digital images with regard to stills.

Since that time Adobe has made a lot of changes and improvements.  One of the goals of the company in designing the software was to make it more user-friendly, so as to expand the possibility of selling their software to more and more people.

Congratulations, Adobe, you did it.

But with every great step forward comes a new level of incompetence. The more tricks, filters, color choices and other wiz-bang gadgets Adobe adds to Photoshop -- the more images I see that actually hurt my eyes.

Recently I had the displeasure of working with a twenty-something art director on a shoot in which he had no direction or goal in mind.  Not only that -- he actually felt he could produce images with his telephone that would rival mine simply because he could “fix” them in post production. His objective was to take as many frames and angles as possible -- then sift through them in order to assemble his final jigsaw puzzle.

Now I don’t want to burden the reader with a boring cliché -- but crap in, crap out.

The client, on the other hand, who did have a vision, allowed both of us to use our own methods. The outcome was inevitable. All of my previsualized shots were used as feature photographs. The client didn’t even recognize one of the photographs – though he’d been right there when I took it. That image became a favorite of his in that series.

My point is not to belittle the capabilities of that art director (he does that on his own), but to illustrate that a good photograph is no snap – and adding wild filter effects and distortions will not fix a poorly thought-out image.

In today’s world, all you need to do is point your camera in the general direction of your subject and press the button. From there you can, in seconds, post the photo on dozens of websites for the world to admire.

If you choose to wait a minute or two longer, you can even pull up software on your phone or transfer the photo to a larger capacity computer and make changes to the original image that will enhance the picture.

In 1993, I was giving a presentation to a group of prominent interior designers on the status of digital technology. At that time, things like color correction, sharpness enhancement, and image perspective changes seemed like something only Merlin could do with his magic wand.

At the end of the presentation one of the designers, Mr. Scot Stoke, pulled me aside and said, “Nick, this is great stuff, and I’m sure that going forward we’ll all find uses for this new technology, but you need to remember that it’s just another lens in your case.  Technology, itself, will not produce a great image -- it will only give you the ability to take a good image and make it better.”

Since that time, remembering those words, I, too, have struggled with taking the abilities of digital enhancement software too far. It’s hard to resist. It can be so cutting edge and refreshing.  But it can also throw cold water on your “refreshing” image.

There should be a label on the software:  “Use with caution, Photoshop can be dangerous or fatal without proper judgment.”

The Fourth Commandment

Know the Optical Effects of Your Lenses and Incorporate Them into Your Previsualized Image.

The optical effects or distortion of a lens often plays into the overall effect an image has on a viewer. Sometimes you want to distort an image in order to make it look larger and more spacious, such as when photographing an interior of an aircraft. Or perhaps you want to compress the image and give it a larger-than-life look, like a race car coming straight at you. Either way, you need to understand the optical effects of all your lenses and incorporate those into your final image.

There is an old saying, so old I think it was found off the coast of New Guinea inside a prehistoric cave carved by some primitive photographer. Actually, it may have been George Eastman, himself, who said it just after he introduced photographic film.  It went on to become the guideline for people like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

He said:  Always use the longest lens and smallest aperture available.  

Now why would someone say that -- and why have I chosen to tell you something that isn’t true, considering all the lenses we have available today?

Because the rule still has a great deal of meaning.

Back in the 1930s, and up until the year 1990 or so, photographs were primarily used to record events and objects. The more literal, sharp and well lit the images were, the better. There were certain exceptions to this rule, but in general the vast majority of photographs were taken with this goal in mind. Even in today’s world of Facebook and Twitter most of the photographs are simply a record of what was there.

The best way to accomplish this was to use a long, or longer than normal, focal length lens and the smallest f stop available in order to carry maximum depth of field. If the subject or area surrounding the subject meant that a wide-angle lens had to be used, and the only f stop available was wide open in order to freeze the subject, then so be it.  But the basic rule still applied.

The human eye sees approximately the same perspective as a 50mm lens on a full frame (chip) 35mm camera. Therefore, anything above 50mm on a 35mm camera is considered a telephoto lens, and anything below is a wide-angle lens.

