What Makes a Great Photograph?

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Photography is the perfect companion to travel. It encourages us to discover a new place, it provides tangible memories of the trip, and it is an enjoyable way to express ourselves in art.

A camera is really an excuse to delve deeper into a place than we otherwise would. Looking for a good shot forces us to seek out the unique features and scenic beauty of a location, explore further and interact with our surroundings. When you press the shutter release, you’re making a personal connection to the place and its people. You are there. Photographs preserve the memories of our trip. We can show others the exciting places we’ve been, the wonderful scenery, and the great people we’ve met. Our minds are triggered by images and reviewing our photographs helps everyone on the trip relive its adventures and misadventures.

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Taking pictures is also a very accessible art form. With a little thought and effort, you can create captivating images of your own creation and interpretation.

The Secret of Photography

Fortunately, taking good photographs has little to do with owning expensive equipment and knowing technical data. The secret is in seeing. Ask yourself: What do I look at, and how do I see it? A good photograph has qualities that display the skill, art, interests, and personality of the photographer.

What Makes a Good Shot?

A photograph is a message. It conveys a statement (“Here we are in…”), an impression (“This is what … looks like”), or an emotion. You are an author trying to convey this message in a clear, concise, and effective way. But how? Like any message, you first need a subject. This may be your traveling companions, a building, a natural vista, or some abstract form. The subject is the central point of interest and is usually placed in the foreground of the shot (towards the viewer). Now we compose the message by including a second element, a context, which is often the background. The context gives the subject relevance, presence, location, or other interest. It is the combination of the two elements—subject and context, foreground and background—that tells the message.

Knowing what to exclude is just as important as knowing what to include. Anything that isn’t part of the subject or its context is only a distraction, cluttering up the image, and diluting the message. To eliminate extraneous surroundings—usually by moving closer to the subject—and make a clear, tidy shot. A painter creates art by addition—adding more paint—whereas a photographer creates art by subtraction or removing unnecessary elements.

The recipe for a good photograph is:

“A foreground, a background, and nothing else.”

A great photograph is a piece of art. It captures the spirit of a subject and evokes emotion. Photographer Bob Krist calls it “the spirit of place.” You are an artist that can use subtle tricks to appeal to your viewer’s senses. Let’s see how.

A picture is a playground, with places for our eyes to wander and investigate, plus spaces for them to rest and relax. When we first see something, we are defensive. Our eyes instinctually find light, bright areas, and look for people, particularly their eyes and mouth. Do we know the people in the picture? What are they feeling, and how does this relate to us? Are they drawing attention to something? If so, do we recognize it (a building, a landmark) and what does it look like? What is this picture about? What is the main subject or objective? How big is the subject? We determine scale by comparing elements to something of known sizes, such as a person, animal, or car. Once we’ve checked for people, we turn our attention to more abstract features.

We first notice the subject’s color or tone: fiery red, calming blue, natural green, foreboding black. Then we see shapes: soft curves, hard edges, sweeping lines. How the light strikes the subject gives subtle hints as to its three-dimensional form. You, as a photographer, can manipulate this by searching for shades and shadows, shifting intensities of tone and hues. How is the eye drawn into the picture?

Form leads us to texture, how the subject might feel to the touch. Is it soft, is it smooth, hard, or rough? Does it have character and warmth? The way the elements are juxtaposed and affected by the same light makes us consider their qualities and interrelation. Balance draws our eye from one element to another, investigating their unity, contrast, and detail, each item adding pleasure to the next. What is the relevance of everything?

The overall composition, the proportions of layout, denotes the importance of the elements. As the artist, you can decide which features appeal to you, and how best to emphasize them.

The recipe for a great photograph is:

“Consider how the parts interrelate with the whole.”

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