When you look at a really good photograph, whether it's a nice portrait shot or a beautiful landscape, something inside you gets excited and you almost intuitively know it's great. But have you ever wondered how we know? Why do we like some photos and are unimpressed by others?
Everybody finds different subjects appealing in varying degrees, which is what makes photography subjective. But even if you are more turned on by street photography than by fine art images, a great photograph is almost universal.
When it comes to great photographs, a lot of images have a few things in common whether you consciously realize it or not. So what are the common threads between these photos? And how can you incorporate these ideas into your own work? Here is a short list of what elevates a photograph from being just ‘okay’ to something that inspires and moves your viewer.
1. A Purpose
Why was this photo taken? Was this image captured for a reason? All great photos have a purpose behind them, whether it’s to tell a story, show the viewer something beautiful or capture a moment. You always want your viewer to feel something, to evoke an emotion. It can be happiness or sadness, anger or curiosity. The worst emotion is indifference.
When you are getting ready to take a photo, you should ask yourself “Why am I taking this picture?” If you find yourself saying, “Just because”, or 'It's cool', it may not wind up being the strongest photo. If you don't know why you are taking a photo, why would your audience want to look at it? As photographers, we sometimes shoot everything in front of us because we think that's what we are supposed to be doing. What is more important is to be constantly looking and observing, not shooting.
There are a lot of methods and rules out there for creating compelling compositions. You have techniques such as the rule of thirds or the 'golden ratio' and other ideas such as leading lines, symmetry and framing. No one technique is better than the other and it doesn't matter which rule you follow, as long as every photo has a strong composition. What is strong is usually surprising and something a viewer hasn't seen before- a different perspective that changes the visual language.
When composing a photo, look at your image in a general manner. Look at the boldest and most basics lines; find shapes and colors that attract your eye and organize them in a memorable way. Try not to center your subject- move left or right or even up and down. Details can bog down an image- try and exclude anything that does not contribute to the photo. Mix and match the techniques and rules you know- try and surprise yourself!
One thing every photographer quickly realizes is that no amount of Lightroom developing or Instagram filtering can replicate good light. Light can transform a scene from ordinary to extraordinary, creating texture and vibrant colors that aren't seen everyday. Great light, whether it be bright and bold or dark and subtle, can change an entire narrative of an image.
The best natural light is usually an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, known as 'the golden hours'. Before you raise your camera, see where the light is coming from and use it to your advantage. Is the light highlighting a specific area or casting some cool shadows? Can you incorporate some sun flare to give your image an extra edge? Try changing the direction the light is coming from by moving around and playing with angles. Pay attention to light and seek it out!
4. Practice and Observe
The best way to get from taking good photos to taking great photos is to practice everyday. Shoot as much as you can and vary your subject matter. Spend hours behind your camera and experiment. It takes a lot of bad photographs to make a great one and the only way to get there is to shoot as much as you can!
Another way to elevate your photography is to look at good photos and study them. Take in as much photography as you can, whether it be online or in books and magazines. Check out different styles and analyze the images- what works? What doesn't? The more that you study and take in, the more intention you'll have.
Most people can take a photograph that is exposed correctly, has an accurate white balance and shows us something. But a great photograph goes beyond technical know-how and shows us something different and exciting. Many photographers just point and shoot and hope that something will work- a great photographer shoots with purpose, frames with intention and uses their environment to enhance their subject!