Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

What’s Really Important in a Photograph

When I’m making a photograph, whether it’s a photo I’ve planned out well in advance or it’s something I stumbled upon in the moment, I think about the following elements:

  1. Subject
  2. Light
  3. Composition
  4. Uniqueness
  5. Technical Quality

The first 3 are what I call the big three. These are the most important factors and if you get these right you’ll have a terrific photo. The last two items, don’t mean anything by themselves, but can take your photo to the next level or bring it down a notch.

Subject

The first thing I ask myself is what is the subject of my photo and what is the story I am trying to tell. The subject can be something tangible such as a person, a building, or a few rocks that catch my attention. It could also be a more general concept such as nature thriving in the desert or the feeling of walking at the coast.

I try to make the subject very clear in my photos. Once I’ve decided on a subject, everything in the photo has to support it. If there’s a distracting element that doesn’t relate to the message, I try to eliminate it from the scene. This could be by picking it up and moving it out of frame (e.g. a rental scooter left on the sidewalk), changing my composition to exclude it, using light to draw attention away from it, or removing the offending elements in post-processing.

I also pick subjects that are meaningful to myself and I hope to my intended viewers. In order to create a memorable photo, there has to be a connection between the viewer and the subject. I think this is easier to do with photos of people because we are wired to be social animals and we have an inordinate amount of brain power devoted to the recognition of faces.

In landscapes, seeing a photo of a location can bring back memories of time spent there. So the more well-known the location, the more likely a given viewer will connect with it. However, even if the viewer hasn’t been to the location, it can still be meaningful by what it represents. A landscape of a stream could be any stream in America and it could represent being out in nature for a hiker or going fly fishing to an outdoorsman.

The stronger our feelings for the subject, the greater the emotional impact a photo of the subject is going to have.

If the subject of the photo isn’t meaningful to the viewer, it can still be a neat or cool picture but most people will quickly forget about it. For example, just think about the last time you viewed your Instagram feed and what pictures do you remember seeing? I check my feed everyday but I can’t remember what I saw this morning. Without a connection, people won’t remember your photo and they won’t think about it.

Not every photo you take can be meaningful to everyone who sees it. We all have different experiences and connections in life. Currently, I have the luxury of photographing only subjects that interest me, but many of my subjects also have broader appeal and these are the ones I tend to share.

Light

Without light, we don’t have a photo. The light and shadow in a photograph defines all of the objects within it and is critical to understanding three dimensional shapes in a two dimensional rendering. Light also helps set the emotional tone of the photograph (e.g. why we often describe light as cool or warm).

Landscape photographers tend to favor light at the ends of the day. Either just before or after sunrise and similarly for sunset. We call this golden hour (after sunrise/before sunset) or magic hour (before sunrise/after sunset). This light results in colorful skies, warm saturated colors, and shadows that help define subjects but aren’t too harsh.

Photographers often call this good light in contrast to the bad light of mid-day sun. But I think characterizing light as good or bad is overly simplistic. Good photos can be made in all types of light. What’s important is the characteristics of the light and how it relates to your subject and the concept of your image. In particular, I look at

  • The hardness of the light. Is it soft with diffuse shadows or is it hard with well-defined shadows.
  • The direction of light (and consequently the direction of shadows). Do the light and shadows help direct the viewer’s eyes in the photo?
  • The color of light. Does the light result in a color cast in the scene? do you want warm reddish tones or the cool blues?
  • The strength of the light. Strong light can be very dramatic and attract attention, especially with a backlit subject. But is that what you want for the photo?

These properties of light help set the mood and emotional tone of the photo. Here are a few examples of how different types of light can impact the photo.

Overcast light is often good for low key scenes with a somber mood. It’s also very good light for showing details and texture. Taking the photo shown below during golden hour would have resulted in a very different emotional impact.

Soft overcast light

Sometimes you want harsh light to create tension and drama in the photo. For example, consider these portraits of Andy Warhol or Al Pacino by Greg Gorman. These photos go against the typical lighting used in portraits but are nonetheless very effective.

The direction of light is incredibly important and can help direct the eyes to important subjects in the frame. For example, look at the photo Afternoon Chat by Fan Ho and how the light guides our eyes between the different groups of people.

You can make good photos in all kinds of light. But if you have a particular vision, story, or emotion you are trying to convey, it helps to choose the right light.

Composition

Composition is how we arrange the visual elements of a scene in our photograph.

The most important element in an image is the central focal point. I’m not sure why, but I rarely see discussion of this concept in photography and instead I see an inordinate, and in my opinion unhealthy, emphasis on the rules of composition: e.g. rule of thirds, golden mean, etc.

