Every successful photo has three things in common, and they’re not particularly surprising. The proper aperture, exposure, and focusing distance? The right camera, lens, and tripod? Successful use of hyperfocal distance, ISO invariance, and ETTR? No! The three variables that matter the most in photography are simple: light, subject, and composition.
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Photography is light. Without it, you couldn’t take pictures in the first place, let alone good ones.
The quality of light changes from photo to photo, but, in every case, it’s what gives your images their underlying structure. You can’t get any more fundamental than that.
You’ve probably seen photos with beautiful light – photos which otherwise would have been somewhat ordinary. What is it about light that makes it so important to the ultimate quality of your photos?
At its simplest, light is emotion. The feel of your photograph will be vastly different depending upon the lighting conditions: harsh light, gentle light, warm light, cool light, and anything in between. Each type conveys a different emotional message, changing around the character of your final image. Although there are other ways to convey emotion in your photo as well, light is one of the most powerful.
If you’ve never given light much thought, just go out and take pictures. At some point, you’ll find yourself capturing a scene that has spectacular lighting conditions, and you’ll realize that taking great photos is almost easy.
What counts as amazing light, though? There are so many possible conditions that you could encounter. Which ones are the best?
Although I do think that there are some lighting conditions which are truly spectacular and particularly special – which I’ll cover in a moment – the truth is that any type of light could be ideal. That’s because, in and of itself, “good light” doesn’t mean anything. Instead, “good light” is light that makes your photos look how you want.
I routinely take pictures on cloudy, seemingly boring days, if the light works well for my subject. Is that really a surprise? In some cases – say, a rainforest after a storm – a overcast day is better than a dramatic sunset.
I’ve taken some of my best photos in light that doesn’t seem particularly special, but is actually amazing – just for the particular scene being photographed, not for other subjects.
However, in my opinion, a few types of light are special enough to search for as often as possible, since they are especially good for a wide range of subjects. Most of all, at least for taking pictures outdoors, is golden hour – the hours of sunset and sunrise, when the sky is filled with amazing colors, and the atmosphere is filtering light in a soft glow.
Similarly, foggy conditions often produce interesting photographs, simplifying the scene in front of you and bathing the world in gentle, cool light. So do storms, which turn the sky intense and the world dark. The same is true for clear, moonlight nights, which can make a landscape look mysterious and otherworldly, and for “blue hour” – the time of night near golden hour, but when the sun is significantly below the horizon, and everything has deep tones of blue and purple.
The quality of light depends upon the conditions that you encounter, and it isn’t always something you have the power to change. However, for especially important photographs, you always have the option to wait and capture something amazing when lighting conditions improve.
The world’s greatest lighting conditions – even over something like an ordinary field – are far, far better than bland lighting in Yosemite Valley. Every photo needs light; every good photo needs good light.
When most of us take a photo, we do so because something caught our eye.
That “something” is, unsurprisingly, your subject.
If you’re describing a photo to someone else, the subject is probably the first thing you’ll tell them. “This is a photo of a mountain with snow blowing through the air.” “This is a photo of a whale I saw last year.” “This is a photo of my friend.”
As humans, we think about the world in terms of subjects. A powerful documentary photo hits home because of what it shows us and how it shows it – but most people won’t notice the “how.” That’s because a good subject can captivate your viewers, and the other parts of an image – including crucial elements, even light – are allowed to fade into the background.
This is also where the technical side of photography comes in. How are you portraying your subject? Do you want to isolate it with a shallow depth of field, or do you want everything from the foreground to the background to be in focus? Will your photograph be tack-sharp and detailed, or impressionistic and blurred? Every technical decision is really just a creative decision on how to portray your subject in the best possible way.
So, when you’re choosing the right subject for a photograph, you need to be thinking ahead. How would the ideal photo of this subject look, and how can you get to that point? Visualize the final result, and do everything you can to make it a reality.
Finally, the third crucial element of every photograph is your composition.
Composition is, quite simply, the arrangement of the items in your photograph. It encompasses your camera position, the relationships between the elements of a photo, and the subjects that you emphasize, deemphasize, or exclude completely. Composition is how you tell your story.
A “good” composition is one that tells your story effectively, without any distractions or confusion. Your viewers don’t have to puzzle through a convoluted mess to figure out why you captured that photo.