Due to the optical distortion a wider lens provides, you will get a stretched-out feeling, and the opposite is true of a telephoto lens, where you will get a compressed image.

Now I can already hear the computer propeller heads out there telling me that software changes all that, and you can now fix or reverse the optical effects in postproduction. True, to a point, but there are a lot of downsides to that.  Let’s just say there are pros and cons to doing that.

I love long lenses, maybe because most of the photographs I take for a living involve the use of extremely wide lenses, but whatever the reason, I love the feeling a long lens gives to a photograph. If I can, I will always use the longest lens I have, which is a 600mm with a 1.4 adapter, giving me an effective focal length of 840mm. I have even used it in very close up situations. The photo below was taken with the 840mm lens in my garden. Notice the background is completely gone, and the flower looks almost surreal.

Certainly there are times, more often than not, when I cannot use a lens this long. My first choice is to take a look at the subject and the circumstances I’m shooting under, then choose the right lens that produces the optimal optical distortion for the photograph.  

With regard to the f-stop, the more the aperture is closed, the more depth of field or depth of focus you will achieve. In both cases you need to consider what you want to achieve, and how to do it.

For instance, let’s imagine that you are taking a photo of a beautiful nude woman at your home overlooking the beach on the island of Maui. Pretend that she’s lying by your pool (don’t you wish).  You might want to put the background out of focus as much as possible to call attention to the beautiful girl (like she needs more attention). In this case, you would want to open the f-stop all the way up to drop the background into a dreamy blur.

In another dream, pretend that you’re doing an interior shoot of an ancient monument that you have been commissioned to do by the Getty Institute. To capture all the important, far-reaching architectural perspectives, you might want to stop the f stop down most of the way in order to ensure that everything is sharp.

During the previsualization process these factors should be accounted for and incorporated into both the initial image and the final outcome. That’s why it’s so important to understand the focal length of your lenses, and how they apply to a finished image.

The Fifth Commandment

Motion Blur Makes a Photograph Come Alive.

To me, there is nothing more boring than a photograph of a car going in excess of 150 mph that looks like it’s standing still in the middle of a racetrack. This also holds true for water moving down a stream or waterfall.

Freezing action certainly has its place, and it often catches action the human eye fails to record, but for subjects meant to be seen with a definite fluidity   -- why would someone stop that motion?

Often I take photos for various organizations involved with automobile racing. Because there is a need for photographs of the cars where you can see every detail of both the car and driver, including his underwear, I do take those kinds of images. They are no challenge at all, however, and the results are a reflection of that lack of challenge.  Instead I like to increase the drama by increasing the focal length of the lens. But even then I still have a car sitting in the middle of the track begging for a parking ticket.

Car Images Here)

Recently I was photographing the Long Beach Grand Prix and was standing next to a younger woman who was apparently photographing her first race. We were both clicking off shots of the Indy cars as they came around turn six. Soon someone hit the wall farther up the track, the red flag came out, and everything came to a standstill.  The woman then said to me, “Can you imagine doing this without auto focus?”

Well, frankly I could. For over 25 years I had been photographing races without auto focus. I told her that taking images of cars when they get to a certain spot on the track, and using a high shutter speed to stop the action, was one of the easiest photos to take. With some arrogance I told her that I could do it with my eyes shut.

So she challenged me to do just that. When the green flag came out I put my camera down, closed my eyes, and listened to the cars coming through the turn. When I thought I had the rhythm down, I picked up the camera and took pictures of the next three oncoming cars.

The framing wasn’t perfect, and I cheated a little bit by backing off the zoom to allow some room for error, but all in all the shots were pretty acceptable. All right, I was showing off, but she was impressed (anything to dazzle a pretty girl, you know).

For the rest of the day I shot everything below 1/60th of a second. In most cases, the shots were unusable. When you get way down there in shutter speed it becomes 60% skill and 40% luck.  But when the luck comes, it’s like hitting a long shot at the horse races. It has a big payoff.

(Race Images Here)

The same thing goes for water, only then it becomes not so much a matter of speed as it is grace. The gentle, flowing water should add fluidity to the image, so that the eye will follow it like the curve of a mountain road.

