Steps to Better Photos


What distinguishes a 'good' photo from a mediocre one? Assuming the focus and exposure are correct, why does one photo '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 impact.

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 picture.

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 for it.

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.

Eliminate Distractions

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.