Human's survival instinct
and photography rules

If you look at the human brain, even though we value the intelligent activities that set us apart from the rest of the animals, most of its functions are for animal instincts. Like many smart people said (including this TED talk speaker), "beauty" is the label we give to everything that we seek for the survival and expansion of the human race.

Since the goal of photography is to capture beauty, for each picture we think is beautiful there must be explanation from the animal instinct point of view. Our brains are programmed to react to some visual patterns that is linked to the behavior we should take (at least when we were primitive mammals) for our survival. These are just my theories but more and more "photography tips" seem to fit human survival instinct as I think about them.

Photography Rules

There are a number of "composition rules" that often help you with the framing. I believe they are related to the visuals that make you feel comfortable or inspire you to explore.


First, here are the most popular subjects in photography and why we like them as mammals:

Flowers, green grassVegetation (food) exists.
SunsetOrange light indicates clear sky and good climate.
Fog, rainbowThere is moisture in the air and you are likely to have rain and water.
Snow, ice (especially when brightly-lit)There is source of water and the temperature is around freezing point (cold but survivable).
Snow on distant mountainsRivers bringing long-lasting downstream of water.

Composition rules

A photographer once taught us about weather: When it is sunny with blue sky, use wide angle lens to capture the landscape. When it is cloudy, foggy, rainy, or stormy, use telephoto lens to focus on smaller subjects. This should reflect our programming. We should appreciate the landscape when the weather is good and decide if we should settle or continue exploring. When the weather is bad, we should seek shelter.

Here are the composition rules that are especially useful under good weather:

Use reflection to capture mirror image in the lake

Reflection implies stationary water with no wave, which is likely to be a pond or lake (not sea) with drinkable water. Images reflected in a vertical mirror may still remind us of reflection in the water, but it may also be the symmetry that make them more interesting (see below).

Incorporate leading lines, vanishing point such as road and train track

Leading lines indicate the path to explore to find new territories. Curved lines and winding roads draws our attentions more because it is the shape of slow-flowing meandering river that forms fertile land along its path.

Here are other composition rules that are not limited to good weather:

Frame in frame: Look through a door or other kind of opening

Before humans started creating buildings, the only time they saw a "frame" within their view was when they were looking outward from within a shelter like in a cave where they were safe and comforable.

Include foreground layer

Yes, having the foreground layer, subject, and background layer gives the scene more "depth". But, more importantly, seeing grass or bush in front of you means your body is hidden behind it from the subject. Similar to "frame in frame" above, the viewer is in a comfortable protected state. If it is a portrait, this would create a moody picture if the subject is looking away from the camera.

Use patterns and vertical lines as the background

Vertical lines indicate the trunks of tall trees. People under those tall trees will be shelftered from rain and possibly close to food. Other geometric shapes may be a bunch of rocks where where you can potentially find a cave to use as a shelter.

Use light and shadows on the subject

When a beam of light is casting on the subject, that means they are under a tree or something similar. Like the topics above, they can be in a shelfter shielded from direct sunlight. However, if the subject is looking out into the light, it makes them look like hiding from an enemy or scouting the outside. It adds drama to the scene.

Rule of Thirds: Position the main subject off-center

This is probably the most well-known composition rule. Maybe placing your focus of interest (like the food) off-center in your vision allowed you to keep looking around and watch out for other animals going for the same target or trying to attack you.

Rule of Odds: Include three or five items of the same kind

This rule is not discussed as often as other rules but you get drawn to the picture with three items more than the ones with two or four (at least I do). Could it be the number of animals you should hunt for when you see them? (like parents and a youngling? A male and a female and a third wheel? ;) )


Symmetry is often found in the form of animals and plants. No matter if they are our enemies or food, we are program to pay attention to them. When primitive humans were hunting animals, maybe "Include foreground layer" told them to hide behind the bush. Maybe "Rule of the Thirds" told them to look around while going after the target. But when a tiger showed up and looked at them directly, "Symmetry" would kick in and they would have to focus all their attention to it. If you don't see too many "Rule of thirds" pictures of menacing tiger looking right at the camera, that would be the reason.