The Secret: What Makes a Great Photo
Ruin, San Diego, 28 July 1996. enlarge. It helps me keep adding to this site when you use these links to Adorama, Amazon, B&H, Calumet, Ritz, J&R and eBay to get your goodies, whatever they may be, and from whatever country you may come. Thanks! Ken.
This is the most important article on this website.
More important than the thousands of others, I will attempt to explain the elements that make up a great photograph.
These fundamentals are mandatory knowledge to all artists.
Photography makes it easy for anyone to create images without needing any artistic ability or training: just set AUTO and go.
You can't paint unless you study and practice. In studying painting, you are always taught image structure.
Anyone can take pictures. Formal courses of photographic study rarely, if ever, cover the basics of image structure. All they teach is technical mumbo-jumbo, which is a waste because cameras do all of the technical stuff for us today anyway.
Even professional photographers are rarely taught about the basics of image structure, which is why so many photographs are so awful.
The lack of structure is why so many photographs don't make it.
This article is critical because I hope to explain the basic structures that are so crucial to making strong images. Images that get the basics right always get people to go ooooh and ahhhhh, and those without their fundamentals in order are boring.
Armed with this information, hopefully you'll start recognizing the elements which make images that make people's jaws drop, win top honors at photo contests, and are the first images an editor picks when buying images.
Once you learn these simple basics, you'll be able to take awesome, award-winning shots with any camera. Once you can do this, you'll no longer need to waste so much money on camera gear or haul so much of it around with you. You'll just take great pictures.
The Basics top
Every image needs a basic structure. Without an underlying structure, it is just another boring photo.
Every image needs strong underlying compositional order so that it grabs the eye from a hundred feet away.
If it can't grab the eye from a distance, it will never be an interesting photo, regardless of how many fine details it might have. Details don't matter if there's no story behind it.
The reason my image above has won so many awards in so many countries and is picked continually as one of my best images is because of its strong structure.
What is this structure? It is the broad underlying colors, shapes and contrasts between light and dark upon whose structure all the other far less important details lie.
In this image, we have a big red diamond in the middle. It is surrounded by blue-gray. The big red rectangle is the obvious, positive space. The blue-gray around it is called negative space.
Red jumps out at you, especially when put in front of blue. Red does that.
I used an ultra-wide lens. Ultra-wide lenses get darker in the corners, an effect called falloff. This makes the center relatively brighter, adding emphasis. This central emphasis, in addition to being red, is what grabs your eye and pulls you in from a mile away.
This is what makes this shot a winner. Nothing else matters much compared to the way the big red diamond grabs you.
Only after its caught your eye does anything else matter.
This is crucial: if this image didn't catch your eye like this, it wouldn't mean much.
Once a photo has caught your attention, it needs to have details to keep the eyes interested. This is easy. Every photo has details. The problem is how few photos have any sort of underlying structure to catch your eye in the first place.
In this case, the less important details are the yellow peeking out from behind the red, the clouds swooping out from the center, the crud on the concrete at your feet and the reinforcing mesh seen peeking out of the top of the red wall, at least when printed at gallery size.
This photo, like all good photos, is about shapes, colors and balances. It has nothing to do with the fact that the actual subject was an abandoned, burnt-out bathhouse with no roof.
It's nice that I shot this on 4x5" film so that viewers can see every detail on every dead bug on every paint chip on the ground, but if the strong structure didn't grab the eyes in the first place, the viewer would just move on to the next image on the wall of the gallery.
Most photographers snap photos, paying attention only to the details, but ignoring the far, far more important fundamentals. Most photographers don't even know that there are fundamentals!
These fundamentals are the largest, obvious elements of light and dark, colors and shapes.
You have to get this underlying structure right, otherwise the photograph has no basis on which to stand.
If I had made this shot in black-and-white, there would be little to no contrast between the red wall and the blue. The blue is often lighter than the red in this photo, so even using a red filter in B&W would not have gotten me what I needed to catch your eye. In color, the color red takes charge and makes this shot successful.
You should be able to defocus your eyes and look at your image from a hundred feet away, and the basic organization of elements within your frame should still be obvious.
If your image goes away as a thumbnail-sized image, it has no structure. It sucks. If it doesn't jump out at you as a thumbnail, you've made a boring image, regardless of how big or detailed you print it.
The shot above still grabs people, even as a thumbnail. As a thumbnail, people want to click it and see what's going on. It's not just another gray square.
If it doesn't sing as a thumbnail, no amount of Photoshop, HDR or gigapan stitching will give it any more structure. It will still suck as hard, no matter how much time you waste on your computer. You have to get it right in your camera.
