There are many things that help make a great photograph - a good photographer, the right equipment and luck can all play a part but there are three things that, in different proportions, are absolutely essential.

  1. Light: Possibly the most important element to making an ordinary photograph into a good one.
  2. Composition: Getting all the right elements in the right places.
  3. Subject Matter: It's true that what you are photographing can very easily make the difference between good, very good and great pictures

 

Light: You not only need the right quantity of light, but the right quality and direction of the light are vital too.

  • Too much light can be just as much of a problem as too little. A picture that relies on shallow a depth of field for it's impact will be hard to achieve if there is too much light to work with wide open lens. Of course if there is too little light to freeze the action when that's vital to the picture, that's also a problem.

  • Many pictures rely on hard shadows and extreme contrast for their effect and others need even and soft light to make the photograph work.

  • What direction the light is coming from in relation to the subject matter is important. Strong backlight will be perfect for some subjects and ninety degree side light will do it for others.

Composition: Whatever else is going on in the picture, this is the element of the total package over which you have the most control.

  • What lens you use is an absolutely critical decision to take in terms of the composition. What you can see through the viewfinder is utterly controlled by this decision.

  • Where you position yourself in relation to the subject is another crucial decision.

  • Confusion is the greatest enemy of clarity! How successful you are in keeping extraneous details out of the photograph has an enormous bearing on the final result.

Subject Matter: All great photographs tell their own story, and that's just as true for a product shot of ball bearings as it is for Pulitzer prize winning documentary images.

  • If what you are photographing tells it's own story, then you need to strip the content down so that the story isn't confused.

  • Some things aren't that interesting, so you need to add content. Telling the story sometimes requires the photographer to set the context.

  • Photographs don't always need to be great art. Sometimes subject matter is all, and nothing else matters. If there is only one picture of a vital news event and it's out of focus and taken from video it may well qualify as a great picture.

Three elements that go together to make great pictures. Sometimes light takes the lead and other times the composition is the most important. It doesn't matter if one element is dominant, but photographs where all three are well balanced and well done then the image is guaranteed to be a winner.

There is, however, one extra element that you can't legislate for. Magic. Like many things in photography, you know it when you see it but you cannot measure it or define it. Well composed and lit pictures that have great subject matter are (relatively) easy to come by, but once in a while they have magic too.

© Neil Turner February 2003

 

 
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