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What Makes a Great Picture?

Have you ever looked at two fairly similar pictures where one looks "better" than the other, but you haven't been able to quite put your finger on why that is? Have you ever taken a picture and wondered how you might be able to make it look better?

This article explains some of the basics about what I look for when taking great pictures and hopefully it will help you take great pictures too!

An Interesting Subject

The best photo in the world of a blank sheet of paper will almost certainly not be more compelling than an average photo of something interesting. This photo is not technically great, but there's a cute monkey in it! And he looks like he's smiling!!

Look Closely

If your subject is whatever is in front of you, take a moment to really look at it. Maybe it's not very interesting at a glance, but maybe there are patterns or shapes that are waiting to be discovered or little details that tell a story.

This picture is a great example of taking this sort of approach. I visited a cemetery in Sandakan, Borneo with a couple of friends, and upon arriving we were a bit disappointed; the description in the travel guide was somewhat more exotic than what we found.

Rather than letting the initial let down hold me back, I hiked around and looked closer at the details; that's how found this headstone. It was in decent light, with interesting colours and shapes. It's by no means the best photo I took in Borneo, but it takes what was looking like a disappointing excursion and turns it into something quite a bit more interesting.

After showing my companions the photos I had taken before we left, one of them pointed at my camera and said, "I want to go there!"

Mission accomplished!

Beautiful Light

There's old saying photographers have describing photography: "Painting with light." Just as a great painter is going to be fussy about what type of paint they use to produce the results that they are after, photographers are fussy about the light that they use.

Let's not talk about artificial lights, as you have to be reasonably serious to delve into using them, and instead talk about available light (usually sunlight).

I took this shot on a fairy dull day in Melbourne (not an unusual occurrence!). I had set aside a day for wondering around and taking pictures, and was a bit disenchanted by the poor light. I was taking a break from wondering around when suddenly the sun came out.

A mixture of hard, directional sunlight and soft, reflected light from clouds is a dream for taking pictures. I immediately jumped up, found a good spot and snapped a few shots. Within minutes the clouds were back in front of the sun and we were back to dull, flat light.

Being aware of the qualities of light (e.g. hard vs. soft) what sort of conditions produce them and how to take advantage of them can really help you get the most out of your pictures, whether your using a camera phone, a high-end DSLR or anything in between.

Compelling Composition

Often we have little choice about what our subject is or what light have available, but with composition, there are no excuses! This can be a great equaliser; equipment usually won't help you unless you're doing something very specialised, so it's all up to you to make the composition brilliant.

Subject Placement

If you start researching composition, you're likely to come across the Rule of Thirds, and the (very similar, but more precise) Golden Ratio.

I never advise anyone to blindly follow any rules (I think of them as guidelines), but it's good to be aware of them and understanding the reasoning behind them.

One of the most popularly sited theory is the Rule of Thirds, which suggests that the most pleasing positioning of a subject is along imaginary lines that divide the frame into thirds. The points where the horizontal and vertical lines lines intersect are considered the most powerful, so often photographers aim to place the point of interest in one those points.

These guidelines can achieve different results in different situations. Having your subject dead centre obscures the background, so if there is something interesting there, it's lost; by positioning your subject off centre you reveal more of the environment.

If your subject has a face, then you can change the mood of a photo dramatically by how much empty space they are looking into. People looking at an image will usually focus on faces and the follow the subject's eyes, so this can be a great way to guide the viewer around the image. Typically pictures are composed with more empty space in the direction of the subject's gaze.

People tend to scan pictures in the same direction as they read (i.e. left-to-right for English). By placing your subject on the "line end" side of the image, you can take advantage of this quirk.

Shapes, Lines and Angles

When composing a picture, take a look at the shapes that you can see. Keep an eye out for:

Symmetry

Symmetry is an odd beast. Sometimes images that are too symmetrical can look flat, lifeless or sterile, but sometimes symmetry can make an image more striking. This is something too hard to explain in an article this short; my advice here is to experiment with it to see what looks good to you.

Good Technique

This picture illustrates what you can achieve with good technique. It's a 16mm focal length taken at 1/13th of a second without a tripod and still quite sharp - that's very close to the limit of what most people can do with handheld photography. If you're not careful, a shot like this could easily end up looking awful.

Good technique is fairly simple to describe, though can be hard to master. Have a comfortable stance, and hold your camera securely. Many blurry photos are actually in focus; the blur is caused by movement in the camera while the shot is being taken (this is called camera shake).

Holding your breath for a moment can help keep you steady. Propping yourself against something solid is a good idea (just make sure it's safe!), and if there's nothing available, try holding your elbows against your body.

When using higher end camera gear, it can be much less tolerant of bad technique. This is because sharper lenses and bigger sensors (more megapixels) produce sharper results at large resolutions in optimum circumstances, so the difference between good and bad shots is starker.

Careful Curation

So far we've been very clinical, dissecting individual images and looking at the process of photography. Now we take a step back, and look at how pictures affect each other when they are in a collection.

This picture is one of many in the same place, with the same model, in the same outfit, at the same angle, with the same light. There are perhaps 8 great shots that I took with this setup, each one strong in its own right, but as they are largely the same I typically don't display all of them together. Why? Because the impact of one great photo is quickly diminished when you see many similar ones.

People have limited time and are constantly being bombarded with information, status updates, emails and the like. If they see one great photo and say "Wow!" and there are no more to look at, then "Wow!" is what they will remember. If that is followed up by a similar photo, their reaction will almost certainly be less excited, and that is the impression that they will leave with. If they see an album of photos with many near duplicates, then chances are they will go from "Wow!" to "Yawn."

Pictures are often presented in sets. Whether it's a slideshow for you friends and family or an album (in a book or online), the same advice applies: be ruthless; be surprising; don't give your audience an excuse to yawn!

The Right Equipment

I've deliberately left this as the last point. On one hand, it's unrealistic to expect everyone to pay for (and lug around) the best photographic equipment that they can get hold of. On the other, there's some people that seem to expect that you can get the same results from any camera, which is simply not true.

A pragmatic attitude to have is to make sure you have the right combination of capability, bulk and cost for the photography gear that you get for your picture taking. Capability is what I'll focus on here.

This image is the only counter-example on this page. At web size (and after plenty of post-production) it looks pretty magical. However at 100% it looks like a mess. What happened? Unfortunately it was equipment failure: the autofocus on the lens I was using that day was dodgy and in this case it failed dismally.

This same lens let me down later on the same trip when I came across a rare Western Tarsier (something like a possum crossed with a monkey with hands like a frog).

In both cases, I only had a small window available to shoot the scene. The beautiful mist in the picture became a downpour seconds later; the tarsier got tired of being a model and hopped away after maybe twenty seconds. When capturing fleeting moments, you want to make sure that you give yourself the best chance to succeed.

Practice!

Now that you have these tools to help you get more out of your photography, all that is left is to get out there and start shooting!

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