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Qualities of a Good Photograph

Updated on May 13, 2020

What Makes a Good Photo?

Every photographer wants to know what makes a good photo. Is it your camera? Is it the subject you choose to photograph? Are there other qualities that make a photo good?


In this article, I will share with you the five essential things that make a good photo – no matter what camera you use or what subject you photograph.

What Makes a Photo Good or Bad?

One of the most consistent mistakes I see photographers make that leads to bad photos is not taking enough time. When you slow down you are more likely to see what makes a photo interesting. Rarely are great photos made by unprepared photographers.


Research and experience have led me to believe there are five qualities that make up any good photo. These are:


  1. Exposure and light

  2. Tone/Color

  3. Composition

  4. Timing

  5. Relationship with your subject


Let’s explore each of these in order to give you a clear understanding of how you can include them in your photography.

Setting Your Exposure and Making the Most of Light

Photography is impossible without light. The word photography means ‘writing with light’. The more aware you are of light and how it changes, the better you can use it in your photographs.


There are two main types of light. The differences in them have a strong influence on how your photos turn out. They are soft light and hard light.


Soft light is when the light source is very close to the subject, or when it is diffused. Outdoors on a cloudy day, the light is soft. This light cast a shadow with a fuzzy edge or no shadow at all. Soft light is easier to work with because contrast levels are lower.


Hard light casts a shadow with a clearly defined edge. It’s produced by an undiffused light, like the sun on a cloudless day. Contrast levels are greater with hard light, so it’s more vital that you set your exposure well.


Photographers must understand that how we see and how our cameras record images is different. When the light is hard we can see much more detail in a scene than our camera can record.


Using your camera on an auto-exposure setting can lead to a poorly exposed photo when the light is hard. This is because the camera cannot record detail in the brightest and the darkest parts of the scene. This is changing as camera technology advances.


With hard light, when you set your exposure for the bright area of your composition, the dark areas in the shadows will appear much darker. You will not naturally see the shadows like that. The opposite happens when you set your exposure for the shadow areas.


Understanding the light and setting your exposure well are key elements in making a good photo.

Make the Best Use of Color and/or Tone

Awareness of how color works within your composition is important to creating good photos. When you are taking black and white pictures, the tone is what is more important. Seeing how color and/or tone affect the way your subject looks helps you to take better photographs.


Knowing about color combinations and how different colors relate when placed next to each other helps you take better photos. When taking black and white photos, understanding how various colors look in greyscale helps you make more of the tone range in a photo.


Red, oranges, and yellows are all warm colors. These can incorporate a positive vibe to your photos. Blues and greens are cooler colors and make for a more subdued look in pictures.


Soft or hard light affects how color and tone appear in photographs.

Careful Composition Makes a Good Photograph

Arrange the things you see in your frame well and you’ll have a good composition.


Often photography composition is taught using many different rules. These can be challenging to follow, but they can help you take good photographs when you apply them well. Once you have learned them and practiced, you will take good photos more consistently.


If you study the rules of composition and try to apply them strictly, your photography may not improve so much. Photography is an art form that must be done with feeling to make it most effective. Sticking to a set of rules can be very confining.


Learn the rules and practicing them often, you will learn to apply them with intuition. Take time to study and apply the rules of composition well in your photography. Don’t rush. Look at each thing you want to photograph carefully. Think about how best you can frame it to make an interesting picture.


Top Tip


The one most important rule of composition in photography is to fill your frame. Make sure everything in your composition supports your main subject. If there are elements in your frame that are distracting, do something so you cannot see them.


You can use a shallow depth of field to blur the background and hide distractions. Changing positions will alter your composition and may avoid things you don’t want to include. Careful use of exposure can also help.

The Decisive Moment

Choosing to take your photos at the right time can make the difference between a good and a bad photo. What makes a good photo often comes down to that precise, decisive moment when you press the shutter release.


The ‘decisive moment’ is a popular photography tern coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson. He is revered as the godfather of photojournalism. In his field of photography that one moment the shutter is opened is most critical. In other genres of photography taking the picture at the right moment is important, but there may not be the need for such a fast reflex.


Photojournalism, street, and sports photography all require quick reflexes. The decisive moment is often fleeting. Landscape and architectural photography there’s not such great time pressure. Timing is still important, but it might be a matter of waiting for the right lighting or season to take the best photograph.


Planning when to take your photos is essential to good pictures. Be prepared. Pick the best location. Anticipate the action. Set your camera so it’s ready and you don’t have to keep fiddling with the controls. Think about how best to compose what you’re photographing.


The more prepared you are the more likely you are to take good photographs.

The Importance of Relating Well to Your Subject

The better rapport you have with your subject, the more interesting photo you will take. This is more important with people but applies to all subjects.


When you connect well with your subject this will influence how others will view your picture. They will also be able to connect in a more meaningful way with what you photograph.


No matter how technically correct a photo is, when the photographer does not relate well with their subject, the results will be lacking. Scroll through any number of online photography groups and you’ll see endless photos of models that look bored and disconnected. The photos may be beautifully lit and composed, but appear lifeless.


Check out any of the master portrait photographers. With little effort, you will see the magic in their photos happens because of the rapport they have with their subjects.


No matter what your subject is, the more closely you relate with it, the better photos you’ll take.

Practice Taking Good Photographs

Each of these five elements that make a good photograph takes time and practice to learn. Often photographers don’t practice enough. We like to get out and take great photos and shirk doing the hard work.


If you want to become an accomplished musician, you must practice your scales. To reach your pinnacle as an athlete, you must train. To master any creative art form you must put in hours of hard work.


With photography, it’s easy to get an instant result that’s pretty good. But easy does not often mean you are taking good photos. Cameras are designed to give you instant gratification. But this will not provide you with long-lasting satisfaction of taking great photos. To be able to take good photos consistently you must practice until you can use your camera intuitively.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Photography Focus

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