The Chef’s Rules Of Photography

Are there rules in photography?

I guess that if I were to ask this question without further qualifications, the answers would mention the rule of thirds or something just as silly.

That’s not what I have in mind, however, so allow me to explain.

I recently finished reading The Recipe: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Ingredients of Greatness, a book that has nothing to do with photography. It has to do with cooking, actually. If you love cooking I suggest you pick it up. If you like reading moral tales you will probably like it even more.

The book is about this retired chef and his rules of the kitchen that, in the end, turn out to be rules for living. Here they are:

  1. Taste everything.
  2. Improve every dish you touch.
  3. Pay attention to the little things.
  4. Compose your space.
  5. Build your team.
  6. Commit to excellence.
  7. Cook with honor.

As I was reading, I started to think about whether some of those rules might apply to photography and I came up with the following list of mine:

  1. Check your settings.
  2. Improve every scene you see.
  3. Pay attention to the little things.
  4. Tidy up your bag.
  5. Build your team.
  6. Commit to excellence.
  7. Photograph with honor.

While some are just the same and don’t need much of an explanation, others obviously do, especially if you haven’t read the book. In the following I will try to explain how I translated the chef’s rules of the kitchen to my own rules of photography.

Of course, these are not the only possible adaptations, nor I am implying that these are the only rules you will ever need. If you have suggestions for different rules, I would love to hear them in the comments below.

Taste everything / Check your settings

One of the mistakes the chef’s young apprentice makes at the beginning of his apprenticeship is to forget to taste the food that he’s cooking.

How can we apply this to photography? I believe this happened to everyone: we forget to check our camera settings and end up screwing up shots because we are shooting JPEG instead of RAW, we have the ISO set too high, autofocus or image stabilization turned off, or a number of other things.

Taking the time to check your settings before every session is extremely important, because most of the times you can’t fix these mistakes afterwards. Just like when you’re in the kitchen, if you’re not tasting you might be cooking something that can’t be fixed later.

Improve every dish you touch / Improve every scene you see

This might be taken in many different ways, so feel free to adopt the meaning that most closely resembles your ideal way of making photos (notice I said “making” and not “taking” on purpose).

Some people do a lot of post-processing work to improve the look of the photo that came out of the camera.

Portrait photographers will light, pose, and retouch.

Even hard-core street photographers and those who follow the straight-out-of-camera philosophy and never retouch their pictures pay attention to composition, choice of moment and not including unwanted distractions in the frame. When confronted with a scene, there are many ways to frame it, but only a few are good.

In the end, I take this rule to mean that we should never click the shutter randomly, but we should always strive to make the best of every subject, both in camera and in the darkroom or at the computer. Just taking whatever comes is not allowed.

Compose your space / Tidy up your bag

Despite the title, this rule is not about composition.

In the book, the chef cooks an omelette blindfolded and he’s able to do so perfectly because he has composed his space, arranging all the tools and the ingredients around his station so that he’s able to grab them when he needs them, even without looking.

Maybe that’s a bit farfetched. I don’t know, I’ve never seen someone cooking blindfolded. Regardless, it has happened to me many times that I had to find some lens or accessory inside my bag, sometimes in the dark.

Knowing exactly where everything is inside every little section and pocket of your photo bag makes the difference between capturing a fleeting moment and missing it. Ideally everyone should be able to fish any object out of their bag without looking.

I know I will forever struggle with this, as I can never seem to find what I need at first try.

Cook with honor / Photograph with honor

This one requires a bit more explanation. What does the chef mean when he says “Cook with honor”? He means to treat everyone with respect and never forget who you’re serving.

This of course applies to your clients, your audience, your models, and your team.

I don’t believe in those who say they only shoot for themselves. If there are some who really do, we obviously never hear about them, so whenever you hear someone say that, you can be certain they are not completely sincere.

But even those few who really do, have an audience that they should respect, even if it’s an audience of only one.

In case you are curious, here are the corresponding rules of life:

  1. Savor every moment.
  2. Make the world a better place with everything you do.
  3. Pay attention: how you do anything is how you do everything.
  4. Compose your life: put your effort into controlling the sail, not the wind.
  5. Build the people around you.
  6. Reject mediocrity: never compromise your standard.
  7. Live with honor: treat every person with respect, and never forget who you’re serving.

Send me your comments. I’d love to start a conversation!

P.S. All photos were taken during a recent trip to Paris.

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Comments 6

  1. Thanks for this…great ‘food’ for thought! (Sorry…couldn’t resist.).
    Seriously, this is the kind of blog we need. With so much of the latest hi-tech equipment and software and new techniques bombarding us it’s refreshing to be taken back to the basics. I especially appreciate the point about working ‘with honour’. Street Photography can be intrusive and some potential subjects are getting quite defensive when they see a photographer. It makes sense to communicate with these people and put them at ease about what one is doing. The issue of ethical photography is seldom addressed but it clearly does need to be.
    PS I loved your photos in the article. Great street scenes.

  2. Loved your article! Everything everywhere has become so technical or automated! Refreshing to read an article that gets us back to some simple basics and as you say can apply to Photography as well as life in general. I have one small addition when photographing with honour – be respectful of your environment and leave things as you found them. As a landscape and wildlife person I’ve seen some pretty “selfish” behaviour just to get the shot. Thanks Ugo!

  3. Good post. In rule number 1 (check your settings) I would add the caveat that you should take the shot even if you are unsure of your settings. Deleting a bad photo is easier to live with than missing a shot altogether.

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