The Rule of Four

Photograph/Brian Lary

Photograph/Brian Lary

This column was originally published in April 2012.

In the movie “American Pie 2” (a movie grossly disregarded by the Academy Awards), there is the mention about the rule of three. This rule, in line with the overall maturity of the movie, states that whereas men exaggerate by a factor of three the number of women they have slept with, women on the other hand understate by a factor of three the number of men they have slept with. You do not learn facts like these from films who actually win Academy Awards.

What the movie did not mention is that there is a rule of four within photography. The rule of four states that it is only when buying camera equipment the fourth time that one really hits it right. How many tripods does one buy before knowing what kind would be the right one? Well, many photographers will say that they bought three tripods before they got what they really needed with the fourth one. And how many bags does it take before one really knows which would be the most practical one? Three bags are bought before getting it right with the fourth one. And how many lenses before finding the right lens for the right purpose? Yup, it is with the fourth lens one gets it right.

Anyone disagreeing, saying for example that he or she got the right lens the first time, simply has not tried another three lenses. And anyone saying that it takes more than four lenses is simply being a snob, indecisive, or both. Or suffering from tetraphobia (yes, that is a real word!). Am I wrong here? Uninformed? Heck no! I am just concluding what I have seen. The rule of four rules!

The rule of four is also relevant in other photographic cases. When taking photos with a digital camera, only every fourth photo is worth keeping. And only every fourth person being pictured looks photogenic. And only every fourth photographer probably knows what he or she is doing.

So, what are the consequences of the rule of four? Apart from a lot of money being spent, it can also be concluded that few photos are actually good. If only every fourth photographer succeeds with every fourth photo of every fourth person, only 0.25 X 0.25 X 0.25 = 1.6% of portrait photos are any good. And this is assuming that a photographer is at his or her fourth tripod, bag, lens, etc. If not, not even statistics can sort out the obscure situation in which one shall find oneself.

Incidentally, 1.6 is equal to 0.4 X 4, once again showing the significance of the number four. And as this would not be enough to prove the rule of four, here are some more proofs—four more proofs to be exact—of its validity.

1. Four-letter words are used by many photographers when they are unhappy with their photographic results.
2. Four is the number of corners of the sensor in a digital camera. Not five. Not three. Four!
3. Four out of four professional photographers will always use light to obtain a better result.
4. An ideal foursome is the term to use when everything clicks, i.e. the four factors shutterspeed, aperture, ISO and focus all join together to take the perfect photo.

So, what is the practical use of the rule of four? Well, like any rule, the rule of four can be used to predict future happenings.
The rule of four tells us that anyone buying a camera needs to budget four times the initial cost of anything bought.

Furthermore, any memory card needs to contain four times as many photos as actually appreciated. And anything shall have to be done four times before getting it right. In short, multiply any photo activity with four and you will have a more fourseeable photographic life.

The rule of four shows once and for all that photography is more than an art form; it is a science now that its behaviour can be foreseen and thus more understandable. Furthermore, the rule of four—being one number above the rule of three, or 33% more—is a more exact rule according to mathematical logic. Some would say that a potential rule of five would be even better, but such a rule would lead to costs that would be completely out of control. One has to be realistic here.

And with that, the rule of four really has its scientific place in photography.

Tags: better photography, Gabriel Fuchs, different strokes, column, Visual Musings, Brian Lary, American Pie 2, the rule of four of photography, number 4 and its use in photography, numerology and photography, opinion, rule of fourth