What Makes a Great Photo?

In the early stages of my career, I thought that having more lenses would improve my photography. I was obsessed with having all the latest gear, and I was spending hours upon hours on the internet researching and viewing samples of photos that other photographers had taken with whichever gear I was coveting at the time. Then I read an article about how that is the typical behaviour of new photographers, and they get too bogged down on the equipment. The next stage in the lifetime of a photography career is to pay more attention to what, how and at whom you’re aiming your camera in the first place.

After being a full-time photographer for over a decade, I can confidently assert that a great photo comprises the moment, the light and the composition. Not the camera, not whether you’re shooting with a fixed lens or a zoom, or a full frame body or a crop sensor, or whether it’s a mirrorless body or an SLR. Yes, you need professional-grade equipment if you’re charging professional rates, but there are many options to choose from without believing the latest marketing hype. I’ll repeat what I just said because it’s essential to know this if you’re new to photography. A great image consists of three things: the moment, the light and the composition.

The Moment

Shooting weddings gets you accustomed to looking for moments. You become an eagle-eyed, fly-on-the-wall super-human sniper with razor-sharp reflexes, ready to click in a split second. In my experience, which is about 300 weddings, most brides said they wanted a mixture of natural photos and a few traditional ones. So as the photographer, you need to be able to capture all those natural moments. A father’s tear when seeing his daughter in her wedding dress for the first time is a priceless moment, as is the shot of a sportsperson winning a race or a politician reading his speech who only looks up from his paper for a split second. If you capture the moments and the smaller ones between the main moments, you’re on your way to success.

The Light

When I say light, I mean two things. First is the photographer’s ability to operate their camera efficiently to get a properly exposed photo, regardless of the ambient lighting conditions. A quick pause for reflection has me thinking about times when I’ve had to produce outstanding quality photos from inside caves and underground areas to ridiculous weather that involved thunderstorms. Learn your camera buttons and controls like the back of your hand, take charge of it and don’t be afraid. Shoot in manual mode. Learn about depth-of-field, shutter speed and ISO. Operate it fluidly and swiftly to a point where you’re confident in any situation.

The second thing I mean is the actual ambient light. Don’t shoot portraits outdoors at midday in the blazing sun, you’ll get harsh shadows, and your subject will be squinting into the light. Photographers call the hour before sunset and the hour after sunrise ‘happy hour’ because that is the best light for outdoor photography. If you’ve been told not to shoot into the direction of the sun, forget that advice immediately. That’s what photographers in the olden days of analogue film used to do to get evenly lit exposures. A properly exposed backlit portrait at sunset is number one.

The Composition

Being able to aim your camera and frame your shot so that it results in a pleasing image becomes second nature with time and experience. An excellent place to start is with the rule of thirds. Place your horizons on the upper or lower third of your shot and place your subject in the right or left third. If you’re shooting a moving subject, place them so they have space to move into. For example, if you’re shooting a runner moving from left to right, put them in the left third of the frame. Look for leading lines, vanishing points and framing possibilities. Lie on the ground or climb a tree. Get up or get down or left or right. Include foreground or background elements, but not if it feels cluttered. Always shoot portraits at your subject’s eye level. Shooting a person from an elevated point of view will diminish their stature. Similarly, shooting someone from below elevates their stature. Try not to chop off people’s hands or feet. If a subject’s head is at an angle and one of their eyes is closer to the camera, always focus on the eye closest to you, or the photo will just look weird. Lastly, don’t shoot portraits with a wide-angle lens. Your best bet is an 85mm fixed focal length lens with an aperture of f2.8 or less.

If you remember these three principles, you’ll be well on your way to shooting great photos to help you get more clients and earn more money as a professional photographer.