Elements of a Great Photograph

As a photographer, it’s incredibly important to know what makes a great picture. Just having a nice camera and fancy tools isn’t enough to really make it in this industry anymore. Knowing what to look for and honing in on those specific things can help you capture truly unique, personal, and in the moment images that will hopefully help to set you apart from your peers. Here are just a few things that I look for during a session.

great photography

Captured by Richard Schneider, f/8, 1/200 second, 24mm, ISO 125

Composition

I had a little bit of trouble deciding what was the most important aspect of an image. But finally after much thought, I came to the conclusion that composition should be the first thing you consider when taking a picture. Composition can actually make or break an image. There are some images that seem boring and mundane until you recompose them. Sometimes all it takes is looking at your subject from a different angle. Try getting above them—like way above them and shooting down. Or maybe get below and shoot upwards. Sometimes changing up where the focus is in your image can make a difference, too. Like focusing on a ring in the foreground with the couple out of focus in the background.

looking down

Photo by Tormod Ulsberg; ISO 80 f/11, 1/50-second exposure.

Story Telling

This is a trait I personally find important, although not everyone does. I think the best pictures tell the story of the people in them. Now this may be some kind of artistic creation, which can be really cool, like creating a fairytale image with the people in costumes. But I’m usuallylooking for something more simple. Like a first time dad holding his son for the first time and that look of pure joy and elation on his face. Or the sweet little action of a little girl blowing flower petals out of her hands. Or maybe it’s a a close up of an elderly couple holding hands. Telling the story of the people in an image can add a whole new level to your picture’s overall depth and meaning.

storytelling photo

“subway” captured by PictureSocial member Yunus Emre Ates

Emotion

We often take pictures of faces. Everyone’s face is totally unique, and so much emotion can be seen just in a person’s face. Many, many, many pictures are of faces. So capturing a picture that shows the pure joy between to friends laughing over an inside joke or the love on a woman’s face as her man literally sweeps her off her feet can create a much more dynamic image than just a photograph of their faces. Of course, happiness isn’t the only emotion you can convey. Sometimes sorrow, loneliness, thoughtfulness, calm, peace, or relief can create an interesting photo, too. It’s so rare to see images of people experiencing genuine emotion, and I find that people tend to crave this kind of imagery more because it’s rare.

emotion in great photography

“Lunch Distress’ captured by PictureSocial member Thomas Jeppesen

Detail

I find detail images to be fascinating; they’re often my favorites. We focus on people’s faces so much that sometimes it’s fun to mix things up and throw in some pictures of other details to remind ourselves of the little things. Like a little baby’s feet held in his mother’s hands. Kids grow up so quickly; capturing these fleeting moments when they are so small can be some of the most cherished memories a parent could hope for. They often aren’t thinking about those kinds of images when they have you take pictures, but they almost always fall in love with these baby detail shots. These kinds of images are being more and more appreciated in all forms of photography, including engagement sessions. Many couples love pictures that don’t include their faces. It adds a whole new twist to traditional photography.

detail photo example

“The Tracks” captured by PictureSocial member Gabe W

Lighting

Lighting is the last element—and probably one of the most important—because you need light just to create a picture or to set a mood. Silhouetted or backlit pictures are really popular these days, as they are different from standard portraiture. There’s a variety of different takes on the backlit pictures, and there are some pretty exciting and fun examples to look through. There’s also the fun dramatic, single light source lighting. This type of photography is fun for creating super moody dramatic shots with high contrast. You really need to know what you’re doing and what you want to achieve for this style of lighting to work well with your subject matter.

silhouette lighting for portraits

“Biker Portrait” captured by Zach Dischner

Well, there you have it. You now know the five elements that help in creating stunning imagery. Composition can help you take a standard pose and give it a new twist. Story telling can help you relay more about a person or couple in an image. Emotion is often one of the most important elements to a picture, especially when conveying joy or happiness. Detail shots can make for a great reminder of the little things we love in others. And, of course, lighting will always make or break a picture since light is what actually enables us to take a picture.

I hope you’ve found this at least a little insightful and perhaps have taken some things away from it that you may try in your next photo shoot!

About the Author:
Stephanie lives in Central, Illinois, is married to her best friend, Ryan, and enjoys the company of her rambunctious lab-beagle pup, Kit. She is the owner of Green Tree Media (greentreemediaonline.com) and is passionate about photography.

