What Makes Photos Great?

How do we make better photos?

This is another one of those difficult questions, and it deals in subjectivity as one person’s trash is another’s masterpiece.  I’ll be honest in that I am writing this as much for myself as anyone else.  After having been inactive in photography for several years, I have found myself having slipped backwards from when I did really decent work.


Also, I am not an expert, I do not have a degree in Art and so what I share here is based on experience, feedback, some awards and a personal desire to revisit what goes into great photographs.

In my humble opinion, a great photo should grab the viewer and draw them in both visually and mentally.  This can be done with the subject, composition, colors and other dynamics that the photographer can create.

In some ways it helps to use examples and so I will as I lightly cover this topic.

In the photo below the light and lines draw the viewer in.  This photo won a PPA Merit award and is one of my all time personal favorites.  There are literally several pictures within the picture that can entrap the viewer.  Regrettably this picture is better viewed larger and in print to appreciate its detail, so this will be more difficult explaining it online and its its smaller size.


Whether its the foreground content and lines that capture you or the distant lines and light that sweep you off into the distance, you can be drawn in and out of this photo in a loop.  If the lines don’t get you then the foreground content can capture your attention due to its eclectic nature and the overall play of light.

Let’s look at a photo that might seem good to some, however, doesn’t really work.


The fountains look pretty, yet, their placement with the train station in the background (Union Station in Kansas City) is confusing and disjointed.  There are different ways this photo could have been made right, such as placing the fountains to be spraying lower so they complimented and framed the train station, or perhaps from a different angle, either higher up or from the side.  Since I took the photo, was excited about the fountain, was in my truck driving about the round about and stopping, it was taken hastily and is thus a failed composition.  I could have isolated the fountain as an option as well.

As you can see, standing from the other side I was able to make this picture.


More interesting and yet, still a failure, which is rather sad because I spent quite a few minutes trying to make it just so! Believe it or not, there was a lot of thought with regards to the tower, amount of water and full reflection showing and stairs in the background.

Why is this photo just bad in the end?  Well the background is still confusing, makes the viewer want to understand better whats behind the fountain.  The lamp post sticking up over the fountain is distracting and the viewer probably gets no sense that the tower in the middle is a war memorial.   Again elevation would have helped, although without a ladder or lift of some sort its not possible.  A different vantage point may have helped as well.

If you do not know about the rule of thirds, its good idea to understand it and make use of it when appropriate.  In short if you drew a tick tack toe grid over a picture and broke it up into thirds (this can be horizontally and or vertically)  the rule suggests that placement of your subject on the 1/3 lines helps improve the composition of your photo.

As I said earlier of this failed photo above, it seemed like a good idea, it was planned, but its composition is a failure.  It is hard to be critical of our own work and even harder sometimes to see our own failures.  A photographer one shared a secret with me that I used to follow closely, you are only as good as your worst work.  These prolific words have created great anguish and great success for me in their practice of ruthlessly deleting photos that I am passionate about, yet fail to really measure up!  That’s why I am writing this, to get back to seeing with those critical eyes again!  I humbly share my failures and shortcomings with you here! 😉



There are two things that help make this photo another PPA Merit award winner, the use of the rule of thirds places the subjects in the lower third.  The second is the incorporation of people in the photo which creates greater interest.

Viewers can attach themselves more to the photo when they see people in it as it enables them to imagine themselves there in the photo thus drawing them in.  Visually imagine the photo without people and  the walkway centered in the frame, it would then become a failure lacking interest and appeal.



While the rule of thirds can be helpful for positioning the sky, ground, water in landscapes and even in portraiture and event photography, it is not the end all of rules and wont in itself make a photo great.

Sometimes the depth of field, the area of the picture in or out of focus can create interest.  This simple landscape and the road in it sucks the viewer in and then out into its distance.  Again the lines also create interest and help draw the viewer in.  You are either drawn in from center to the right by the road or from the top right and down by the power lines.  If you stop and consider the rest of the photo, it is there for balance and has little interest.



Likewise a very shallow depth of field can create isolation and greater interest on the subject.  Note how the background is blurred in this next photo of mating dragonflies.



The use of color and creative composition can create interest as well as it does in this next photo.


