Whatever your favourite genre of photography, what do you think are the key elements that must exist in any picture, for it to be considered great? Someone actually asked me this. Well, to be exact, they asked me “What makes a good photograph great?” I thought I’d try to write down my answer.
But before I do, I just want to clarify what the discussion wasn’t about. Firstly, it wasn’t one prompted by a particular photograph, or series of images. It was more about trying to identify a list of factors that we might see in any great image, regardless whether it was a landscape vista, street scene, reportage, portrait, food item, pet, or even an abstract image. Secondly, it wasn’t about whether some images should have certain features and others not. For example, whether street pictures can only be great if they are monochrome while seascapes only if in colour. Or, whether certain types of photographs must always have bokeh backgrounds (or optimal fall-off) to be great while others must have pin-sharp front-to-back focus. Finally, I just want to be clear that in writing my answer, I’m not in any way claiming that I’ve made truly ‘Great’ images. Or, indeed, that the image accompanying this blog piece matches the bill. (The photograph is just there to, hopefully, help attract viewers’ eyes to this text).
So, what are the key elements that, I think, must be present in every great photograph? That us photographers must strive to optimise in all of our images if we hope to have any of them, one day, labelled great. I propose there are four.
Understanding and appreciating the quality of light in our scenes is the most important element in any photograph.
Think about an extreme scenario. If you’re standing deep down in a black cave, where no natural light exists and no artificial light is available to you; no flame, electric light, torch, strobe or flash, nothing, and you take a photograph, what will you see? Of course, nothing. So, unless your subject is Deep Black Cave Darkness, without light there is no photograph.
As we all know, photography means drawing with light. Consequently, no light - no photography. It doesn’t matter whether your preference is front- back- or side-lighting, cold, warm, bold and brash or subtle and serene, get this wrong, mis-interpret the light in any way, or be impatient with it (if working in natural light) and you may possibly get away with a good image. But you’ll be extremely fortunate – relying purely on luck to get a great one.
How do we best learn about light, appreciate its qualities, shape it (maybe in a studio environment), or control its influence over what we are trying to say in our images? I’ve read, studied and listened to the greats on the subject and realise that there’s only one way. Get out there, practice, fail, practice some more, fail some more, keep practicing. Train to master the craft. Also, remember: the best photographers don’t waste their time in what they consider, for them, to be unusable light. So, if ‘bad’ light for you is an unshaded midday sun in a cloudless sky, don’t go out then. Instead, use the time to plan your shoot for either later that day or, say, the next morning.
To be frank, I’m not sure I’ll ever truly master light. But it’s the one subject area in photography I’ll never stop trying to grasp.
Let’s be clear from the outset: composition is our own stamp on things. Our compositional approach and style is unique to us.
We can all read about composition, know the various compositional ‘rules’, study what others consider to be their compositional methodology. But we won’t find this essential element, our own way of composing our images, by always following the rules and trying to make pale imitations of other photographers’ compositions.
The way we will find our compositional path, and move closer to being able to create great photographs, is the same as for Light. We must get out there and take pictures every day. Take the same scene from different heights and angles, in different aspect ratios, moving in closer and farther away. And make mistakes. And keep making mistakes. Try to understand them, and work to reduce them, and evolve every day. Eventually, something will feel right.
When it comes to compositional style, I’ve recently edged towards trying to include layers beyond fore-, mid-, and back- ground in my photographs, each contributing to the whole. I’ve tried to do this by heightening areas where light and shadow collide. If I manage to achieve the composition I’m after, I get the feeling. But sadly, at the moment it’s not that often. My compositional style needs a lot more refining.
Others may get the feeling through minimalism in their compositions, or prominent negative space, or a battle between light and dark, or a close-up glimpse of humanity in the faces of each of their subjects. Whatever your preference, ask yourself:
What compositional style gives me that feeling that I’m onto something? Start with this and keep shooting.
Timing can’t be forced. As photographers we must be prepared to wait. But not for so long that we watch the fleeting moment when all the stars align and then they’re gone. Instead, we must wait for the precise moment when our shutter must close: when what we anticipated might, will soon happen, is actually taking place. This is what Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as ‘the decisive moment’. We wait for the ingredients in our photograph’s story to form and then capture them before they disperse, never to reform exactly like that again.
Going back to Light for a moment, I suggested that, in my view, there’s no positive place for luck when it comes to getting the optimal light in our images. Not so with Timing. Timing for the most part should be good timing, based on our research, knowledge, experience and organisation. But it can also embrace a little bit of luck.
Consider a wildlife photographer waiting for the decisive moment in respect of a hunter capturing its prey. I think we’d all agree there’s an element of good fortune; that the actions of wild animals actually play out in the way our photographer hoped.
Except, is it really all luck? After all, isn’t luck just the meeting of opportunity with preparation? While we can’t predict what wild animals will do, a good wildlife photographer will research their subjects, the locations they favour for hunting, their known kill-grounds, the times of day for hunts and so on, and then set up in the right place at the right time. In such circumstances, an element of luck is something we can positively include in our calculations.
Although not part of the picture capturing event, post-editing can’t be ignored. The fact is, even the greats of your preferred genre post-edited in the darkroom and the present-day stars use editing software to make their final images.
I say ‘make’ deliberately, because great photographs aren’t just taken. Photographers that shoot raw files must edit the raw data to a greater or lesser extent in order to produce a final image that, for them, captures the moment they sought. Those that shoot jpegs aren’t purists either. They must accept that a high level of editing has been done for them by the software in their camera (and thereby, by their camera manufacturer). Nevertheless, they can and do still further tweak their jpeg images, albeit in a restricted way.
I read books and articles written by top photographers and listen to their accounts about how they strive to ‘get it right in camera’. About how they dislike sitting in front of a computer screen (or still, in some cases, work for hours in a darkroom). Yet, most of them shoot in raw, or on film, so that they retain as much control over their photographic process as possible.
All of this means that in order to produce great images, we must fully appreciate the value of post-editing in photography, to nudge our almost great (in-camera) images over the line.
I once read that photography is the easiest of arts but that, perhaps, this is what makes it the hardest.* It’s fair to say that anyone can take a photograph. Anyone can even take a good photograph. But to become a better photographer, and edge closer to being able to consistently produce great images, well, this, I’m afraid, comes disguised as hard work.
But this hard work will, ultimately, lead us to realise what really defines an image as great.
For me, a great photograph isn’t about having a clear, beautiful subject, or it being in focus, or exposed ‘correctly’. A great photograph is about combining the four key elements above to go beyond a simple recording of something; to get beneath the surface of the scene and illuminate what touches our humanity. When we see that in our images, and feel it inside, maybe then we’ll have made a great photograph.
I hope you found this written answer of some small interest. Do, please let me know your thoughts on this subject. Not least because, as I’ve said, I still have much to learn and I’d be grateful for any guidance to move my pictures from generally okay – occasionally good, to great.
*I can’t recall where I read or heard this, it just stuck with me. If anyone can reference this for me, I’d be most grateful.