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What Makes a Good Photograph?


A good image is about something in particular. Trying to capture everything will dilute the image and lose coherence. The photographer selects and frames the subject and should not try to crowd too much into the scene. There must be a focal point. Like a Haiku or the “who, what, where, when” of a newspaper lead line, the photo should quickly tell of a particular time and place, distilling the essence of that moment for the viewer.

What's the Subject?

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The image should inspire emotion in the viewer, be it awe and wonder, serenity, astonishment, humor, etc. If it doesn't move me when I am standing there holding the camera, how will it move the viewer? The photographer must care about the subject.


Often this takes the form of mist, cloud effects, sunbeams, a leading line that makes you want to see around the next bend or, it could be some aspect in a living subject that makes you want to know more, such as “What's she thinking? Or, what are they looking at?”


The direction, intensity, sharpness or diffusion and focus of the light on the scene create the first three important elements of a good image (focus, emotion and mystery). Because the viewer's eyes will always be drawn to the lightest part of the image, the subject should be in or surrounded by light. Darker areas of the image give a feeling of weight. Lighter areas give lift. The balance and tension between light and dark areas give much of the drama and emotion to an image. Mystery is created by diffusion or lack of light. It's really all about the light.


The subject must be framed in a way that supports the emotional intent of the image. If you want something stark and in your face, place it in the middle. If you want the viewer to be led into the frame, place it off center and use the rule of thirds.


In landscapes, I generally compose with foreground, middle and background areas of interest. I use the foreground to help the viewer imagine that they are where I stood when I took the image. That helps them to “get into the frame”. Of course, the focal point and depth of field around that focal point directs the eye towards the subject (usually in the middle distance). With interesting foreground and backgrounds however, the eye is forced to keep moving and comparing that focal point with the other areas of interest in the image. The longer the viewer looks at the image, the more intriguing it becomes.


The palette of the image is second only to the quality of light in creating mood. Vibrant, muted, diverse or limited palettes each tell their own story. The color palette is also the first thing noticed by the viewer and often the only driver of the decision to purchase an image (“How will it look in my living room?”). In a grand and potentially cluttered landscape, the photographer can simplify the image by limiting the palette.


Balance, rhythm and harmony bring music to the image. Like repeating themes in music, reflections in water, or echoes of similar shapes or colors within the image tie the composition together. The pace and regularity of repetition set the tempo and rhythm. Contrasts in textures, colors, light and dark, etc. can set up a tension to be released (harmonized) in another part of the image. The balance of tension and release is the essence of music.


Sometimes this comes from an amazing location or being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes it is from doing most of the foregoing elements really well with a rather ordinary scene. Learning to see as the camera sees and to pre-visualize before clicking the shutter leads to the best outcomes. They say it is “better to be lucky than good”, but luck comes more frequently to those who are prepared.


The Japanese term, “Shibui” describes the evocative power of minimalism. Subtle, unassuming, but inviting a deeper introspection and realization of beauty. Hard to describe but you'll know it when you see it.

Morning Light on Camelia

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