(Moving Water Images)

Another great way to produce a feeling of movement or action around a subject is to allow the main subject to be perfectly sharp, while the other objects around the subject are blurred. Many ads use this technique, and done properly it will draw the viewer’s attention to the area you’re trying to promote, while giving the image a life of its own.

(PSAV Chicago Image)

There are no hard and fast rules about how much blur or sharpness you need in order to create a dramatic effect. It’s a crapshoot anyway, and the result is a combination of skill, luck and art.  But motion blur in a still photograph definitely makes the image come alive.

The Sixth Commandment

Just Because It’s Crap Doesn’t Make It Art, and Just Because It’s Art Doesn’t Make It Crap.

The Encyclopedia Britannica Online defines art as, "The use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others."

Another definition states, “The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”

If you visit a renowned museum today, such as the Los Angles County Art Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you will find an assemblage of works from Di Vinci to Warhol, and every variation therein.

While I certainly cannot, and would not, even begin to define the word art, I would like to say this.

Recently I was appalled to view three pieces of canvas hanging in a famous museum that were all painted solid black. The pieces were critically acclaimed and were worth lots of money. The “artist,” whom I suspect was sponsored by either Home Depot or Lowe’s, was being honored by the museum as if he had just completed the Sistine Chapel.

But it was crap, pure and simple.

It’s not that I don’t understand -- I do understand.  I understand that it’s crap.

On the flip side, I have seen many paintings and photographs I didn’t personally like, but I could certainly appreciate the effort that went into them.  Their image invoked an emotion or made a statement they clearly wished to share with the world.

If you want people to respect your work, then don’t just buy a roller on sale, dip it into a pan of paint, and smear it on a canvas.

While I am not a fan of photographers like David Hilliard and Steve McCurry, they are artists with a unique vision and impressive technical knowledge. They have developed a style that separates them from the herd, and they produce images that provoke real thought.

Art is impossible to define. However, when judging your own work you should ask yourself one simple question. Does the image convey my feelings on the subject -- and does it have more than ordinary significance, beauty, and appeal?  Or is it just a futile attempt at joining the ranks of Home Depot house painters who applaud the King’s new clothes?

The Seventh Commandment

Great Equipment Does Not Guarantee Great Images; It Only Enhances the Possibilities.

Far too much emphasis is placed on the quality of the camera and lens a photographer uses. Nearly everyone asks me what type of camera and lens I use.

Somehow the overwhelming majority of people feel that the primary success of an image depends on the sophistication of the camera and lens the photograph was taken with.  Or perhaps they just don’t know the right questions to ask.

Some time ago I was on a shoot in San Antonio, Texas. The subject was a large private aircraft and I was about to take the standard in-flight exterior photograph. Today’s technology allows me to take that photograph on the ground, then place the aircraft in the air with whatever sky I choose. So I had to recruit one of the lineman to lift me up on a cherry picker to a height I could take the photograph from.

As we moved high into the air across the ramp and onto the grass the operator went too fast over a curb – and the result was like a bad carnival ride. The operator and I were almost ejected.  This was not true, however, of the Canon EOS 1DS Mark III camera and 24-105mm L lens attached to the body.

The camera landed on the tarmac with all the grace of an egg being thrown out of a second story building.  I quickly had my assistant Erik hand me another camera and I finished the shot.

After a few moments, we started to walk back through the hangar. Soon a voice from one of the workbenches sounded off. “If I had a camera like that, I could take great pictures, too,” the faceless voice shouted.

You know what they say -- timing is everything -- and this guy picked the wrong time to say that to me.  I turned in the direction of the voice. The look on my face must have given away my mood because I could tell the man standing at the bench was calling on all the powers real and imagined to make himself disappear.

“OK, Pal, this is a Canon Eos 1Ds Mark III,” I said.  “I can set this camera up any way you want. Aperture priority, shutter priority, full automatic, manual -- you name it.  Just tell me how you want it.”

At that point I reached into my pocket and took out my IPhone and waved it around like a magician waves his wand. “I will use my TELEPHONE -- and we’ll have a little contest. You can even pick the subject.  After thirty minutes, I’ll bet you $1000 I can come up with a better shot than you can.”