Composition is the stage of the game where you ask yourself “how.” How can you convey the beauty, excitement, darkness, intensity, softness, or any other emotion of a scene as perfectly as possible? How can you arrange the elements of your photo to make the image successful? A good composition emphasizes the parts of a photo that are the most important, while downplaying anything that takes away from the image.
As you would expect, composition is a very personal topic, and it has a lot of different elements to it – far more than I could ever cover in a single article. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll only cover them briefly:
Your photo should convey exactly what you want it to, and as little as possible should take away from your emotional message. If there are distracting elements in your photo, or elements with different moods and emotions, figure out what you can do to improve them.
Eliminate everything you can that takes away from the quality of your photograph; move around your position or your framing to diminish its effect. Even if your goal is to capture a chaotic, distracting photo, you should do so as clearly and unambiguously as possible, without any “non-chaotic” elements that tell a different story. The best way to fix most photos is to exclude as many of the useless (or harmful) details as possible.
This does not just mean delete them in Photoshop. Although post-processing can play a role here, it is far from the most important thing. If you haven’t mastered the art of simplifying photos in-camera, it is a stretch to believe that the spot-heal brush can save the day.
Some unwanted elements may creep into your frame, and that’s okay. Very rarely will you come across a “perfect” scene with no distractions or issues. But if you are aware of those issues in the field, you’ve gone a long way toward correcting them as much as possible.
Every bit of a photograph attracts a certain amount of attention – some parts more than others. Bright, saturated colors and high contrast tend to draw your viewers’ eyes readily, for example. The same is true for interesting subjects or unusual elements in a photo, just like they would in the real world.
This matters because of balance. When you take a photo, pay attention to where you place the elements that attract a lot of attention. If the left and right halves of your photo have equal visual weight, the composition is said to be balanced; otherwise, it’s an imbalanced image.
Neither one is right or wrong. You can take good photos that are balanced and good photos that are imbalanced. Either way, though, this decision has a major impact on the photo’s underlying feel – its moods and emotions. A balanced composition looks calm and peaceful. An imbalanced composition, on the other hand, will attract more attention to one side of the photo, leading to a tenser and more dynamic result.
3.3 Breathing Room
When you take photos, each subject should have its own breathing room, or personal space, in the composition unless you have a specific reason to the contrary. When two subjects bunch up against one another, or against the edge of your photo, the result can be disconcerting.
This tip is mostly self-explanatory, but you’d be surprised how often I see people’s photos fail because they overlooked something so minor. An otherwise fantastic photo of a mountain could look completely unnatural if it is positioned too close to the top of the frame – or, even worse, cut off completely.
Good photos work because the elements in your composition work together rather than fighting one another. In some cases, this extends even further, achieving something known as interconnectedness.
Sometimes, different parts of a single photo have deeper similarities than it appears on the surface. For example, you may photograph a tree with the same shape as a distant mountain, or your subject wearing a shirt that matches the color of their eyes. Perhaps the simplest example is a landscape reflected perfectly in a pool of water. Patterns like this give the photo a reason to exist, even if not all viewers notice the connection consciously.
The idea is to make your image feel like a singular, unified whole, where there is a clear reason why you took the photo. Such a strong level of interconnectedness won’t occur all the time, but when it does, the results can be very powerful.
If you master these three variables – light, subject, and composition – you will have mastered perhaps the most important part of photography: figuring out how to convey your emotional message.
Good photos affect us because they impact our emotions and resonate with us at a deeper level. Light creates a strong sense of mood; a subject gives your viewer something to relate to; composition structures a photo to complement your story.
In this article, of course, I only skimmed the surface. In fact, no matter how much you study these topics, this side of photography is an endless ocean. There is no “final point” at which you totally understand the creative side of photography. There is always room to learn more.
That’s what makes it so rewarding. Light, subject, and composition are things that you can only truly learn by going out into the field and taking pictures, then critically examining your work and seeing how you can improve.
So, when you’re trying to take the best possible photos, focus on creativity. Yes, the technical side of photography still matters; as I mentioned a moment ago, every technical decision is also a creative one. But you have to back up a “technically good” photo with something more powerful. At the end of the day, that’s your emotional message – born of the decisions you make each time you click the shutter.