What’s Important in a Photograph, and What Isn’t

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What’s Important in a Photograph, and What Isn’t

You know the drill. You pick up a magazine or browse a website and flip through the photos. Most you look at for less than a second, but a select few grab your attention and demand a longer look. What’s different about these select photos? What makes some photos great and others mediocre?

I’ve bounced this question off of several distinguished photographers and the answers are always quite similar. They may disagree on some of the ordering, but the list of qualities goes something like this:


We’ll break these down in a bit, but first, let’s list some things that aren’t important to a photo’s success. These are in no particular order and constitute what I call The Box of Technical BS. Behold the contents of The Box: megapixels, noise, corner performance, RAW headroom, coma, xenon afterglow, diffraction, OLPFs, missing midtones, 14-bit files, MTF charts, dynamic range, monitor calibration, reciprocity failure, 1:1 sharpness, ETTR, chromatic aberration, ART lenses and let’s not forget the aptly named Circle of Confusion. I could go on and on adding to the contents list of the Box of Technical BS, but the one thing all these technical attributes share is that no matter how much you possess of any of these, they won’t increase the emotional impact of a photo one iota. The only technical aspects one needs a handle on are the exposure triangle and focus and most cameras will do these tasks for you. This brings us back to the important stuff. TGC India is the best option for photography course in delhi.

1) Emotion

Hands down the most important aspect of any photograph are its ability to invoke an emotional response. This response is what gets you to look longer at some photos than others, maybe even decide to buy a print and hang that photo on your wall. The response can be anything from happiness to the blues, warmth to chill, serenity to horror. It could inspire curiosity or a call to action. It could simply be a cat video saying “cute” or a food photo that makes your mouth water. If you can pin an adjective/s to a photo other than “boring”, then the photo is succeeding on some level. The stronger the emotions invoked, the more successful the photo and the longer you’ll remember it.

2) Light

The word photography means painting with light. The quality of the light directly impacts the quality of the photograph. There’s soft light, harsh light, warm light, cool light, Rembrandt light, beautiful light, and so forth. Your camera’s light meter can measure the intensity of light, but only you can judge the quality of light. There are no equations to evaluate light quality – it’s purely an aesthetic judgment. How does one learn to make this judgment? By studying good photography and painting, watching how movies are lit to invoke emotion, hanging out with photographers and other artists who have an eye for it… Good photographers key into good light. When they see good light, they find a subject to shoot. When they see a good subject, they wait for the good light (or create it themselves with studio lighting, modifiers, etc).

3) Composition

Composition is the arrangement of subjects within a photo. A good composition gets the viewer’s eye to travel throughout a photo. A weak composition leads the eye to one spot where it subsequently gets stuck. There are scads of articles and books written about composition and the various “rules” and concepts are beyond the scope of this article. The point I want to make is that a photo with strong composition combined with good light has more emotional impact than one of the same subjects with lousy composition and/or poor light.

4) Creativity

Creativity is all about seeing a subject in a way others don’t. It’s about being original. Photographers whose work stands out to do so because it’s original. With the most creative ones you can tell who shot the photo without reading the byline because their style is so unique. Avedon and Salgado come to mind.

5) Timing

Capturing the peak of action or human emotion or even just waiting for some clouds to move into position can make or break a photo. After all, a photograph is a minuscule slice of time captured and preserved for the ages. Not all slices of time are as visually compelling as others.

6) Context

Context is fundamental in storytelling – showing the subject relating to other subjects (animate or inanimate) or the environment gives the viewer more to chew on than just a straight portrait.

7) Layers

Layering in a photo is a broad and somewhat ambiguous concept. Different photographers define it differently. Here’s my take. A photo with layers does more than one thing at a time, giving the viewer more to muse over. Layers can be visual elements, the obvious example being a strong foreground with a strong background.

8) Wrapping up

When you view a good photo you get lost in the subject, the story, and the feelings evoked. You don’t wonder about the metadata. Let’s revisit the opening shot of the condor landing at sunset.