The one thing you can do later is to burn and dodge. This means lightening and darkening different parts of the image to emphasize what's important, and deemphasize what's not.
Photographs without the basics are boring. An image, be it a photograph, painting, sketch or gigapan, is meaningless unless its basics are right.
The reason so many photos are so bad is because there is no underlying structure. Bad photos may be loaded with details, but forget to get the big, broad basics of composition, light and color correct.
Sadly, most photographers are blind to the basics, and only by chance when the basics come together do they get a good shot.
More sadly, since so few photographers are paying any attention to the basics, even when they do get a good shot, they don't know why it looks good, so they can't reproduce it.
When you learn to look for the basics first, and can get the basics of composition down, you'll be able to shoot anything, anywhere, with any sort of cell-phone camera, and walk away with the images everyone else covets.
People who are blind to the basics are the great majority of people who keep throwing more money at more cameras, and never get any better pictures.
It's the basic underlying composition that makes or breaks an image.
It's not about the subject
Here's another secret: in photographic art, it's never about the subject.
It's always about the underlying compositional structure. Subjects that may be there are chosen because they support or create a structure, not the other way around.
What a subject does in real life is irrelevant. In a good photo, subjects are chosen to provide the shapes or colors we want to lay down the basic design of an image.
What might look like a door is really only used because it's a rectangle, or two squares. If we shoot it at an angle, now it's a trapezoid, or a truncated triangle.
An ocean liner? If you use the whole thing in a successful photo, its because it's used as a shape that works with whatever else is in the frame.
This is why I'm known as a toilet photographer. I don't care what my subject might be in real life. When I look for photos, I'm looking for shapes and colors. It just tends to happen that bathrooms and garbage cans tend to get lit up in great light at the end of the day, so if they're in good light, I shoot them.
The actual subject is meaningless because you're mind's subconscious eye can't even recognize it from a hundred feet away.
Your photograph must have a strong enough structure so that structure is obvious to the subconscious That's how you grab people to get the ooohs and aaahs.
The actual subject doesn't matter. Your choice of a subject should be made to give a strong underlying design to the image. What that subject is or does consciously is irrelevant. As far as photographers are concerned, photos subjects are used purely as big colors and shapes, exactly as you'd cut these colors and shapes out of construction paper to make a composition.
When composing, ignore details.
Be sure to exclude everything not directly contributing to the image.
As you compose, only look at the boldest, broadest and most basic lines and shapes in your image in the most overall and general sort of way.
I often look away from my finder to see the finder out of the corner of my eye. This lets my brain ignore details and what the conscious subject might be, and hopefully see the image's far more important underlying structure more clearly.
The only thing that matters are the bold, broad strokes. It's a photograph, not a painting, so duh, the details will take care of themselves.
The broad strokes won't. You, and you alone, have to force them exactly where you want them before you take the picture.
Nothing in an image is what it seems. Even though viewers might say "that thing in the corner is a rain boot," when composing, it's a yellow shape you are using for no reason other than as a color blob in your image.
When composing, forget the subject. You are using every item in the image as a compositional element, exactly as you'd arrange pieces of cut-out construction paper to make an interesting composition.
Move the camera forward or back to fit your elements as you want them.
Move left or right, and especially use the forgotten dimension of moving up and down, to re-arrange items in your frame as you want them.
See also Composition.
Only when you get these basics right does anything else below matter.
Our eyes are first attracted to the brightest, or the contrastiest, or the most colorful part of an image.
After we've caught the eye, the eye starts to wander around and see what else there is to see.
After you've caught a viewer's eye, you have to be sure that it stays in your image, and doesn't wander out.
Keep details out of the corners, and be sure that important elements aren't cut by the frame edges. How do we move mountains? Easy: turn the camera, or walk a few steps left or right to move them relative to the tree in your frame.
This is one of the may reasons why HDR and other stitching and stacking hobbies are so bad. You need to spend you time looking for the best position from which to make a shot. Never spend 20 minutes making multiple exposures unless you spent at least twice that much time looking for the best point of view.
By keeping corners dark, it keeps our eyes from wandering off the edges. By keeping details out of the corners, it also keeps our eyes from leaving the frame.
Look at any real painting, even motel art. You'll see that even motel artists know not to run details off the edge of the frame. Look at nature paintings, and you'll usually see that the leaves on the pond magically are aligned so that none of them are cut by the edge of the image. It's the same for trees and rocks: it's not by chance that they usually are painted in such a way that they don't cross the image's edge.
We who read English usually start at the top left, and work our way to the bottom right. At the very least, we read an image from left to right. It's weird if a car is driving to the left; that's backwards.
