The Elements that makeup a Great Photograph


The Basics

Every image needs a basic structure. Without an underlying structure, it is just another boring photo.

Every image needs a strong underlying compositional order so that it grabs the eye from a hundred feet away.

If it can’t grab the eye from a distance, it will never be an interesting photo, regardless of how many fine details it might have. Details don’t matter if there’s no story behind it.

Check this out for yourself on Flickr, or any website that shows thumbnail-sized images… your eye will be drawn to good pictures even when you can’t see the detail.

Only after it has caught your eye does anything else matter.

Once a photo has caught your attention, it needs to have details to keep the eyes interested. This is easy. Every photo has details. The problem is how few photos have any sort of underlying structure to catch your eye in the first place.

Most photographers snap photos, paying attention only to the details, but ignoring the more important fundamentals. Many photographers don’t even know that there are fundamentals!

These fundamentals are the largest, most obvious elements of light and dark, colours and shapes.

You have to get this underlying structure right, otherwise, the photograph has no basis on which to stand.

You should be able to screw up your eyes and look at your image from a hundred feet away, and the basic organization of elements within your frame should still be obvious.

If your image doesn’t jump out at you as a thumbnail, you’ve made a boring image, regardless of how big or detailed you print it.

If it doesn’t sing as a thumbnail, no amount of Photoshop, HDR or editing will give it any more structure. It will still not work, no matter how much time you waste on your computer. You have to get it right in your camera.

The one thing you can do later is to burn and dodge. This means lightening and darkening different parts of the image to emphasise what’s important, and de-emphasise what’s not.

Photographs without the basics are boring. An image, be it a photograph, painting or sketch, is meaningless unless its basics are right.

The reason so many photos are so bad is that there is no underlying structure. Bad photos may be loaded with details, but forget to get the big, broad basics of composition, light and colour correct.

Many photographers are blind to the basics, and only by chance when the basics come

together do they get a good shot.

More sadly, since so few photographers are paying any attention to the basics, even when they do get a good shot, they don’t know why it looks good, so they can’t reproduce it.

When you learn to look for the basics first, and can get the basics of composition down, you’ll be able to shoot anything, anywhere, with any sort of cell-phone camera, and walk away with the images everyone else covets.

People who are blind to the basics are the great majority of people who keep throwing more money at more cameras, and never get any better pictures.

It’s the basic underlying composition that makes or breaks an image.

It’s not about the subject

Here’s another secret: in photographic art, it’s rarely about the subject. (In this context, nature shots of animals, birds etc are not ‘Art’…… as good as they may be technical).

It’s always about the underlying compositional structure. Subjects that may be there are chosen because they support or create a structure, not the other way around.

What a subject does in real life is irrelevant. In a good photo, subjects are chosen to provide the shapes or colours we want to lay down the basic design of an image.

What might look like a door is really only used because it’s a rectangle or two squares. If we shoot it at an angle, now it’s a trapezoid or a truncated triangle.

An ocean liner? If you use the whole thing in a successful photo, its because it’s used as a shape that works with whatever else is in the frame.

The actual subject is meaningless because your mind’s subconscious eye can’t even recognise it from a hundred feet away.

Your photograph must have a strong enough structure so that structure is obvious to the subconscious. That’s how you ‘grab’ people.

The actual subject doesn’t matter. Your choice of a subject should be made to give a strong underlying design to the image. What that subject is or does consciously is irrelevant. As far as photographers are concerned, photos subjects are used purely as big colours and shapes, exactly as you’d cut these colours and shapes out of construction paper to make a composition.


When composing, ignore details.

Be sure to exclude everything not directly contributing to the image.

As you compose, only look at the boldest, broadest and most basic lines and shapes in your image in the most overall and general sort of way.

I often look away from my finder to see the finder out of the corner of my eye. This lets my brain ignore details and what the conscious subject might be, and hopefully see the image’s far more important underlying structure more clearly.

The only thing that matters is the bold, broad strokes. It’s a photograph, not a painting, so the details will take care of themselves.

The broad strokes won’t. You and you alone have to force them exactly where you want them before you take the picture.

When composing, forget the subject. You are using every item in the image as a compositional element, exactly as you’d arrange pieces of cut-out construction paper to make an interesting composition.

Move the camera forward or back to fit your elements as you want them.

Move left or right, and especially use the forgotten dimension of moving up and down, to re-arrange items in your frame as you want them.

Only when you get these basics right does anything else below matter.

