How do you make a great photograph?
Alongside and within the effort of finding one's style, there is the challenge of learning how to see not only the world that is in front of you, but the photograph that is in front of you. There is the scene, and there is the way you want to express the scene to others. There is what you see, and there is what you feel about what you see. The difference between taking a picture and making a photograph is the act of capturing the latter in a frame. When you do that, your photography becomes a tool to influence how people see, how they think, how they feel, what they know, what they understand, even how they act.
Since the dawn of this technology, photographers have discussed just what a photograph is, what makes a photograph great, and how the person behind the camera can connect with a subject in such a way that they craft a photograph versus simply capture a visual record of something. Here are just a few well-known quotes on the topic:
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
— Don McCullin
“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.”
— Yousuf Karsh
“It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.”
— Paul Caponigro
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
— Elliott Erwitt
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
— Dorothea Lange
“Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.”
— Matt Hardy
And, of course:
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
— Ansel Adams
This topic isn't just a pretty philosophical conversation on an art form that makes a photographer feel more important. There is incredible importance attached to one's ability to make a photograph. Crafting your skill at making a photograph is not just about honing your abilities as a photographer, but about honing your power as an influencer.
Indeed, look back at some of the most powerful images ever taken and you'll see a tie to political or social change. Photographs have the ability to change the outcome of wars, to alter the course of social movements, to create legislation to protect wilderness. For conservation photographers like myself, this skill could mean the difference between saving a species and watching it disappear from the planet forever.
I've pulled together ten ways that you can move beyond snapshots and toward photographs. Keeping these strategies in mind while you're shooting will make you more thoughtful about your photography overall, and they will quickly become second nature. Your work in applying these suggestions to your photography can help you both to take better photos also to be a more effective photographer. If you can create compelling images then when you have something to say, you will be heard.
Sometimes it helps to have "before and after" examples, so I've gone through some my archive and dug up a few examples. Side-by-side are snapshots I took in the process of crafting a photograph, placed on the left, and a photograph that is a bit more successful thanks to utilizing a particular technique or strategy, placed on the right.
1. Create layers in your composition
Never underestimate the value of filling a frame with interesting information. While you may have a specific subject you're focusing on, utilizing the foreground and background helps to fill out the story about the subject. Just because the subject is in front of you doesn't mean you should take a picture of it. Instead, design a space for it in the frame.
Typically there is little purpose for keeping a subject smack dab in the middle of a frame, especially if there is something distracting in the foreground or background - something that doesn't seem to belong in the photo but happens to be there anyway, cluttering it up. But, it can make sense to keep the subject in the middle of the frame if there are things surrounding the subject that add information for the viewer or keep the viewer's eyes moving around the image.
Laysan teals are an endangered species with a small population located on Midway Atoll. During breeding season, they live among nesting albatross who are busy raising chicks and performing courtship dances together. The picture of a Laysan teal on the left has no story behind it. The teal is positioned rather awkwardly in the frame and the sleeping Laysan albatross behind it looks like an indistinct black and white blob. Other than the subject being in focus, there is little of merit about it.
Instead of being satisfied with an unappealing portrait of the bird, I followed the teals as the walked around and looked for a moment when the frame was filled with information that could explain this species' story.
In the image on the right, the other birds in the frame give context to where the teals live, as well as a little bit of comparison for their size. There is interest from the foreground to the background, from left to right, and so keeps a viewer's eyes roaming around the frame and holds interest.
Another reason to use layers is to transform an ordinary subject into something more extraordinary. For example, a single spider web can only hold so much interest, unless it is a particularly amazing spiderweb or has something fascinating happening within its sticky strands.
Instead of zooming in on a single spiderweb, stepping back and creating a photograph of more than half a dozen spider webs strung over dew-covered grass is a much more interesting image, especially as the eye drifts from the web in the foreground to those more prominent in the center to those at the sides of the frame.
The layers create a mood as well as a sense of place, and the viewer's eyes and imagination have room to roam.