Our eyes last look into the dark areas. They only get there if the image was good enough catch our eye in the first place, then had enough lighter details to keep us looking around for a while, and be good enough that we're still curious enough to see what is in the shadows.
Anther reason HDR sucks so bad is because it eliminates light and dark. An all-gray, all-busy image has no structure, and is boring.
Burning and Dodging
The most important image editing, other than cropping, is selective lightening and darkening, called dodging and burning.
Lighten the parts of the image to which you want to add emphasis, and to which you want to attract the eye first.
Darken the parts of the image that are irrelevant, or lead the eyes away from the important part.
How do we keep the corners dark to keep eyes from wandering off? Both by composing the image that way, and by darkening the print edges later in the darkroom. Ansel Adams called this important technique "edge burning."
Always be subtle in your burning and dodging. The instant it becomes obvious that you've used it, the photo is trash. The effect is the strongest when you keep it subtle enough to stay in the subconscious.
I usually use about half the strength of what I first think I want to use when burning and dodging. Otherwise, if it becomes obvious, and destroys the effect.
When the USA invaded Iraq again in 2003, President George Bush was deadly clear: you're either on our side and doing your part to support the coalition's annexation of Iraq, or you are the enemy. In other words, there are no neutral parties. If a country feels like it can ignore helping the coalition and stay out of it, it has just made itself an enemy of the United States.
Photographs are the same way. Anything that isn't directly helping the composition takes away from it. It's just like editing: the fewer words you use, the better the writing.
Details that don't add to the overall structure of the image make it weaker. See the annoying tree in the sky on the left? I has nothing to do with the rest of the image. I always crop that out, otherwise, viewer's eyes keep going back to it, which pulls eyes off the image. It is a distraction, which makes for a poorer image.
If you aren't seeing how much worse the image is with the tree silhouette in it, cover the left side of the image to remove it, and it gets twice as strong.
The best images have a punchline.
Who wants to hear a joke or see a movie without a good ending?
A punchline is what you find after you look around the image.
A punchline doesn't have to be hidden. A punchline can be as simple as a row of soldiers, and one at the end is doing or wearing something different.
Everyone has set up their camera in front of a colorful doorway and waited for someone interesting to walk by.
Every hobbyist has nice photos of street scenes with a cleverly placed person or cart whizzing by.
So what? That's a minor punchline.
A single punchline is something simple, like a photo of a train window, and the last one has someone looking out. Big deal.
A double punchline is when you have something in the photo reacting to something else in the photo.
For instance, a master like Jay Maisel has photos where you have a train window with an obligatory punchline of a person looking out one window, but then you'll notice someone in the next car looking back in surprised response to the first person!
Gesture means the position of hands. In an image, gesture can also mean what is said by the positions of inanimate objects that mimic our hands or faces.
Gesture means a photo with someone making a funny face in reaction to something else going on in the frame. For instance, a good photo is one where you first notice something odd, and then you notice someone else in the photo reacting to it. That's both paying attention to gesture, and gives us a punchline.
Gesture applies to inanimate objects. You can find arrangements of things that suggest the same things that can be expressed facially and with hands.
Animators know how positions of hands and eyebrows can say everything. If you find compositional elements which mimic these, your photos can express the same emotions.
Most of the time, gesture refers to facial and hand expressions.
Books have been written about color. Go to your library, or an art library, and read them. I'll only touch the basics here. I have another page about color.
Warm colors, red, orange and yellow, appear to move forward towards the viewer. Our eyes are attracted to them first.
Cool colors, greens, blues and violets, recede away from the viewer.
An easy way to make your image three-dimensional is to have an orange object in front of a blue background. Movies do this all the time.
Put orange on blue, and in comes forward.
Put a red building on blue as I did, and the red comes out and hits you.
Colors need to be in harmony. There are a zillion ways to analyze this, but as a photographer you have it easy. What looks good is good. Painters have it harder, since they need to design and synthesize their colors from their own imaginations.
Colors tend to be harmonious when you have two colors balanced from opposite sides of the color wheel. You can get fancy and have two variations of a similar color balancing another opposing color. You can try to have three colors, all equally spaced on the color wheel.
I'm simple: I like brilliant orange, as lit by the late afternoon sun, highlighted against the dark blue of a sky.
Warm colors get us riled up.
Cool colors are peaceful.
Follow your own eyes, and read lots of books if you want to know the formal analyses.
If you shoot color, you must pay attention to color. You can't just shoot in color and expect the colors to come out magically wonderful. You have to look for them.
Artists look at my work and realize the subject is the colors themselves.
If color doesn't add to your image, don't shoot color. Shoot black-and-white.
