What makes a good photograph? categories: for photographers, personal

It’s all about you

This is not going to be a post that will give you a photography formula. Photography is not and never will be a science. Sure, a camera is a scientific instrument designed to measure and map light, but creativity is king. To start, you must have vision.

Your vision does not need to be ground breaking, but it should be unique to you. The subject matter does not need to be something fresh either. Heck, I am a portrait and wedding photographer. There is nothing new about that. Surprise, I photograph people! However, I try hard each day to approach my work with my vision. To create worthwhile photographs, for you, start with your vision.

Breakin’ the law!

Look around you will find many people providing “rules of photography”. I have read so many articles like “20 rules to improve your photographs” or “the 10 things you have to photograph before you die”. Aside from a little morbidity, these articles do have their place. There are certain deep-rooted, visual concepts that should be learned.

Then break them! I constantly consider standard visual concepts when working, and then break the rules elegantly to create a vision true to myself. For example, many photographer’s would say “use lighting in a way that does not draw attention to itself”. My vision says “use lighting, even if obvious, to draw great attention to your subject.” That’s just me.

Just some basic rules

As mentioned above, there are some basic rules to portrait photography that can help you create a better photograph. Just yesterday I spent some time with a friend and my wife teaching these rules. They wanted to learn more about photography and I had some spare time. So, we did a little informal class. We covered the following:

  1. There can be only one – subject. If your photo has more than one subject, you have too many. That being said, a group of people can be considered one subject.
  2. The eyes have it – our brains are hard-wired to look for other human eyes. If there are eyes in your photo, they should be tack sharp and in focus.
  3. Let there be light – similar to the draw of the human eye, our brains are also drawn to brightness. To emphasis your subject make it the brightest part of the photograph.
  4. There is no clutter in Nirvanna – Painters have it easy. They can create a clean background by not including clutter. Photography works through exclusion. To keep focus on your subject, pay attention to your background and change your perspective to eliminate undesirable clutter.
  5. As easy as 1, 2, THREE – I am not going to explain the “rule of thirds” in depth. Instead, I will just say that it is good to have your subject off center in the frame to the left or right. For a deeper understand tt is worth googling “rule of thirds.” I promise you will find a worthwhile read.

So there you have it, five simple that should be easy to remember. You could practice the above and probably create a better photograph, but don’t get lost in these rules.

Apply your vision and break the rules as needed. If you always rely on the rule of thirds, do something different. Cut off the head of your subject and see it if works for you. Knock your subject out of focus and see how it affects the feel. Vision, experiment, review! Those are the real rules to apply.

Review for results

With digital photography, it is too easy to shoot like crazy and ask questions later. I used to do just that, and sometimes I still do. The better approach is to apply your vision, shoot, review and adjust. Earlier I mentioned the short photography lesson I gave yesterday. I asked my wife to start by taking a picture of me. Upon immediate review, this was the result:

A first try, by Brooke Harrison

A first try, by Brooke Harrison

We then walked through some of the basic rules: brightness, sharpness, the rule of thirds. I then asked her to “take the picture she wants of me”. This is what she captured just two minutes later:

A second try with big improvement - by Brooke Harrison

A second try with big improvement – by Brooke Harrison

My eyes are nearly at the thirds position and are sharp. She used soft lighting from the side to give my face some dimension. She made me the subject and brighter than my immediate background. She got rid of distracting lines intersection my head. Thank goodness too because those bars in my head looked painful!

Review as you work. The greatest part of modern digital cameras is the immediate available feedback. Don’t just use the LCD to review exposure. Study the composition. Are the photographs representative of your vision? If not, then adjust. If you just keep pulling the trigger you will end up with terabytes of data, maybe a good picture or two, and you won’t be able to adjust because the opportunity has past.


Clearly, even this blog post is nothing really new. Anyone reading this with some experience will recognize the basic concepts. I did put my spin on the topic though. For a deeper exploration of vision and how to develop it, consider reading David DuChemin and Chris Orwig. They both have inexpensive books that are worthwhile to read.

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