Using Pictorial Elements to Create Great Photographs

Photographers who understand basic pictorial elements often create photographs that achieve a level of artistic expression that can be seen in fine art galleries worldwide. Those who follow the works of famous photographers like Herb Ritts, Mary Ellen Mark, Jay Maisel, and Annie Leibovitz know good photographs when they see them, and the best photo artists combine raw talent with techniques that elevate the artistic depth of individual photos.

This article focuses on three of those pictorial elements, composition, light, and narrative to help photo enthusiasts engage meaningful discussions about why some photos with similar subject matter are better than others. The temptation to retouch pictures with modern software is so common today, even among professionals, that many people forget about these basic tools for taking good photos. The patient, experienced eyes of emerging artists will consistently capture high-quality images by understanding these basic pictorial elements.


Composition relates to the placement of relative objects and the balance created by including the right amount of photographic elements in a picture. Face it – the most beautiful subjects won’t appeal to viewers when they’re framed as if the photographer’s eyes were closed when taking the picture. Even common subjects can have great character when they’re framed properly in the context of their surroundings.

There’s a delicate balance between taking in too much and too little detail when shooting a point of interest. In general, photographers often feel that getting closer is better, though this is not a hard and fast rule.

Good composition is the difference between this:

and this:

photo by Gary MacParland
photo by Gary MacParland | Source


In photography, expression is the ability to capture a subject at a precise, peak moment, whether it’s a look on a person’s face,

by Mraz Center for the Performing Arts
by Mraz Center for the Performing Arts | Source

the moment when a bird spreads it’s wings,

photo by Josh Beasley
photo by Josh Beasley | Source

or the point at which the flames of a raging bonfire reach their peak:

photo by Brian Taylor
photo by Brian Taylor | Source

This is typically one of the more demanding photographic elements to master, a skill that requires patience, perseverance, and instinct to determine how and when a subject will exhibit the right expression that makes for the most interesting photographs.

Although most appropriate to the discussion of portraiture and figurative photography, expression also applies to insects, animals, birds and other living things and objects that can change their expression or behavior in time. Photographing subjects in motion or at certain specific times often creates a wonderful look that can only be captured on film, something that makes the subject more interesting by their very nature.


Conveying specific narrative messages in photographs heighten their potential for communicating something of value to those who view and appreciate them. Thus, narrative photos tell stories about the subjects in them, make us wonder about what the living subject is thinking or feeling. Also, relating a central subject to its surroundings sometimes reveals a story of its own in good narrative pictures, as in this London street scene;

photo by Alberto Botella
photo by Alberto Botella | Source

and this interesting combination of depth of field and framing to make one ponder the story behind the photo.

photo by Francis McKee
photo by Francis McKee | Source

Contrary to the theme of Rod Stewart’s title track to his third album in 1971, every picture doesn’t tell a story, but the better ones do, as in this shot of a modern sports car parked in front of a rugged, aging country inn:

photo by The Pug Father
photo by The Pug Father | Source

Digital photographer and blog expert Darren Rowse illustrates some of these finer points beautifully in his informative article for Digital Photography School.

Photography is sometimes a vehicle for satire, wit, and sensationalism, where iconic images of celebrities, good-looking models, and “easy targets” substitute for compelling subjects, void of true meaning or expression. Are Herb Ritts and Irving Penn (and their contemporaries) notable for their subjects or their subjectivity? Is a Mapplethorpe flower or a slick Goedde portrait more remarkable for its clarity of vision or solely for the notoriety of the person behind the camera (and the company he keeps)?

True artists use these and other pictorial elements to create great photographs that stand on their own – technically, visually, and emotionally. The rationale is not so much to expose or exploit the objects of their affection, but to draw from the natural artistic punch and energy presented by using these photographic concepts to present subjects in their most favorable light.


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