As photographers we’re always chasing great photos. But, as with any art, what makes something “great” can be very subjective. Here the 5 key aspects you should be considering, as a photographer, when we talk about what makes a good photo.
Composition is the backbone of photography, and a key element in any competent photograph. A well composed image just feels “right” to us as viewers, and this is the foundation for you to build upon.
For example, a photo could have strong leading lines, beautiful symmetry, or feel perfectly balanced with the rule of thirds. Generally speaking, all great photos have very strong, deliberate, composition, but this is just the beginning.
Something truly magical happens when you have strong composition, but composition alone won’t make a great photo.
You need something else, something more to really make a photo great. But composition has to be the foundation upon which we build. Let’s consider some more elements.
Think of capturing a ‘good photo’ in tiers, with composition being the bottom layer.
Next we have light. Light is everything in photography. We’re always on the lookout for interesting light, whether that’s diffused golden hour lighting, or contrasting, well-placed, shadows. Lighting can really make an image change from average to something very special indeed.
These images below are wonderful, and a great example of what happens when you mix strong composition with perfect lighting, but would they be as impressive if they were shot at a different time of day? Lighting lighting lighting is key!
Another tier to our “great photograph” pyramid is colour.
Colours alone won’t make a great photo, but if you capture pleasing colours and tones, it can really elevate a good photo to a great one. The human eye is so sensitive to colour, and the emotions those colours bring.
Similarly, jarring colours will be very off-putting. Sometimes images really come together when you tweak their colours.
This is why it’s important to think about the sorts of colours that appeal to you as a photographer, and then in turn begin to develop your own style.
Perhaps the most important element, once we have strong composition, great colours, and wonderful lighting, is the story! Photographers are storytellers after all. We are out in the world with our cameras, trying to capture the world as we see it.
You can have the most perfectly composed image, with the best lighting and the best colours, and while it might be a very good photo, some might argue it can never be great without a story.
The story doesn’t have to be literal. It doesn’t need to be a person doing something or expressing something. You can have a story without a person in it. The story can be as simple as “a desolate landscape”, or “a busy seaside”. The important part is that you get your viewer to feel something.
Emotion is at the very peak of our “great photography” pyramid. This is where we really see something magical.
If a piece of art doesn’t make you feel anything then it has failed. Emotion can be anything from “wow that’s an amazing view!” to humour, to sadness, to anything in between. A great photograph can show you how someone else lives.
When you’re composing and editing your images, it’s a good idea to think about what your image is about. What do you want your viewer to feel? It doesn’t have to be complex, but there should be some intent behind your images. Let’s look at some examples:
What do you think when you see this image? It has a lot of story and emotion embedded into it, doesn’t it?
And on top of that, it is well composed and has wonderful colours. The story of someone being on top of the world, in a very risky situation, being relaxed with a drink. What a compelling juxtaposition.
Maybe you look at this photo and think of adventure, youth, urban jungle, awe. Maybe you think illegal, reckless, arrogant. The emotion and story are very much up to interpretation, but the point is this image makes you think and feel: this is story and emotion.
Let’s try another. How about this image?
First off, the colours and composition are great. What story does this image tell to you? What does it make you feel?
With the pose, and the environment, we’re not simply looking at a person modelling clothes for instance, there is an intent with this image, and a story to be told. Let’s see one more…
Emotion and story can be simple and still be effective. We’re seeing the excitement and joy of a woman completely caught up in the moment.
The photo is well framed and the colours are vibrant, and the emotion is genuine.
Once you’ve mastered composition and colour, you are well on your way to making competent photos. But in our humble opinion, it’s story and emotion — making people think and feel — that will elevate a photo from good to great.
It’s a helpful exercise to think about what you want to convey with your image before you take the photo. What can you do to emphasise this emotion you’re looking to capture? For instance, you could shoot with a wide-angle lens to show off a vast awe-inspiring landscape, or better yet, add a person into frame for scale and put the viewer into the scene.
The angles you choose convey emotion as well. The boy in the alleyway wouldn’t be nearly as emotive if the photo were shot at eye level.
Generally, a low angle will give your subject a larger-than-life feel — great to show power and strength — and shooting down at someone (or something) will make them seem small. You can use these techniques to hone your storytelling.
Sometimes, though, emotion and story happen organically in front of you and all you need to do is practice your eye enough to recognise it. Always be on the hunt for a story and emotion, in its many different forms, and you’ll be well on your way to taking consistently great photos.