Three Components of a Great Photograph

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Yosemite - Tunnel View - PanoramicArt is a subjective beast.  And so it would be impossible to pin down what, specifically, makes a great photograph.  Frankly, “great” is a bit of a subjective term in and of itself when used to discuss art.  A photograph that is loved by one can be loathed by another.  There just isn’t a science behind creating great photographs, not that we haven’t tried.  We’ve been basing our logic on compositional rules and tricks since the ancients tried to pin down this unreachable formula.  There is some hope, of course.  While we can’t tell you how to make a perfect photograph every time, we can tell you certain components that many great photographs have in common:

An Interesting Subject

Your choice of subject is possibly the most important aspect of any photograph.  The subject is the first impression.  A quick glance should tell the viewer what they’re looking at, or at least challenge them to ponder the image further.  It can be simple:  A child, a discarded tire, broken glass, a flower, etc.  It doesn’t always have to be tangible; sometimes the subject is more of a thought or a comment on a culture.  Whatever your approach, the subject must be clear.  And it helps to have an interesting subject as well.  In the case of portraits and candids, people are always interesting (children especially).  Sometimes such photos can become more interesting simply because of what the person is doing, or they have an interesting facial expression.

Having an interesting subject is the first step to luring in a potential viewer.  It is ultimately what gets the viewer to look deeper into your photograph.  And maybe you are trying to express a feeling or make an editorial comment.  You won’t spread your message without an interesting subject.  So above all else, I consider the subject to be the most important component of any great photograph.

Connection With the Viewer

A great photograph requires a connection with the viewer.  Sometimes the choice of subject is enough.  For example, a photograph of El Capitan, the giant monolithic granite outcropping at Yosemite National Park, is going to be a connection with anyone who even recognizes the subject.  For those who have been there, it will strike up memories of their visit and they are now thinking about that…connection found.  But it’s not always that easy.  This is why I always strive to create a simple story.  Through subject placement and contrasting elements, one can influence the viewer’s imagination.  Perhaps the story they formulate in their mind is different than the one you attempted to create, but that doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that you have set the stage for your viewer to think about.

"Where This Road Ends, Another Begins" by Brian Day (Part of the Time Traveler Series)

“Where This Road Ends, Another Begins” by Brian Day (Part of the Time Traveler Series)

I’m going to defer to the work of reader and long time SP@Flickr Group contributor, Brian Day, to illustrate my point.  Brian has for many years created self portraits wearing a suit, a fedora and carrying a briefcase, situating himself in the most unlikely locations:  Among ruins, in traffic or at the edge of the surf (where you wouldn’t expect someone in a nice suit to wander).  You never get to see his face either.  Alone, each photograph inspires a number of potential scenarios and stories that answer the question about why this man is where he is.  As a series, the well dressed man is the common thread that creates a much larger story.  The series is called The Time Traveler, and you can see why:  Something just doesn’t fit.  Something about each photograph seems off-kilter, slightly twisted and begs the viewer to look deeper.  It’s quite a spark to the viewer’s imagination.

One could also create an emotional connection, which is often the case of the Pulitzer Prize winning photographs.  One cannot help but to be affected by a photograph of the Titanic rusting in its ocean floor grave, or the facial expression of a weather-beaten Sherpa at the base camp of Everest or a bunch of flies sitting on the face of a starving child in Africa.  These are influential photographs causing all sorts of emotions – happy, sad or otherwise – in your viewers’ hearts.  It’s still a connection.

Achieving a connection with your viewer is difficult, but rewarding for both you and the viewer.  It is the second major component of any great photograph.

Quality and Finishing

This is where all the technical stuff comes to a head.  Quality is, to me, any technical aspect of the photograph from an ideal exposure to the proper framing, an appropriate depth of field and so on.  There are thousands of ways to create and handle the same photograph, and so quality is very important.   A poor quality image can be overlooked, even by non-photographers (who have a gut for such things) and the other two components don’t even stand a chance of revealing themselves.  On the flip-side, one could argue that a perfect photograph – one with perfect exposure, without noise, one that is tack sharp near-to-far and framed perfectly – can be seen as boring by the art community.  It’s a fine balance that depends greatly on who you want your audience to be.  But quality can never be a limiting factor in creating your photographs.  Finishing is, in my eyes, the way a photograph is ultimately presented:  Everything from post-processing effects to the frame the photo sits in is finishing.  Even the title comes in to play here (though the title shouldn’t be the reason a photograph is great).  Finishing is also the most influential component of your personal style, the subtle details and formatting that you thumbprint on each and every one of your photographs so that they flaunt your individuality.

The amusing thing about Quality and Finishing is that they are aspects of the photograph that are often beyond the point of diminishing returns.  A poor quality photograph with poor finishing may still be considered a decent photograph if the subject and connection is so very strong.  Sadly, quality and finishing can be overlooked when both are absolutely perfect…it’s the type of thing you only notice when it’s not done right or it’s completely absent.  Ironically, quality and finishing is possibly the one component that we, as photographers, spend the most time and energy on improvement and honing our skills.  I would consider Subject and Connection to be the two most important components of the three, but Quality and Finishing is still essential.  No great photograph lacks in the quality and finishing department.  So it’s worth spending time on those skills.  They do have a return on investment.  But be honest with yourself:  Your viewer will only care if the quality and finishing is lacking.

Final Thoughts

It all seems simple really.  I mean photography isn’t really that technically complicated.  I daresay I could teach anyone with the desire how to use a camera (even the more advanced techniques).  But it takes a lot to learn how to see the finished product before snapping the shutter, and it’s very difficult to learn how to connect with your audience.  So, sadly, it’s really not that simple.  It’s all something that you feel.  And I think that the stronger you become as a photographer, the less you worry about the technical details as you are more concerned with meeting your audience on common ground.  Ultimately, it boils down to respect:  Respect for the art, respect for your equipment and, most of all, respect for your viewer.  It is respect that drives you to find great subjects, connect with your viewer and provide the best quality and finishing you can provide.  It is that same respect that will earn you a place among the great photographers.

And so I leave you with this thought:  It takes only seconds to learn how to take a photograph.  But it takes years of practice to learn how to create a photograph.  (I don’t know if that’s a quote from somewhere, but it’s a personal philosophy I’ve lived by since I first picked up a camera).

Now it’s your turn.  Did I miss anything?  Would you care to expand on any aspect of my article?  Feel free to leave your thoughts below…

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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