What makes a "Great" photo?

March 3, 2015

I can take photos in Dallas, Mosow, Paris, or Rio de Janeiro. Those photos can range from portraits, to landscapes, to macro shots, or even architecture. I can shoot in HDR or with monochromatic filters or even on film (maybe). So, with such a plethora of adjustable exposure parameters how can I judge if I’m making the right choices or not? What exactly makes a “great” photo?

First thing’s first, your

What’s your subject for the photograph? There should be no question in this. If you’re not positive about your subject while taking a photograph, as a viewer I am going to have an even harder time trying to figure it out. How do I know what to frame, or what to focus on? Your subject is simply what your photograph is about.

Once we know who, or what, our subject is we must then isolate them. We can do this by using contrasting light, contrasting color, depth of field, and contrasting textures. Keep in mind that these tools go both ways, and if these are happening within the frame without your intention they will still serve to separate a subject.

So you have a well-defined subject, now what’s your

It’s immensely easier to take a photograph having some idea of how you expect it to turn out in the end. What’s the story your image is trying to tell? Does that read out immediately or do I have other possible intentions that come to mind?

If I want my subject to look small or unimposing it may not be the best idea to take a wide-angle shot from the chest up and have them fill the frame. Maybe taking a few steps back and posing them next to a tree or a building will make them seem as miniscule as you’re hoping the final picture will depict. Think about your intentions before and as you’re taking the shot. If you’re shooting from above someone’s head, or below, it will dictate the narrative of the subject’s pose.


Closely related to concept, choose your

Composition isn’t always what you’re including in frame, often it’s what you’re making sure
included in the frame. Just think, a camera set in place on a tripod taking pictures at different amounts of zoom takes a different photo with each new alteration.

If you’re touring a brewery and take a close-up of your friend drinking a beer what’s the point of being at a brewery? That photo could’ve come from your kitchen. If you take a photo of your friend drinking a beer while being dwarfed by a metal tank inside the brewery there are numerous storylines that could be told. You think of how many beers could fit into said tank, how often that tank is filled and emptied on a daily basis, how far across the world that beer next to you might travel; a wider shot in this scenario allows for a much wider range of narratives for the photo. But then again, maybe you just care that your friend likes beer, as long as you’re conscious of what photo you’re framing in that moment.

is key in taking a “great” photo.

I say
had you taken all four factors into consideration.

The angle/direction of your light source, the shadows created by your light source/amount of light, and the qualities of the light source being used all contribute to the proper exposure of light for your photograph. I may have the perfect amount of light but if its direction is set up too harshly the photo will be useless. Nobody wants an elegant shot of a bride at her wedding with light coming from only one side of her face making her look stern, or even downright scary, like some movie villain. A gloomy, all-encompassing, gray sky is going to pull your photograph in the same direction; the evenness of light will cover the amount you need but not the quality you may need for a landscape or portrait to be “great.”

So think. As you're getting your camera out, as your subject is getting into position, as you're adjusting your focus; think about the final product that you're already starting to create. Making proper decisions along the way will help create the photo you're intending/ hoping for. Make sure you're paying attention to your subject and how they may be perceived, and what the world around your subject is doing to influence the photo as well. At some point you won't even consciously think about the factors you need to think about to create a "great" photo - crazy right? - and all of them will turn into "great" photos!