The three things that make a great photograph and the one thing that doesn’t

David Travis
Jul 8, 2017 · 6 min read
“Do not dump rubbish”. A slogan I sometimes forget sharing my photographs.

I’m halfway through a year-long project where I’m attempting to understand what makes a good photo story.

I’ve completed other year-long projects (such as a-photo-a-day and one-portrait-a-week-for-the-year) but I’ve felt more inspired by this project than with any other.

One of my aims with this project was to stop thinking in terms of single photos: the ‘hero’ shot. It’s very difficult to provide depth or narrative with a single photo. I believe that when you collect images together, they have significantly more impact. But this kind of photography is especially hard these days, because photo sharing sites like Instagram, 500px and flickr aren’t interested in collections: they reward individual photographs.

So it’s ironic that what started out as a project about collections of images has now got me thinking about what makes a great individual photograph.

I’ve narrowed it down to three things.

Lighting

Great light makes a great photograph. This could be the golden light of sunrise or sunset, the open shade of a garage, or the hard light of a sunny day.

I took this at home after noticing the gorgeous evening light.

It could be the feathered light from a softbox, the punchy light of a beauty dish or the light from a handheld torch painting a scene during a long exposure.

This is a selfie silhouette taken in a hotel room where I stayed in Newcastle. It was ordinary morning light but filtered through coloured windows. (Taken on an iPhone).

There’s not one kind of ‘good’ light. Different light suits different subjects. What matters is matching the light to the subject.

This is hula hoop artist Helen Orford, who comes with her own LED hula hoops. That, plus a soft box, created an interesting portrait.

None of the photographs in this section are only of light, but I think all of them have interesting light.

Composition

You’ve heard the ‘rules’ of composition, such as the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, leading lines… I’m not a great fan of rules when applied to creativity since they can lead to clichéd images, but rules do provide a useful framework. You need to start somewhere when searching for a composition and these basic rules get you started on the journey.

This is a classic shot of the lighthouse on Llandwyn Island. I can’t really claim this as ‘my’ composition, since I simply stood in the same place as many photographers before me. It’s a visual cliché —but the thing about clichés is that they work.

I like Edward Weston’s definition of good composition as “the strongest way of seeing”. This reminds me to move around the subject; to look from up high and from below; to discover where I should stand to organise the stuff in front of me in a way that best suits my purpose.

In his book, Things, Jim Krause writes:

“What are the components — small, medium and large — of this thing that best expresses its character, functions and age? Which views of this thing might reveal its most aesthetically pleasing details?”

I like this quotation because it captures the idea that seeing (and composition) is an active process, not a passive one.

This was an example of finding a composition and then waiting for something to happen. I could see the bird flying through the shaft of light, so I set up the composition, pre-focussed, and waited.

I once heard a story about the great portrait photographer, Jane Brown. Apparently, she would walk around her subject like a lion stalking its prey until she found the ‘right’ place to position her camera. “Oh, there you are,” she would say to her subject.

Composition also captures the graphic elements of an image: the use of line, form, colour, texture, balance, rhythm, pattern, even empty space. This also means the component shapes of the image, such as triangles and circles.

This is a simple composition but I think that the strong graphic shapes make it an interesting one.

Story

And that brings me the third component: story. When I started this project, I thought of ‘story’ as a strict narrative: something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. 6 months into this project and I don’t think that’s either useful or necessary.

The lighting in this image is ordinary. The composition is better: I like the way it emphasises depth. But really, the dog should be facing the other way. A picture of a dog’s arse isn’t great composition. However, there is a real story here: you want to know what’s happening.

In the context of photography, ‘story’ can mean any of the following:

  • Emotion.
  • Gesture.
  • How you are responding to the scene.
  • How you express your strongest feeling photographically.
  • Something interesting.
  • Depth of meaning.
  • Animation.
  • Expression.
  • Timing.
  • What you are trying to say with the photograph.
  • Why you find it interesting.
  • Your vision.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I hope you get the idea.

This is another example of an image that tells a story, or at least gets you asking the question: “What’s going on?”

I spent years reading, practising and thinking about lighting and composition. But I feel I’ve made more progress in my photography in the six months I’ve been thinking about story than at any other time. Before taking a photograph, I now ask, “Why?” and “Who?”

  • Why take that picture? What is the purpose? How would the world be different if that picture didn’t exist? What am I trying to achieve? What reaction do I want to evoke? What discussion do I want the picture to start? This doesn’t have to be a grand concept: even simple questions help, such as, “Why take a head shot rather than a full length?” and “Why do a studio portrait rather than an environmental one?”
  • Who is the audience for the image? Who am I trying to influence? Or impress? Is it someone who wants a print of the image on their wall? Is it an art director? Is it someone who runs a gallery? Is it other photographers? This question, though difficult, gets me away from thinking in terms of just creating a ‘cool’ or ‘clever’ image that lacks emotional impact.
You can even arrange three pears in such a way that there appears to be a story happening.

Combining the three elements

Focussing on any one of these three elements can create a fine photograph. I’ve taken fine photographs because the light was good; I’ve taken fine photographs because the composition was right; and I’ve taken one or two fine photographs that contain the elements of story. I think all of the images in this essay are ‘fine’.

But ‘fine’ isn’t good enough. It’s only when you combine all three elements that you get a great photograph. I’m not sure I’ve taken one of those yet. That’s why there are no photographs illustrating this section.

The one thing that doesn’t make a great photo

Gear.

As a rookie photographer, I spent most of my time obsessing over technique and equipment.

It’s true that you need mastery of your camera, but in the search for better photographs this risks being a rabbit hole. There’s always another lens, or another light modifier, or another camera system. Of course sharpness matters but as the venerable Ansel Adams said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Gear manufacturers encourage this obsession by paying great photographers to use their gear, leading you to believe that the photo is made by the gear and not the person behind the gear. Ansel Adams again: “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”

It’s true that nice gear makes the experience of photography more pleasant, but you can make great photographs with a camera phone. You just need great light, great composition and a great story.

It’s that simple — and that difficult.


This is photo story 27/52. More details about this project.

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David Travis

Written by

Portrait and landscape photographer. Attempting to understand what makes a good photo story.

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