The central focal point of an image (photo, painting, drawing, etc) is the area within that demands the most attention from the viewer and to which their eye is naturally drawn. Focal points arise because of the mechanics of how our visual systems work: our eyes are attracted to areas of contrast (due to changes in brightness or color), isolated single elements, hard edges, and human and animal figures. If you want to learn more about focal points, I’d suggest reading articles from painting like this or this.

The focal point is not the same thing as your main subject. It could be a part of the subject. For example, in a portrait your central focal point will most likely be the eyes of the subject. In a still life it could be a highlight on some fruit as in this painting by Caravaggio:

Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge. Caravaggio, circa 1605-1610

In my compositions, I look for the central focus point and its relationship and spacing to secondary focal points in the scene. I look at how the light and shadows in the scene may lead the viewers eyes between focal points. I look at the geometry of objects (and for landscapes the terrain) and how this may guide the viewer’s eye around the scene.

I also look for unwanted distractions that lead the eye away from my desired focal points and I try to remove them from the composition. I especially try to eliminate exit points which are distractions near the edge of the frame that lead the eye out of the picture.

However, you should note that photography is not painting. You can’t always get a perfect composition and sometimes we get elements that don’t fit the story we are trying to tell. Sometimes these can be removed or minimized in post-processing but other times we need to live with it and recognize that perfect isn’t possible. (If you lean more towards digital art, then you have as much freedom as painters to modify the scene to achieve a perfect composition).

Uniqueness

We’re constantly flooded with imagery. I probably see thousands of different photos every day from reading news, watching tv, and browsing my social media. To standout as a photographer and an artist, you need to take unique photos that differentiates you from your peers.

Uniqueness could come from many different aspects of the photograph. E.g.,

  • The photo is of a subject that nobody else has covered.
  • The photo has a unique visual style.
  • The photo has an original composition on a well shot subject.

For example, Pete Souza was the official White House Photographer and has access that no-one else has. Gregory Crewdson photographs seemingly everyday scenes but has his own distinct visual style. Jon Carmichael created a unique photograph of the the 2017 total eclipse with a composition based on shooting from an airplane window. Compare that photo to most pictures taken by other photographers.

In my own work, I try to focus on composition. I walk a lot and like to find new views that haven’t been popularized. When I first started focusing on local landscapes my initial fear was that it would be impossible to come up with an original photo as the conventional wisdom is that everything has already been done. I soon discovered the my fear was unfounded, that there are lots of original photographs to be made even as a landscape photographer.

If my subject is a well known landmark, I ask myself is this composition one that I’ve seen before? If the answer is yes, what will be different about my photo? What am I trying to say that’s different than everybody else? If I can’t answer that, I don’t take the picture.

I will note that you don’t have to focus on getting unique shots as a photographer. Some people are perfectly happy to photograph the icons with standard compositions and there is nothing wrong with that. Getting a unique shot is if you want to achieve recognition from your peers, win photo competitions, or develop your own artistic voice. Not everyone desires or pursues these things.

Technical Quality

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”
— Ansel Adams

I list technical quality last because it’s never going to lead to a great image by itself. By far the most important factors behind a great image are the subject, light and composition. Nobody will like a boring picture because it’s sharp at 100% on screen and can be blown-up to a 60” print.

However, poor image quality can certainly detract from a picture, and turn a good image to a mediocre one. To be clear, by technical quality, I mean is the image well exposed, sharp where sharpness is desired, and with minimal noise or grain.

For example, look at the following pair of pictures.

Technical quality: poor vs good

The difference between these two pictures is all due to technical quality: the second has improved color rendition, minimal noise, and greater detail due to extra effort in the field and in post-processing.

Many people say that technical quality is not that important and if you look at some of the photos acknowledged as the most iconic, you’ll find that technical quality is often lacking. My favorite example is Warren Richardson’s photo of the European migrant crisis. The thing is that this photo has an incrediblly compelling and newsworthy subject. So compelling that technical quality just doesn’t matter.

However, if you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably a landscape or fine art photographer and not a photojournalist. In genres like landscapes, quality matters and it matters a great deal. Nobbody wants a landscape photo that’s blurry or grainy especially when there are others to choose from. Nobody wants a portrait where their eyes are out of focus.

Last Words

Beginners often focus on the technical details of how to take a picture and obsess over little things like the choice of aperture or shutter speed. But in my opinion these are the last things one should be thinking about. Being clear about the concept of the picture and how you envision your image turning out with the light and composition is far more important.

Finally, I don’t always pay attention to these criteria. Sometimes I’m out photographing just for fun and I don’t think about if my subject has wide appeal or if my composition is unique. I just go by my gut and whether I like what I see in front of the camera. Sometimes these photos make their way onto my website but other times I’m happy to keep them private.