You know how a puppy sort of sneaks around with his head hung low and then rubs up against you to say he’s sorry?  Well, that isn’t quite how it went, but close enough.

My point is this:  Follow the rules, break the rules, or ignore the rules, but don’t either credit or blame the final image on the equipment.

But good equipment is necessary and helpful.  Use everything you have, then acquire even more of it to help you broaden your possibilities.

The Eighth Commandment

Color In a Photograph Is Subjective.

A photograph is a reflection of what the photographer sees, not necessarily what is there.  (See the Second Commandment.)

Sometimes clients tell me that their chair or headliner is actually 10% more green, more blue, more tan, or whatever. They want me to exactly reproduce the actual colors of the fabrics and textures. And most of the time I do reproduce colors very accurately.  However, it is not always mandatory, and you should also remain open to subjective color variations for the purpose of enhancement.

On a commercial shoot when the client is paying to have an interior represented as closely as possible, it is not necessarily good practice, or in the best interest of a pleasing photograph, to reproduce every fabric and detail as they actually are.  Reproducing exact colors can sometimes make an image look like it was created by a computer, rather than captured in a real-life situation.

If the room is warm, the fabrics will pick up that warmth, and the actual color of the fabric may change slightly.  If you’re photographing a building, and it has intimidating storm clouds and oncoming darkness around it, the building will have a cold, uninviting look to it.

Photographic images, just like other forms of art, are most effective when they draw a viewer in and create an emotion that appeals to the viewer’s senses. Motion picture directors often use color and light to give the viewer a sense of the surroundings. Blues are cold, reds are warm, dark is mysterious, and white is ethereal. These properties also apply to photographic images.

Too often today people strive to record what is there, but a monkey can record what is there. The human senses are actually more accurate than reality, and if you can involve your senses, your image will be that much better.

The Ninth Commandment

One Great Image Far Outweighs 100 Snap Shots.

Slow down and walk around the subject. Don’t be in a hurry. In today’s world instant gratification is the mount Olympus of the youthful set. You can pop an image off -- and before your naked girlfriend has a chance to say, “Don’t you dare put that on Facebook” -- the image has gone viral and her mother is already getting calls from other family members.

Pixels are cheap, pop, pop, pop, pop. Let’s put it all on Flicker and see if anyone stands up and cheers.

For over thirty years my primary camera was a 4x5 view camera. There is simply no way to hurry through a shoot using a view camera. Even if someone did make a motor driven five-frames-per-second view camera, it would completely defeat the purpose.

It’s not important that you burn through pixels faster than an avalanche falls down a snowy mountain. It’s only important that the pixels you burn through capture something that pleases you.

Take your time.  Think about the angle, lighting, composition and end result. (This again refers back to the First and Second Commandments.)

Often, I will just walk around a shot.  If the lighting isn’t right, or the subject needs to be approached from a unique perspective, I’ll go back to it later.

More times than not, when I do walk away with the intention of going back, I often think of something that will make the image even better than what I first imagined.  

In other words, a good photograph is no snap.

The Tenth Commandment

Listen Carefully To Those You Admire -- and Disregard All Other Chatter.

Every Fortune 500 company, with the exception of Apple Corporation when they were under the superb guidance of Steve Jobs, takes a month of Sundays to approve an idea.  Everyone else just tries to cover their asses.

Another reason for this is everyone has a different opinion. Now you throw in something as subjective as a photographic image and start asking opinions, and you’ll stir up a brew that the Wicked Witch of the East would envy. A pinch of this, a dash of that, boil and bubble, toil and trouble. Pretty soon, you have so many ingredients it just becomes poison, and the image dies.

Study as many different works by as many different photographers as you can. Find the ones you like and admire.  Then study their technique and images. Don’t copy them, but draw inspiration from their vision in order to stir up your emotions.

Your friends, family and acquaintances will always have an opinion, and you can choose whether to cheerfully disregard their chatter or to embrace it.  Just be sure to stay true to yourself. Your thoughts and feelings are always the best indicator of what’s best.


January February March (1) April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December