This is another photo that can require thought as it is a reflection of a semi frozen creek surface.  In it there are layers, the creek bottom and rocks beneath its surface, clouds from the sky, and the reflection of trees on its banks.  The image is flipped upside down to create the effect of disorientation along with its tilt.  There is both clarity and tension in the surface of the water itself.  The colors are rather on the intense side with powerful blues of the sky.

Sometimes there is no substitute for opportunity!   These next photos were all about being able to react quickly to seize the moment!  Let there be no doubt there is some luck involved in being at the right place at the right time!



Jump NoPassing

Knowing your camera, your surroundings and being able to react quickly will help you capture photos like these.  It kind of goes without saying much more!  I will say that when the camera is so comfortable, so well understood it will disappear from your precociousness and become an extension of your mind allowing you to react quickly, instinctively and without much thought or worry!

This brings me to one of the greatest hang-ups I see with aspiring photographers, the inability to get past the notion that one needs great gear to make great photos!  One needs adequate gear and great skills and understanding to make great photos.  If you have anything else in your head occupying your thoughts, kill it and get out and make photos, evaluate them, get feedback, learn, adapt and try again!  Don’t be afraid to go back to the same location and try to make the photo again and make it better each time!

The second biggest hangup I see is technical verses artistic views on the topic of making pictures.  If you get preoccupied with technicalities, like pixels, sharpness, ect rather than on the idea of making an image, you’ll die creatively.

You must remember that before 36MP Camera, there were 16MP, and 12MP and 6MP and prior to that film and SLRs, and not even SLRs all they way back to the Pinhole camera.  It never stopped the artist!  They understood what they had and then they used it to make images.  The image, not the pixels are what is going to either entice a viewer to like or dislike your work as the average viewer cares not what camera you made your image with, or even about any of the technical details.  No, it will be the image itself that either resonates or fails.

This last bit of advice is by far the very best I can offer you because once you understand that and focus on Art rather than technicalities, learn about composition, color and above all light, you will immediately begin to make better images!

Through our camera lenses we have the ability to render the world differently than the human eye and brain can see on a day to day basis.  We can freeze time, slow down high speeds, enlarge the small and shrink the overtly large!  We can re imagine the visible world and represent it to our viewers in new ways.

There is a spectacular set of mountains to the left of this scene, I was once asked how I could resist including them and it is that resistance that makes this view unique and an award winner!


This is merely a pool of water in a fountain that creates a colorful abstract:

ConfusedPool_2367 Its up to you the photographer to see the uniqueness of your surroundings, understand what will attract your viewers, ruthlessly be critical of your won work and strive for excellence!

After several hundred thousands of photos, I can tell you that placing yourself somewhere exciting will no doubt manifest itself into your images.  As an artist you will have a feeling, you will connect with your subjects and it is then you will make awesome images.  When you are not connected, yet you understand your craft, that is when you will make good photos.  When you are unlearned, thus unskilled, and unemotionally attached, distracted, you will make garbage!

it is so funny how we can not see the beauty and treasures out own backyards can produce, it takes someone visiting our neck of the woods, see it with new fresh eyes, recording it and us viewing it to see how they could see what we fail to see.  The same is why photographers get so excited when they travel, they see everything fresh and make lots of photos.  If we could see our current environment with fresh eyes, we would make better photos at home as well as abroad.

See the light (look at the potions of the water that are sunlit verses unlit in this photo), feel the light (its warmth, its rays and glow (see the sun in the trees) connect with your scene (hear the birds and the rush of the water in the fountains, see the guy grab a seat on the bench to take in the show).


Click to enlarge this photo to see the light!

Get out there now and make your own masterpiece, even if its only so in your own mind and for your own enjoyment!

Its impossible to cover it all here, hopefully this post has inspired you to learn more about the craft of making images and not merely taking snapshots!  Below are some external references to help extend today’s post!


External Links:


Additional Tips

Learn to make images as well as you can at the time of exposure.  Use posts processing tools back at your computer to enhance them into your masterpieces.  Shoot RAW, not JPEG as RAW files are your digital film negatives, can withstand much greater manipulation and can be edited multiple times into multiple versions and images.  Acquire and learn a RAW Conversion Photo Editing Utility.  Adobe offers a rental option for Lightroom and Photoshop that makes a leading duo for only $10 a month, money well spent if your serious about all this.

This entry was posted in Talking Photography.