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12 responses to “Elements of a Great Photograph”

  1. Thank you so much for the lessons that you have posted and great ideas that have helped me be a touch better in what I do to strive to get better at what I love! Keep them coming!
    Sincerely,

    John Nolan

  2. Claude says:

    Sorry! I am in shock!

    I just can not believe that you put lighting on the fifth place. photography is all about lighting. You can not compose, tell a story, capture emotion, or think about detail if you DO NOT have light!

    Always remember what the word photography means!

    “The word photography derives from the Greek φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”,together meaning “drawing with light”.” source Wikipedia

    Analyse the light, change the position of light on the subject, vary the source of light, Than you can compose, tell a story, capture emotion, or think about detail.

    Remember that it is through light that photography exist ….

  3. Omar E. says:

    Thanks for another good article!

    @Claude, I never thought that the 5 points were in any kind of order. “Lighting” being the last mentioned doesn’t mean it is the least. What you have pointed out was also mentioned by the author.

    “Lighting is the last element and probably one of the most important because you need light just to create a picture”

    “And of course, lighting will always make or break a picture since light is what actually enables us to take a picture”

  4. Phil says:

    That rings picture is crap. It’s so sappy that it looks juvenile. Did a 12 year old girl come up with that idea? Vomit. Blehhhhhh.

  5. Lyn Morton says:

    Stephanie,

    Thanks for sharing the article. These are all undeniably the essential elements of a good photograph. We can quibble about the order, but doing so misses the point. Strive to include all these elements to create your photograph.

    I’m bothered by Phil’s comment. To criticize without offering any constructive input, especially in a public place, doesn’t make you an expert, it makes you a jerk.

    As artists we pour ourselves into our work…whether it is a photograph or an article. Show the artist some respect.

    • Alwyn says:

      I still cannot figure out if I am a freelance or Professional or whatever photographer, but I LOVE taking pictures and especially wedding pictures.

      Now the wedding ring picture… Having a couple not dressed in wedding gear walking up to a ring that was purposefully places is a really good example of the story-telling theme.
      I have seen rings basically EVERYWHERE and this was one of the better shots that I have ever seen. I agree that it is sappy, but it is the kind of sappy that makes future brides go… Awww and that, my friend pays my bills!
      I have been reading these articles quietly on my own.. “Stalking” if you will, but I have learned a lot from that. I just take what I like, need or suits me and let the rest go by. Now I have not done hundreds of weddings, but I have done more than a hundred and If I learned one thing, it is how little I know… I am teaching photography at a technical school after hours with about twenty pupils in the class… (Ok we are 3 photographers that are doing this together)… The point is that I love the ring picture, so Phill please educate me on why the picture is Crappy, sappy and juvenile. Learning from your wisdom might elevate my photography to a new level (Obviously you will have to post some examples that will ensure future sales… The rings will do just that..)

  6. Per Helenius says:

    Well said Lyn, I totally agree

  7. Gareth says:

    Phil has an opinion, we all have opinions,just like noses on our faces. Each one different.

    His comment is harsh, unqualified and purile.

    Stephanie if it is any consolation I would have been proud to have taken anyone of these helpful photos.

    The principle of what you were trying to share has not been lost on one poor reaction.

    • Alwyn says:

      Thanks Gareth, that was well said!

      I was so upset that I ended up writing gibberish… (I could not really write down what I thought a t the time…)

      Stephanie, thanks for what you are doing, please keep it up! I have found some really nice gems in your work.

  8. Brian says:

    I must agree that composition is number 1. You may have the best lit, technically perfect photo ever taken but if it’s boring, it will get passed by as the viewer looks for one that is interesting. The only people who notice tack sharp focus or perfect exposure is photographers. That’s why cell phone pics are so popular. Substance over technique. It’s when the composition, the exposure and the lighting all come together, that’s when the magic happens. That’s when a photographer really gets appreciated.

  9. Rajan Ugrankar says:

    I like Ur. Work and nice articles too

  10. Chris says:

    The ring photo…Not only it’s dangerous but you are trespassing!! Plain and simple! Just because the rails are rusty or the trains that go by only at night time does not mean a thing. Anytime is train time!!
    There are already plenty of published warnings about photographing on the railroads and I’m surprised to see that it has not been mentioned here.

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