Five Elements of a Great Photograph
By Nancy Hill
Nearly everyone who picks up a camera wants to take a great photograph that makes people say, “Wow! That’s incredible!” But alas, few people manage to get much more than, “That’s really nice.”
Why? Perhaps it’s because not many people know what makes a photograph incredible.
So let’s take a look at five elements that make a photograph great.
1. Good photographs are well composed
There have been entire books written about composition, and you should certainly spend some time seeing what they have to offer. In the meantime, though, here are a few simple things to keep in mind:
Move in close to a subject. If a particular rose has caught your eye because of the dew holding on to the petals, move in on that rose. The rest of the rose bush will distract the viewer. On the other hand, if you’re photographing the joy on your child’s face after his or her team won a big game, show a bit of the baseball field behind your child so the viewer sees the full picture. Your picture isn’t about a happy child, it’s about a child who is happy about winning a game. Let the viewer see that.
Frame your subject. If you are shooting a landscape, try using the branches of a nearby tree in the foreground. The “frame” doesn’t have to be perfectly focused. You can also use frames effectively when photographing people. Perhaps you can frame a group of children playing in a park by using a tire swing in the foreground. Be creative.
Use the rule of thirds. This is much more simple than it sounds. Draw three imaginary lines horizontally across your photograph. Draw three imaginary lines vertically across the same picture. Where those lines intersect is where the most important part of your subject should be places. Try taking a photograph using this principle. Try it by centering the subject. You’ll see how much more drama the photograph that adheres to the “rule of thirds” holds.
If you’re shooting a landscape, try to find an “s” curve to incorporate into your image. Streams and rivers meander. Rather than situate yourself in front of a “straight” section of the stream, move around until you capture the gentle curves the stream takes. Same with a garden; find the winding paths and use them to add movement and interest to your photograph.
Use diagonals. A strong photograph often composes the subject in a diagonal line. Look at classic paintings of still lifes to see this used well.
2. Good photographs are well exposed
A poorly exposed photograph will never make a great photograph. Even enhancing your photograph with software won’t give you an image that is as good as one that was correctly exposed to begin with. Take the time to learn how to use your camera’s meter. It will be well worth your effort.
3. Good photographs evoke feelings
A good photograph stirs up emotions. From a good laugh at a silly kitten tangled in thread to a feeling of horror over an image of war, photographs should make the viewer feel something strongly. So before you release your shutter, ask yourself what emotion you want your image to evoke. Awe at the beauty before you? Hope when your viewer sees someone helping a homeless person? Identify the feeling before you shoot, and your photographs will likely improve.
4. Good photographs tell stories
This might be a little hard to believe at first, but a good photograph always tells a story. If it’s a photograph of a person, a good photograph is about “who” the person is. School photographs record how a student “looks,” but seldom say who your child is. A landscape tells a story about the land; it shows the viewer whether the land is tranquil or in upheaval, whether it is resting quietly in winter or bursting with activity in spring, whether it is pristine or spoiled by man’s intrusion. Just like you should know the feeling you want to evoke, know the story you want to tell.
5. Good photographs say something about life
Memorable photographs tell the viewer something more than just how something looks. They show more than the subject you are photographing. A truly good photograph says something about life itself. It makes the viewer stop and think. We’ve all seen those cute animal pictures that make the rounds through email. These have enormous appeal because they tell us that life can be playful, that it is still full of fun and innocence. Photographs of the Grand Canyon are no more than pretty pictures unless the viewer can also see more than the rocks themselves. A cliff says that life can be dangerous. Rocks caught in early morning light show that even something as solid as a rock also has a gentle quality. Use your photographs to communicate things you know about life to be true.
Any one of the five elements above will move your photographs a step away from “That’s nice.” The more of the elements you use in one image, the closer you are to getting a “Wow! That’s beautiful!” Use all five and you will be able to create a masterpiece.