13 Famous Photography Proverbs: Are They Still True Today?

Carpenters are known to say things like, “Measure twice and cut once.” It’s hard to argue with that advice. But what about photographers? Should we trust the words of folks who deal mainly with images?

1. “F/8 and be there!”
This overused phrase is often attributed to Weegee, undeniably one of the greatest street photographers ever. Some people believe that this is a statement about aperture settings or depth-of-field. Google it and you can read how some folks even believe that there’s something special about f/8 itself. Nonsense. It means you can’t take many good pictures from your front porch. Pictures don’t come to you; you have to go get them.

The shot at the top of this column, of the young actress in Manhattan, is a good example of a picture I could not have gotten without being there.

2. “Expose for shadows, develop for highlights.”
Good advice—when I was developing Kodak Tri-X film in D-76. Nowadays there’s HDR. And some cameras, like the awesome Fujifilm X series, allow you to bias exposure to prevent blown highlights or blocked shadows. But I do admit that the principles behind this old saying are quite sound and worth understanding. Although I hate to equivocate, I have to give this one a ‘Yes and no.’

3. “Say CHEESE!”
Seriously? Unless you’re photographing a box full of lab rats, use a little more imagination than that. The phrase I use depends on how well I know the subjects. If they’re relative strangers, I usually say something straight like, ‘If you can’t see the lens, it can’t see you.’ If they’re stranger relatives, it’s something intended to get more of a reaction, like, ‘Bill, pull your trousers back up.’

Accidently caught my reflection in the big sun specs—looks like a mistake because it is. No cliché will save this shot. ©Jon Sienkiewicz

4. “It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.” ― Alfred Eisenstaedt
There’s no question that Alfred Eisenstaedt, who was one of the first photographers hired by LIFE magazine, was a master photographer, but he also said some weird things along the lines of, ‘When I have a camera in my hands, I know no fear.’ So I’m giving thumbs down to this bit of advice. Maybe that says more about me than about him, but—hey—it just doesn’t click for me.

5. “Asking what brand of camera was used is like asking what brand of typewriter Hemingway used.”
It was a Smith-Corona, I can tell from the EXIF file header. I had a typewriter like that once, but I got rid of it because it made too many mistakes.

6. “Photography is painting with light.”
I say ‘Bah, humbug’ to this aphorism, and not just ‘cause it’s artsy and cute. If you want to paint, buy some oils. Photography (in my world) is nothing at all like painting.

7. “The best photographic education is 100 rolls of film and the discipline to shoot them all with conviction.”
I’ve heard this one often—usually from people who had no formal photographic education. There is some merit to it, I’ll concede. Nothing beats experience, that’s certain, but flat out insisting that photography is best when self-taught is a bit narrow-minded.

Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights. But don’t forget about focus, as I apparently did here. ©Jon Sienkiewicz

8. “The only surprises I like are good ones.”
Amen, brother. I have long been an advocate of the old adage, ‘Getting what you want beats wanting what you get.’ But this somewhat flies in the face of the next proverb—so how do we reconcile that?

9. “Some of my best photos began with my biggest mistakes.”
Take this as a confirmation that experimentation is a great thing. But I can honestly say that some of my worst, indescribably putrid photos also began with my biggest mistakes. I guess the key to applying this axiom is, ‘Don’t be afraid to make mistakes—but learn from them.’

10. “If you deliberate for several seconds while deciding where to position a stamp on the corner of an envelope, you already know enough about composition to be a good photographer.”
Yes, I’m all in. I believe that photographic composition is 90% intuitive and the other half is learned.

11. “A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity.” ― George Bernard Shaw
I like Shaw, and I’m sure he never wrote a play that bombed. But I resent his implication that photographers create images ad infinitum in the hope that one will succeed. Imagine what he might have said if he had lived during the digital age of the delete button.

12. “There are no bad pictures; that's just how your face looks sometimes.” ― Abraham Lincoln
This one reminds me of a text I received from a client who wrote: ‘Send better head shot’ to which I replied, ‘Grow better face.’ I did say former client, no?

13. “Pay attention.”
The best advice I’ve ever gotten, or given. How about you? What’s the best photography advice you’ve ever received?

—Jon Sienkiewicz