Eye Path

Our eyes are first attracted to the brightest, or the contrasting, or the most colourful part of an image.

After we’ve caught the eye, it starts to wander around to see what else there is to see.

After you’ve caught a viewer’s eye, you have to be sure that it stays in your image, and doesn’t wander out.

Keep details out of the corners, and be sure that important elements aren’t cut by the frame edges. How do we move mountains? Easy: turn the camera, or walk a few steps left or right to move them relative to the tree in your frame.

You need to spend your time looking for the best position from which to make a shot. Never spend 20 minutes making multiple exposures unless you spent at least twice that much time looking for the best point of view.

By keeping corners dark, it keeps our eyes from wandering off the edges. By keeping details out of the corners, it also keeps our eyes from leaving the frame.

Look at any real painting, even motel art. You’ll see that even motel artists know not to run details off the edge of the frame. Look at nature paintings, and you’ll usually see that the leaves on the pond magically are aligned so that none of them is cut by the edge of the image. It’s the same for trees and rocks: it’s not by chance that they usually are painted in such a way that they don’t cross the image’s edge.

We usually start at the top left (the way most of us read) and work our way to the bottom right. At the very least, we read an image from left to right.

Our eyes last look into the dark areas. They only get there if the image was good enough catch our eye in the first place, then had enough lighter details to keep us looking around for a while, and be good enough that we’re still curious enough to see what is in the shadows.

Burning and Dodging

The most important image editing, other than cropping, is selective lightening and darkening called dodging and burning.

Lighten the parts of the image to which you want to add emphasis, and to which you want to attract the eye first.

Darken the parts of the image that are irrelevant, or lead the eyes away from the important part.

How do we keep the corners dark to keep eyes from wandering off? Both by composing the image that way, and by darkening the print edges later in the darkroom.

Always be subtle in your burning and dodging. The instant it becomes obvious that you’ve used it, the photo is trash. The effect is the strongest when you keep it subtle enough to stay in the subconscious.

Use about half the strength of what you first think you want to use when burning and dodging. Otherwise, it becomes obvious and destroys the effect.


Anything that isn’t directly helping the composition takes away from it. It’s just like editing: the fewer words you use, the better the writing.

Details that don’t add to the overall structure of the image make it weaker.


The best images have a punchline.

Who wants to hear a joke or see a movie without a good ending? A punchline is what you find after you look around the image.

A punchline doesn’t have to be hidden. A punchline can be as simple as a row of soldiers, and one at the end is doing or wearing something different.

Double Punchlines

Everyone has set up their camera in front of a colourful doorway and waited for someone interesting to walk by.

Every hobbyist has nice photos of street scenes with a cleverly placed person or cart whizzing by. That’s a minor punchline.

A single punchline is something simple, like a photo of a train window, and the last one has someone looking out.

A double punchline is when you have something in the photo reacting to something else in the photo.


Gesture means the position of hands. In an image, a gesture can also mean what is said by the positions of inanimate objects that mimic our hands or faces.

Gesture means a photo with someone making a funny face in reaction to something else going on in the frame. For instance, a good photo is one where you first notice something odd, and then you notice someone else in the photo reacting to it. That’s both paying attention to gesture and gives us a punchline.

Gesture applies to inanimate objects. You can find arrangements of things that suggest the same things that can be expressed facially and with hands.

Animators know how positions of hands and eyebrows can say everything. If you find compositional elements which mimic these, your photos can express the same emotions.

Most of the time, gesture refers to facial and hand expressions.


Books have been written about colour. Visit your library and read them.

Warm colours, red, orange and yellow, appear to move forward towards the viewer. Our eyes are attracted to them first.

Cool colours, greens, blues and violets, recede away from the viewer.

An easy way to make your image three-dimensional is to have an orange object in front of a blue background. Movies do this all the time.

Put orange on blue, and it comes forward.

Put a red building on blue and the red comes out and hits you.

Colours need to be in harmony. There are a zillion ways to analyse this, but as a photographer, you have it easy. What looks good is good. Painters have it harder since they need to design and synthesise their colours from their own imaginations.

Colours tend to be harmonious when you have two colours balanced from opposite sides of the colour wheel. You can get fancy and have two variations of a similar colour balancing another opposing colour You can try to have three colours, all equally spaced on the colour wheel.

Warm colours get us riled up (well, ok, they excite our senses a little). Cool colours are peaceful.

Follow your own eyes, and read lots of books if you want to know the formal analysis.