2. Use light as a subject
A photograph cannot be made without light, and it is worth considering light just as much your subject as whatever else you are photographing. How can you use light not just to take a picture, but give it a leading role in order to make a photograph? This is something to ask constantly, whether you're working with studio light or natural light outdoors.
The way you decide to invite light into your image can make or break that image's impact on viewers.
In this example, moving just about a foot down and to the right transformed the light from a rather flat, stale backlight into an active character. The sun peeked through the leaves of the upper canopy of trees and offered up a touch of lens flare that points directly at the moss I was photographing.
Rather than just a shot of some moss on a branch, inviting light in helped to create a photograph of the moss that offers up both a warm mood and a bit of its life story.
Again, just shifting position a bit to use light in a smart way can completely alter the mood of a photo and turn a snapshot into a photograph. In the photo on the right, the image may show a rancher feeding horses, but it doesn't tell a story. It doesn't even show a rancher feeding horses in a very elegant way, what with his hand and the hay blocking most of the nearest horse. I wanted to create a photograph that shows the early morning hour and the mess of feeding, as well as to create a mood in the image.
All I had to do was move to the opposite side of the rancher and take advantage of backlighting. I angled myself so the sun was just coming over the roof of the barn to light up every bit of debris flying through the air as he tossed flakes of hay to the horses. Now we have a sense of story, from the early morning hour to the dusty, dirty job of a rancher.
3. Frame your subject
One strategy for bringing emphasis to a certain part of the image or to the subject is to build a frame around it. Not only does this strategy highlight what you most want people to notice about the shot, but it can also bring other benefits. Framing your subject can add interest to an otherwise dull image, add depth or dimension to an otherwise flat image, add balance, meaning, or even bring attention to a subject that would go unnoticed without such help.
While there is profound beauty in a simple scene, sometimes a simple scene needs a little something extra to work as a photograph. In this case, I wanted to photograph the sun rising over Madison, Wisconsin from across the frozen expanse of Lake Mendota. While I liked the simplicity of sky and snow-covered lake, that alone didn't do much to emphasize the city in the distance. Indeed, I needed a frame around the skyline to point out it is even there, considering the distance and how little it shows up in the image. So, I walked around the shoreline until I found a place where nature framed the city. The branches as well as the sun rising behind the capitol building brought focus to the subject.
Framing is more than just having something on all four sides of a subject. A frame has to have a purpose, an ability to guide viewers’ eyes to the subject. A Japanese white eye on the palm frond in the photo on the left may technically be framed on all sides by fronds, but it simply looks like a tiny bird I was too far away from to capture properly. The fronds are too randomly placed and far from the bird to lead a viewer to the main subject.
The photo on the right, however, uses lines, arches, and repeating patterns to bring the main attention to the tiny bird, while also providing interest without overwhelming or detracting from the bird. Not just any frame but a carefully chosen, purposeful frame can help make a small subject stand out in an image and provide overall balance to a scene.
Keep in mind: Framing doesn't have to be done on all four sides, nor with objects. It can be done with light and shadow, with texture or color, even with lens flare. But it does need to have a reason to be there, to add emphasis and dimension rather than distraction.
4. Look for patterns and lines
A chaotic snapshot with no rhyme or reason to the placement of various elements in it is uncomfortable to look at. There isn't a place for the viewer's eyes to land or a way for them to easily travel around the frame. The trick to turning a busy snapshot into an organized photograph is to watch for patterns and lines.
A great photograph takes advantage of geometry. Even when it may look chaotic at first glance, it feels intuitively right and that's because it contains leading lines, S-curves, patterns, and even the golden spiral.
The trick to turning a busy snapshot into an organized photograph is to watch for patterns and lines, which allow our eyes and brains to make sense of scenes, especially when there is a lot going on within the frame. In this example of the rancher feeding horses, the image on the left is just a whole bunch of random things in a frame. There is no pleasing structure to it, or clear relationship between the rancher, the horses and the landscape.
