What makes a great picture? There is always room for creative interpretation, but if you want to create a memorable photograph, these are seven things you must do.
1. Find a clear subject
Speaking of musts, every discussion about photography and composition must begin here. Before you ever hoist your camera or touch your shutter, you should say to yourself, “This is a picture of a ____.” When you fill in the blank, be as specific as possible. The more specific you are, the better the picture you can take. This is one of the truisms of photography. To have a great picture, you must have a clear, unmistakable subject.
The reverse is also true. If you ever find that you aren’t crazy about one of your pictures, ask yourself, “What’s the subject?” If a long, awkward pause follows, you’ve just solved the puzzle for your lackluster photo.
2. Fill the frame
It’s not enough to have a clear subject; you must make it prominent in the frame. The easiest way to do that is to dominate most of the real estate of your image with your subject. That often means getting close. It might mean standing back and zooming in. Each decision has its own creative implication. The reverse rule also works here. If you look at your image, and your subject isn’t obvious, you are probably too far away. Zoom with your feet, and fill the frame.
3. Harness the light
The old adage is that photography is painting with light, and if that’s the case, you have to harness the light to create great pictures. A painter doesn’t carelessly swipe paint across a canvas. As a photographer, you should never be careless with light either. This means you should always be aware of your main light source. You should know if it is coming direct to your subject, diffused through a filter, bouncing off another object, or completely controlled. Each decision has enormous consequences. For great pictures, this decision is never left to chance. You must actively decide how you will manipulate the light.
4. Evoke interest
Here is the question you must answer with your photo: So what? So many messages and images clamor for our attention. Why should I stop to look at yours? Great images have an arresting quality about them. They create a mood or evoke an emotion. They make me stop. They make me look. They make me feel. You must evoke my interest if you want me to care.
5. Create a sense of balance
We are attracted to harmony and balance—in life and in art. Great composition balances the objects in the frame so there is even weight. If you have all of the items on one side of your frame, your photo will feel lopsided. Dark objects must be balanced against light ones. Large items play against smaller items. Empty space can be balanced against busier areas of your frame. For pleasing composition, you must balance the objects in your frame.
6. Tell me a story
A great picture usually tells a story at a glance. The photo’s elements, characters, and setting all communicate in an instant exactly what is going on in a way that we can connect and relate. Great storytelling always has strong characters, an obvious challenge, drama, controversy, and a satisfying conclusion. It might be hard to get all these elements into one photo, but with enough creative elements, you can have a dramatic effect. At a glance, you will know exactly what is going on. A great picture must tell me a story.
7. Break the rules
Effective composition follows very well established rules, but if you really want to be great, you must know when to break them. The Rule of Thirds has been widely accepted by photographers and painters for more than 200 years, but there are times when you can put the subject in the center. Break the rule because it creates a desired effect or emotion, not because of an oversight. Learn the rules, then break them. After all, they aren’t commandments.
Can you get all seven musts in every photo? Probably not, but if you do, the picture is likely to be unmistakably great. At the end of the day, that is what we must strive for.
About the Author:
Lynford Morton is founder and lead instructor of a photo tour (photocoachpro dot com). Where he teaches photography principles on walking workshops around Washington, DC. He shares blog posts and insights at PhotoCoach Pro.
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