Don't shoot color because it's what your camera does at default. If you aren't actively going to be sensitive to colors, don't shoot them.
Lighting is the most important technical issue in photography. Pro photographers pay close attention to it, while hobbyists sadly ignore it.
For our purposes here, lighting is the biggest contributor to light and dark, to colors, and to shapes and lines.
The direction of light and shadow defines our lines and shapes.
Lines, colors, shapes, light and dark are 99% of our image. Lighting is everything.
Close One Eye
Life is three-dimensional. Not only is it three-dimensional, it has sounds, smells and a whole lot more.
It is extremely difficult to package a life experience into a flat, rectangular print.
I love photographing around trees and nature, except there is a huge gotcha: the reason we like to shoot around them is because of the 3D effect, but since our photos are flat, we can't capture that.
When shooting, always remember close one eye as you view any potential scene.
Close one eye, and suddenly a scene, alive with trees, bushes, rocks and nature, collapses into a boring mass of crap. This is how your photo will look, at best.
Don't move as you look through one eye. If you do this while walking, your brain will still figure it out and piece it back together as 3D.
Stop, hold still, close one eye, hold out your hands to make a rectangle, and that's, at best, how your photo might look.
Pretty boring, eh? Sorry to rain on your parade, but this is another reason most people's nature shots look so bad.
What looked great to their stereo vision wasn't composed with any compositional elements that could lead to an interesting image. Once the 3D effect is removed, it collapses to the random jumble of garbage it is.
If you remember to view through one fixed eye, you can train yourself to pass on images that won't work as flat photographs, and learn to find subjects that will work as strong images.
This is important: by skipping what you now know will look awful, you'll start getting a much higher percentage of keepers. As time progresses, you'll get better at recognizing what makes a keeper, and start turning out a lot more good work.
When nature looks dull when seen with one eye, start arranging your composition to say something. When you can do this, you are becoming a photographer.
Don't even try.
Only you can be you. None of them can ever be as good at being you as you are.
The biggest difference between them and you or I is that they got over worrying about technique, and put all their efforts into looking for good images. David Muench doesn't even look for images, he just goes out with no preconceived notions and goes wherever he feels like he's being guided. Muench pays most of his attention to picking up on whatever signals he's picking up from the landscape. They all go out with open minds and see what they see.
Leading photographers never go out with navigational coordinates attempting to find the same location some other shooter used before.
Screw convention. It's the fastest way to boring images. Don't ever try to shoot anything based on what you think might play well in a contest or might be something other people might like.
Follow your own passion and excitement. Shoot what excites you. If you can capture your own excitement, you just got a good image.
Think about this: if the guy who made the shot you admire didn't start out with a GPS map printout, how on Earth do you expect to do any better yourself when you get there in different conditions? The guys who shoot nature know the light and conditions are far more important than the location. If they do find a location they like, they may have to wait years to get the right light there.
Don't expect that on your two weeks of vacation that you can drive up to the same spot and duplicate years of waiting effort. The way these guys find their pictures is by keeping their eyes on what's in front of them, not a map. When magnificent conditions hit they shoot what's in front of them at the time.
You Can't Go Back
When the conditions are right, shoot.
As you learn to be more observant, the more you'll realize how nothing stays the same, even for a minute.
Lighting changes, and cars pull up in front of your subjects. People sit down in front of you, or they leave.
If you have to fiddle with a tripod, you're dead.
Shoot today. Shoot NOW. You can't go back next week.
The light will never be the same.
The building might not be there.
The shot at the top of the page?
It got repainted the next day. Those colors will never be there again.
No big deal: just keep your eyes open and there are newer, better things to shoot all the time.
Be sure to FART before each picture.
If you can learn to get the basic compositional structure of your images right, you will be making much better images than most photographers ever do.
Most photographers just point and shoot, and hope something turns out. Regardless of how advanced their equipment and how exotic the location, failing to pay attention to the basic design elements results in ho-hum pictures, no more than thoughtless snapshots.
By paying rapt attention to the underlying shapes and forms which make up your image, your images will stand above the rest.
Photos always have details. The camera does that.
The camera can't compose the basics of your image. You, and you alone, have to do that.
If you get the basics right, you will make great images with any camera.
If you don't pay attention, you'll get crummy images with every camera, which is why most beginners keep throwing more money at more cameras, and get the same results.
I pay a lot of attention to my camera's position. Even fractions of an inch (millimeters) can make or break a photograph.
You can't do any of this after you've snapped your photo.
If you want to try HDR or other silly stacking or stitching shenanigans, be very sure that you are already enough of a master to know exactly where and when to plop down your tripod, since if you don't get that right, nothing will be any good.
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