Sometimes, it is just a matter waiting for the pieces to click into place, such as what happened with the image on the right. As feeding continued, there was opportunity to photograph the scene in such a way that the elements of the photo quite literally aligned. Starting with the rancher spreading hay, the viewer’s eyes can follow the curving row of horses off into the distance and back, creating a much more visually pleasing as well as informative image.
The strategy of seeking patterns and lines in your images may happen in the image selection process rather than when shooting. Sometimes you just don’t have much control over what happens in the scene — such as with photographing multiple flocks of birds — but you do have control over which images make it through the editing stage.
In the images above, I photographed a flock of sandhill cranes as they flew by, with snow geese, blackbirds and other species passing through the frame. Searching out the keepers from the series is a matter of deciding which frames are visually appealing, and which are simply too random in content or structure.
This can sometimes be a very subjective process. For me, I would likely pass over the image on the left, which seems to lack a rhyme or reason, but I might consider the image on the right which has an interesting collection of groupings of different birds that could make an interesting photograph. Ultimately, none may make it into the keeper pile, but in going through images like this, those worth considering are often those which have some sense of movement and order thanks to patterns, lines, and geometry.
5. Provide context to add to the story
Robert Capa famously said: "If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough." This has been turned into a rule of good photography, and indeed getting closer is usually vital to creating intimate images that craft a connection between subject and viewer. But this "rule" isn't always correct.
Sometimes a much more powerful image is created by backing away from the subject, making it a smaller component of the frame so that its surroundings become part of the story told by the photograph. A photographer can then craft an image that has a message that would be lost if the subject were isolated.
In the image of the sleeping Hawaiian monk seal, getting closer would provide me with a photo of, well, just a sleeping monk seal. The world doesn't need another photo of a sleeping monk seal. But the world does need photos that explain the problems facing this critically endangered species, one of which is shrinking habitat and the lack of secluded, safe beaches for resting and pupping.
By stepping back, and showing just what is happening on the beach where this monk seal is napping, I can create a photograph that highlights how busy beaches are and how close people get to this protected marine mammal.
Instead of relying on a "get closer" rule to improving images, consider a "get farther away" technique as well. By providing context, a photographer can move away from just another portrait and instead make a photograph with a message.
A similar situation is true with this leucistic Laysan albatross chick. A tight portrait doesn't explain much about the bird at all - there isn't even enough context to know for sure what species it is. By moving back a bit and using a wide-angle lens, I could capture the chick in the nest cup along with courting adults in the background. The second image provides the viewer with enough information to want to explore the photograph and start forming a story in their head.
Remember: when it comes to telling a story, sometimes closer isn't better.
6. Avoid clutter
Every element in your image should have a purpose, even if that purpose is simply to guide the eye without distracting from the subject. Clutter is anything that lacks purpose, and a quick way to improve any image is to cut the clutter out.
Clutter can often be removed from an image by changing your angle or position. With these two red foxes trotting down a road in Alaska, the tire marks in the dirt and the mile marker poll work against the scene, distracting the viewer with unimportant information. Following the foxes up the road a bit until they were higher up on the horizon and getting low to the ground helped to eliminate a lot of the clutter from the scene and isolate the foxes to keep attention on them. It’s still a shot of a red fox pair trotting up a road, but it is much more visually appealing one.
Another example is this shot of pigeons silhouetted against a bay. In the image on the right, a partially cropped cruise ship and a bar running across a section of the lower right of the frame distract from the scene rather than add to it. By moving over to the left, I could minimize the clutter and also add in appealing lines. Now, everything in the image has a purpose and all it took was moving about 4-5 feet, reframing, and waiting for some pigeons to fly in to the row.
As you compose a shot, take a moment to look through your lens and ask yourself: Is there anything in this composition that distracts from the image? Can the image be improved by removing it? If the answer is yes to these questions, consider moving and reframing to get a better shot.
7. Creatively explain your subject's life
There are portraits and there are action shots. And then there are creative, interesting ways to illustrate the life of your subject. It pays off to think about ways you can photograph your subject that explains something about their behavior, biology or other aspects of their life. You then move away from simply capturing moments and on to crafting a story. This set of bonin petrel photos illustrates this point: don't take a picture of, make a photograph about.
