What distinguishes a 'good' photo from a
mediocre one? Assuming the focus and exposure are correct, why does
'work' and another just look like a snapshot, useful for keeping in an album
as a souvenir, but not good enough to hang on the wall? The answer
is often quite simple - it looks like a snapshot because it was
captured as a snapshot, just a quick record of what happened to be
in front of the camera at the moment the shutter was pressed. A few
moments spent thinking about how the scene would appear as a picture
could have made all the difference.
- IDENTIFY the theme - what do you want the viewer to notice
about the image?
- EMPHASISE the main subject by drawing the viewer's attention to it.
- ELIMINATE any distracting elements that would lessen the
Identify the Theme
Every photo needs a theme, something unique
that the photographer wants to share with the viewer. This sounds
more complicated than it really is. A theme can
be anything that strikes the photographer as worth capturing - a
beautiful sunset, majestic scenery, a fleeting expression or special
moment, or even a political message.
It is basically another way of referring to the subject. You want
the photo to evoke the same response in the viewer as the original
did for you, but this will not happen automatically. Ask
yourself what it was about the scene that first caught your
attention and made you want to capture it in a photograph, then
concentrate on making that subject the most striking part of the
Emphasise the Subject
From the camera's point of view, there is no such thing as
the 'subject' of a photo. It simply captures whatever is in front of
it and produces a two-dimensional image composed of patterns of light, shadows and colour.
A human viewing a photo will rarely take in the whole scene at once.
Some parts will attract attention immediately and other parts may
not be noticed at all.
Extreme example: one day last summer, I was out for a lakeside walk
with my camera when I suddenly caught sight of a kingfisher and
managed to get a shot of it before it flew away. The moment was
magical, but as a photo it was very disappointing.
Anybody looking at it would first see a rather uninteresting expanse of
water. Then they might notice a few reeds along the shore.
Finally, just before boredom set in, they might notice a small splodge of bright blue among the
bushes. The camera had captured the scene, but the photo failed in
its purpose. The kingfisher, the whole reason for taking the photo
in the first place, should have been obvious as the most important
part of the picture. Instead of that, it was just another small
element in the background.
Various strategies can be used to direct the viewer's attention to
what you want them to notice in a photo. Compose the picture
so that the main element is in a prominent position (not necessarily
centre frame) and large enough to be seen without having to search
Light areas and bright colours stand out more than dull, drab parts,
so to emphasise the main subject you can deliberately make it
brighter and more colourful than the rest of the picture. When
viewing a scene, the eyes will naturally follow lines such as the
curve of a road or river, or a row of posts or other objects and you
can also use this tendency to take the viewer on a journey through
the picture, making the subject the final destination.
When you show somebody one of your photos, you
only have a few seconds to make that critical first impression. You want
them to connect with your subject immediately,
not waste time looking at unimportant details that have nothing to
do with it. Anything that competes with the subject for the viewer's
attention is a distraction, so try either to eliminate it, or at
least make it less obvious.
Classic problems like posts or trees growing out of heads, large
objects obscuring the view and fussy, distracting backgrounds can
often be avoided by moving a few steps to left or right to change
the camera angle. Outdoor photos can be spoilt by stray, out of
focus bits of vegetation in the foreground. You do not have to
include them just because they happened to be there when you took
the photo, so remove them, or at least push them out of the way.
Annoying power cables and telephone wires in otherwise natural
landscapes are often the worst offenders when it comes to spoiling
the effect you want to achieve. It may not be possible to prevent
them getting in the way, but you can sometimes make later editing
easier by positioning the camera so the wires run across the sky or
some other fairly plain area of the scene.
Anything you cannot avoid, move or hide before taking the photo will
have to be removed later during processing. Most editing programs
have a clone tool, healing brush or equivalent, specifically made for the purpose
of removing unwanted elements in an image. With a little practice,
it should be possible to make edits undetectable. The trick is to zoom in
really close when using tools like these, then zoom out to check
that the new area blends seamlessly with its surroundings.