The most straightforward inquiry in photography is also the most difficult: What characteristics distinguish a good photograph? It goes further than just stating that a good photo is the result of its lighting, composition, subject, and other factors. Even if they may differ from one another, all great photos share the same origins: The photographer establishes a clear objective for the image and then finds the best approach to achieve it.
Forming a Vision
There must be a purpose for each picture you shoot. That holds true whether it’s a passing snapshot, a family portrait, or the finest piece of art ever made. The shot won’t exist if you don’t have a purpose to take it. The intention behind an image is the cause for this.
When taking a picture, it’s usually helpful to have the most crystal-clear image in mind. It’s better to think to yourself, “This landscape would work nicely in a dark, moody shot,” as opposed to, “Wow, what a cool view, I need a picture.” How can I go about doing that?
Visualizing the finished image in your head is a useful strategy. Look at the scene in front of you carefully and consider both the positive and negative aspects of how it will seem in your photograph. After that, visualize the ideal rendition of that photograph and devise a route there.
Creating a vision is simple; all you need to do is identify the idea or feeling you want to convey. Finding a way to make your finished photo fit the ideal image you have in mind is the actual problem.
Putting Your Vision Into Practice
You must approach every area of photography wisely and consciously if you want to put your idea into action. Instead of merely snapping a few rapid pictures when something catches your eye, the entire picture should be deliberate. One of the most crucial aspects of photography is your subject, so let’s start there.
Choosing a suitable subject
One of the exercises at a workshop I once went to involved taking an image of a flower in a way that made you angry. No one’s results truly matched that vision, while several were interesting and partially successful. What did I learn from the exercise? There are some sentiments that flowers simply cannot convey. Although I’m sure the instructor didn’t mean for us to learn that lesson, it’s an important one.
Not every topic will be suitable for your particular view. It would be exceedingly challenging to capture a fearsome waterfall in broad sunlight, just as it would be challenging to do the same with a lightning storm over a huge volcano.
The key takeaway is that you must carefully select your topic. Every subject you shoot brings a distinct perspective to the table. Depending on what your vision is, each subject’s traits may be more or less acceptable for your vision. Many scenes, for instance, aren’t designed to capture “something lovely,” if that’s your purpose. Some will always function more effectively than others. So be careful when selecting your topics.
Does everything have a reason?
Deliberate. Purposeful. Those two words might be the most crucial when learning how to take excellent pictures.
Don’t act carelessly at any time. Every single element in each picture you capture should have a purpose. The lighting in the scene, the way you arrange your subjects, and even the tiniest things at the bottom of the frame must be accidents.
Consciously assess each and every component of a scene, and if anything is unwanted, find a means to get rid of it. Minimizing the factors that detract from your photo is a key component of both good post-processing and good composition in photography. Consider adjusting your composition with this objective in mind, possibly by positioning your camera differently or employing a different lens. In the field, make as many adjustments to your images as you can to ensure that nothing detracts from the overall aesthetic.
I would advise against using excessive post-processing to fix a photo that has serious problems. It is sometimes possible to remove an obtrusive clump of grass from a picture or bend and squeeze a far-off mountain to make it appear more magnificent. From an aesthetic or ethical standpoint, though, even if you don’t mind making such kinds of alterations, it is always preferable to start with the greatest possible foundation image. The quality of your out-of-camera photo immediately determines the quality of your finished image, regardless of how simple or radical your post-processing style may be.
Not that it is usually simple, mind you. As a personal illustration, I recently shot a picture that is almost publishable, but there is a whole mountain in the background that doesn’t work well and can’t be cropped off in a way that looks okay. In certain circumstances, the only thing I can recommend is not adding the picture to my portfolio.
Even if you can’t optimize every single aspect of a picture, there probably is some method to enhance the scenario you started with. Learning about concepts like light and composition are essential at this point because they have such a significant impact on how your final product will look.
Making the entire image purposeful and intentional—capturing the world in such a way that your vision and feeling are flawlessly communicated to a viewer—is the pinnacle of photography. You aren’t utilizing the setting to its full potential if anything in your photo appears superfluous or detracts from the intended subject of the picture.
Finding the right audience
On websites that sell stock photography, many of the most overused images also happen to be painstakingly produced, with each element of the picture being chosen with purpose. But in many instances, the photographer’s goal is not to produce a great work of art or make the public aware of something that hasn’t been seen before. To take a picture that corresponds with a keyword search.
You probably won’t find a masterpiece if you approach a stock photo as a spectator looking for one. However, if you view the same image from the viewpoint of a person who requires a picture of a red stapler in front of a blue background, you will be delighted to see the appropriate picture.
Therefore, a photo’s “worth” greatly depends on who will see it. Even if you manage to take the most exquisite wildlife photograph ever, a viewer looking for a picture of a harmonica won’t be interested.
Additionally, this goes beyond stock photographs. Imagine that your objective is to take the finest photo you can of a mountainous environment. This could signify a variety of various things, depending on who you are speaking to. Dark, gloomy, and serene photographs are my personal favorites. For me, a sunset photo of a mountain is maybe the most stunning because there is so little light left and so much of the subject’s detail is obscured by shadow.
A lot of other photographers might consider those images to be either too depressing or uninteresting. That also holds true. If dramatic lighting, vibrant colors, and a once-in-a-lifetime subject are part of your idea of a great landscape picture, you’ll be drawn to completely different images.
Therefore, your vision for the shot must mesh with the viewer’s in order for it to be successful. They will enjoy the finished product more and be less likely to notice any flaws the closer your two tastes align.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict exactly how someone else will perceive one of your photos. In some ways, luck plays a bigger role than any other factor. However, it’s likely that your audience will share your taste; otherwise, they wouldn’t be following your work in the first place. Because of this, all you can do is take and present pictures that adhere to your own preferences unless you’re already shooting with a specific viewer in mind (again, like stock photography). In the end, finding the correct audience and knowing that they enjoy your style is usually sufficient.
A quality image is one that:
- possesses sharp vision
- successfully conveys that idea and harmonizes well with the viewer’s own vision
It takes work to check these boxes, especially the second one, but the effort is worthwhile. The outcome is obvious if you achieve all three: You will produce a successful photograph.
At some level, each and every aspect of photography—light, composition, topic, etc.—is just a means by which you might realize your objective or realize your vision. Whether that vision is to create a beautiful, spectacular landscape photo, or to take a quick selfie to send to a friend, it doesn’t matter. A good photo simply succeeds at its goal and suits your viewer’s tastes.
Learn more: How to Use Leading Lines in Photography