Bonin petrels travel to and from the sea and their underground burrows at dusk and dawn. It is during these nighttime hours that the skies over Midway Atoll are filled with these small seabirds. A flash-filled portrait of a petrel at the mouth of a burrow does nothing to explain their activity. But using a flash to capture their movement as they dart through a darkened sky does. It gives viewers a chance to get to know these interesting little birds in a way that a typical portrait can’t do.
Improving your images includes brainstorming what it is you want to show about your subject and how you might capture something in a single frame. It is an exercise both in artistic creativity as well as technical strategy.
8. Capture motion
A shot that freezes everything in a single frame can be beautiful, but it can also make movement feel static. Using blur adds the feeling of movement back into an image, and along with it additional emotion and visual interest.
Typically photographers use pan blur - or using a slow shutter speed while tracking the movement of a subject to blur the background and parts of the subject - to provide a sense of speed. But blur can also be useful in other situations where the emotion behind movement matters.
The photographs of two Laysan albatross fighting is one such example of when blur can add some emotional oomph to an image. In the first image the battling birds are frozen in fight, and it actually makes them look awkward and a bit comical. Admittedly, they do look fairly comical to us when they're having a scuffle, but to these adults this is serious business. Adding blur to the image relays some of the intensity and frustration that is part of the mix during the height of breeding season.
While a perfectly sharp image is wonderful, sometimes an image with just the right amount and type of blur is even better.
9. Change up your angle
It is so easy to want to walk up to a subject and photograph it at your own eye level. But there is almost always a better angle than this. Often, a better angle is the eye level of your subject, such as in the two images below.
The first image of a black-necked stilt was shot from low-ish angle but on a berm, which didn't get me quite low enough to the bird to really have a compelling angle. The subject isn't separated from the background enough, the angle looks awkward and like there is no purpose to shooting from this particular direction. The strange angle makes the photograph feel flat and cluttered.
When I got down on my belly and put the camera right on the ground, I was able to get an angle that adds much more dimension and drama to the photograph. The viewer can feel in the mix with the subject at this angle, and the background and foreground are separated enough that the short stalks of reeds look like part of the story of the habitat rather than a distraction.
A similar situation happened when trying to photograph the interesting shape of this shrub. From my own view, standing as I was when I walked up to the plant, The composition looks flat and confusing - what exactly is the viewer supposed to be looking at? There is no distinction between the shrub I'm interested in and all the surrounding shrubs, and the horizon line of the sky and water in the background are at an awkward level in the frame compared to the plant, looking almost like a low ceiling.
By kneeling down, I could separate the shrub from the rest of the landscape, place it higher on the horizon so the interesting shape stands out, and also capture some of the drama from the clouds in the sky to add even more interest. All I had to do to create these two very different images was to kneel down slightly.
Getting down to eye level is a great rule of thumb when photographing wildlife, or even plants. But it's not the only option. When it comes to landscape shots, often a high angle is best so you are looking slightly down at your foreground and capturing everything from your feet to the distant horizon. Often, but not always. It depends so much on the specific situation.
Whether you get really low, or get really high, always search for just the right angle to create a compelling shot. Use an angle for a reason, not because that's where you happen to be standing.
10. Always have a purpose to your photograph
You can take a picture of anything. Just aim your camera at it and snap. But most photographers don't want to go through life just taking pictures of stuff. We want to create photographs of people, places, events, moments that create an emotional impact.
To do this we must ask with every single image: what is the purpose of my photo, and how can I make sure that purpose is expressed in the frame?
It is not easy to remember to stop and ask this. It is even harder to come up with an answer. And the greatest challenge of all is creating a photo that reflects the answer.
Some photographers do this intuitively, and often they become the masters whose work changes the way we all look at the world. But this skill can also be gained through practice and through actively considering the goal of each frame you take.
When everything from your subject's story to your artistic vision come together in an image, you'll know you're doing more than just snapping a shot - you're crafting a meaningful and lasting photograph that just might change the way people feel, think, or even act. That's something worth practicing.