If you shoot colour, you must pay attention to colour You can’t just shoot in colour and expect the colours to come out magically wonderful. You have to look for them.


Lighting is the most important technical issue in photography. Pro photographers pay close attention to it, while hobbyists sadly ignore it.

For our purposes here, lighting is the biggest contributor to light and dark, to colours, and to shapes and lines.

The direction of light and shadow defines our lines and shapes.

Lines, colours, shapes, light and dark are 99% of our image.

Close One Eye

Life is three-dimensional. Not only is it three-dimensional, but it also has sounds, smells and a whole lot more.

It is extremely difficult to package a life experience into a flat, rectangular print.

It’s fun to be photographing around trees and nature, except there is a huge gotcha: the reason we like to shoot around them is that of the 3D effect, but since our photos are flat, we can’t (strictly speaking) capture that.

When shooting, always remember to close one eye as you view any potential scene.

Close one eye, and suddenly a scene, alive with trees, bushes, rocks and nature, collapses into a boring mass. This is how your photo will look, at best.

Don’t move as you look through one eye. If you do this while walking, your brain will still figure it out and piece it back together as 3D.

Stop, hold still, close one eye, hold out your hands to make a rectangle, and that’s, at best, how your photo might look.

What looked great in stereo vision needs to be composed with compositional elements that could lead to an interesting image. Once the 3D effect is removed, it collapses to a random jumble.

If you remember to view through one fixed eye, you can train yourself to pass on images that won’t work as flat photographs, and learn to find subjects that will work as strong images.

This is important: by skipping what you now know will look awful, you’ll start getting a much higher percentage of keepers. As time progresses, you’ll get better at recognising what makes a keeper, and start turning out a lot more good work.

When nature looks dull when seen with one eye, start arranging your composition to say something. When you can do this, you are becoming a photographer.

Never Imitate

No one can be as good at being one of the old ‘masters’ of photography as they were…. Adams, Avedon, Stieglitz, Steichen etc etc. Don’t even try.

Only you can be you. On the bright side, none of them can ever be as good at being you as you are.

The biggest difference between them and you is that they got over worrying about technique, and put all their efforts into looking for good images. They all go out with open minds and see what they see.

Leading photographers never go out with navigational coordinates attempting to find the same location some other shooter used before.

Follow your own passion and excitement. Shoot what excites you. If you can capture your own excitement, you just got a good image.

Think about this: if the guy who made the shot you admire didn’t start out with a GPS map printout, how on Earth do you expect to do any better yourself when you get there in different conditions? The guys who shoot nature know the light and conditions are far more important than the location. If they do find a location they like, they may have to wait years to get the right light there.

Don’t expect that on your two weeks of vacation that you can drive up to the same spot and duplicate years of waiting for effort. The way these guys find their pictures is by keeping their eyes on what’s in front of them, not a map. When magnificent conditions hit they shoot what’s in front of them at the time.

You Can’t Go Back

When the conditions are right, shoot.

As you learn to be more observant, the more you’ll realize how nothing stays the same, even for a minute.

Lighting changes and cars pull up in front of your subjects. People sit down in front of you, or they leave.

If you have to fiddle with a tripod, when the scene in front of you is constantly changing, you’ve had it.

Shoot today. Shoot NOW. But if the light is bad, you can go back next week. The light will never be the same.

The building might not be there.

No big deal: just keep your eyes open and there are newer, better things to shoot all the time.


If you can learn to get the basic compositional structure of your images right, you will be making much better images than most photographers ever do.

Most photographers just point and shoot, and hope something turns out. Regardless of how advanced their equipment and how exotic the location, failing to pay attention to the basic design elements results in ho-hum pictures, no more than thoughtless snapshots.

By paying rapt attention to the underlying shapes and forms which make up your image, your images will stand above the rest.

Photos always have details. The camera does that.

The camera can’t compose the basics of your image. You, and you alone have to do that. If you get the basics right, you will make great images with any camera.

If you don’t pay attention, you’ll get poor images with every camera. You can’t do any of this after you’ve snapped your photo.

If you want to try HDR, panoramas, long exposures or other techniques, be very sure that you are already enough of a master to know exactly where and when to plop down your

tripod, since if you don’t get that right, nothing will be any good.

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The members of the Kingston Photographic Club, of Ontario, meet twice-monthly or more, September to May. The membership broaden their photographic interest from the knowledge of speakers, competition judges, our meetings, other members and this website.

Kingston, Ontario