What Makes a Great Photograph?

Learning to analyze the elements present in all great images can improve your own shooting.

Learning to analyze the elements present in all great images can improve your own shooting.

What are the elements of a great photograph? What are the magic ingredients that make one image so much better than another? Is it possible to quantify the ‘secret recipe’ of great photography?

Well….that’s a tall order. But here are some of the things that show up in great photos over and over…

COMPOSITION

'Composition', by panfot_o. http://www.flickr.com/photos/40899165@N04/4272523816/in/photostream/

'Composition', by panfot_o. http://www.flickr.com/photos/40899165@N04/4272523816/in/photostream/

Great composition is at the heart of all great photography. Composition—how you arrange the elements within your photograph—is the first building block that kicks in the moment you raise the camera to your eye. Before you press the shutter release, you’ve intuitively made innumerable decisions about the composition of your shot.  How do you learn composition? Here, there are no shortcuts! You must look at the work of photographers you admire with an eye to how they’ve composed the images you find most attractive. Then shoot, shoot, and shoot! Practice is the key here.

LIGHTING

Light painting #1, by Crowgirl. http://www.flickr.com/photos/corbet/2430648588/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Light painting #1, by Crowgirl. http://www.flickr.com/photos/corbet/2430648588/sizes/m/in/photostream/

By lighting I mean ALL of the light that’s part of your image, not only light you’ve added. Lighting is the other fundamental element that all images obviously possess. But what you do with the light, how you learn to control it, is key. You control natural light with camera angle, time of day,  and camera exposure. You control artificial light by learning to properly add and place light in your image.

COLOR

Color as a design element.  by Csaba Tokolyi. http://www.flickr.com/photos/csabatokolyi/3447172406/

Color as a design element. by Csaba Tokolyi. http://www.flickr.com/photos/csabatokolyi/3447172406/

Finally color. Color, or its absence, is the third of the essential ingredients that all images possess. Learning to use and accentuate color as a design element can be a rewarding area to pursue.

Beyond composition, lighting and color, various aspects play a role in a photograph, depending upon what the subject is. I’ll list some of them to watch for below.

PEAK ACTION

'Gary Johnson Kells 2009 - Peak Action', by Stephen Sheridan. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sheridanphoto/4935768633/

'Gary Johnson Kells 2009 - Peak Action', by Stephen Sheridan. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sheridanphoto/4935768633/

‘Peak action’ as in sports photography, for instance. Or it could be the precise moment a fish hits a lure, or the instant a car crashes into a wall. Peak action is all about showing us something that happened in a way we couldn’t experience it otherwise: by freezing a moment in time.

A SENSE OF MOTION

'Motion,' by Michael Fletcher. http://www.flickr.com/photos/disneymike/521104317/

'Motion,' by Michael Fletcher. http://www.flickr.com/photos/disneymike/521104317/

Cameras can do wonderful, beautiful things through the use of slow shutter speeds. Keeping the camera still as a subject moves through space can create an image like the one depicted here. Or, by moving the camera along with a subject, called panning, a different magic moment is possible.

A SENSE OF EMOTION

Emotion (Sadness) by Smoochiemom. http://www.flickr.com/photos/7409451@N02/3407412110/

Emotion (Sadness) by Smoochiemom. http://www.flickr.com/photos/7409451@N02/3407412110/

This image displays a human emotion, and there are all of the others: anger, dismay, embarrassment…you name it and it can be a possible subject. But it could also be your dog or cat, couldn’t it?

HUMOR

Farm Humor, by Tom Hoeflich. http://www.flickr.com/photos/thoeflich/1992344970/

Farm Humor, by Tom Hoeflich. http://www.flickr.com/photos/thoeflich/1992344970/

One of the most difficult forms of photography, I think. My favorite photographer in this area will always be Elliott Erwitt.

A SENSE OF AWE

Cane Bayou marsh at twilight. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Cane Bayou marsh at twilight. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Photographs that inspire a sense of awe. This can be a big challenge in our media-saturated world, but it’s still out there, every day.

A SENSE OF STILLNESS

Stillness http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomraven/3899045725/ by Tom Raven

Stillness http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomraven/3899045725/ by Tom Raven

What I like to call ‘quiet photographs.’ This is one of my own personal favorite areas to pursue. Like detail work described above, finding stillness in the world requires a bit of a mind shift into a slower place.

So these are some of the elements that all great images possess. Go back and look at images you love and you’ll find these elements present time and again. Now, pick one of these themes and go out and shoot a really great photograph!

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

12 Comments on "What Makes a Great Photograph?"

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  1. It is hard to quantify what makes great art of any kind (and I include photography) as it is all in the beholder, what some may love others may loath. And once in a while you will find a photograph that totally breaks all the rules, but still moves you!

  2. Good points all, Ashley. I agree with you.

  3. Maria says:

    My personal favorite is landscapes as well. Whether it is stillness or awe, I enjoy both. If possible I try to combine the two.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Maria. I agree, my breakdown was arbitrary and those two are sometimes related.

  5. bycostello says:

    nice tips… thanks…

  6. Morgan says:

    I love the photos you’ve used in this post to demonstrate your points. As they say, a picture speaks 1000 words and your photos relate beautifully to each little sub heading. As a person that loves to get the best quality photos that I can, these tips are much appreciated. Things you don’t necessarily think of when you haven’t studied the art. I’m literally pointing and shooting and shooting some more on any subject that I find intriguing. I do a lot of reviewing of my photos and quite often sit down with my wife for little critique session. Thanks again for the great shots to demonstrate your post.

  7. Glad you found it helpful, Morgan.

  8. Gerry says:

    Your photography is amazing. I’m new to this but I’m loving all that I’m learning. Thanks for your great tips! I enjoy your site!! Gerry

  9. Greg Sharpe says:

    Andrew,

    Thanks for this great read on elements of a good photograph. I think try to do most of them, but I wonder if its good to try to capture three or four in one photo. Like emotion, peak action, composition and awe. Maybe combine is the right word. This article definitely gets me thinking. Great share. Thanks.

  10. Sure, different photographs, by their nature, may have more than one of these elements present. My aim is just to get you thinking about these things and looking for how they appear, or don’t, in your own work.

  11. Peter Jensen says:

    I love these pictures – so simple, but yest so great.

    My personal favourite is “A sense of awe”.

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