Critical elements to making a great photograph

Old weathered barn during a break in the storm

As a continuation of our good to great series, I thought I would share an alternate view on elements that make compelling images.  When shooting wildlife or macro photography, I’ve heard you must have the following three things: a great subject, great light, and a complimentary background.  Our friend and guru, Jack Graham, quotes John Shaw’s (see this month’s book review) key questions:  1.  Have I chosen a good subject, from all of those available to me?  2.  Is this good light for this subject?  3.  Is there a pleasing background?  4.  Have I made a pleasing composition?  5.  Am I sure about my choices?

I would like to offer another point of view for consideration.  Jack often tells us, great pictures are not the encyclopedia, but rather one well “written” sentence.  We all grew up learning about sentence components – nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.  I would like to use this metaphor as a way of thinking about great photographs.

The noun is the subject.  What is your subject?  Is there an interesting way to capture it?  Is there a different angle to consider?

The adjective is anything that enhances the subject.  I usually think of it as light and shadows.  Sometimes it can be elements that complement or “point” to your subject; something that helps to lead the eye.

The verb is the quality that makes your image compelling.  It is the element that makes people stop for longer than a nanosecond, or evokes some emotive quality.  It can be literal as in your subject’s movement, or more intangible as in what feeling is invoked.  Sometimes I think of it has the tension created by different elements in the image.

In the cover photo from the Colene Clemens Winery in Oregon, the subject is the barn.  The adjectives are the quality of the light, the trees that anchor the foreground, and the vineyard in the background.  The verb is the moodiness created by the stormy clouds.

Here are some example to help illustrate:

1.  Take these two pelican images.  The subject is the bird, the adjective is the soft light which helps to accentuate the birds features and feathers.  In my mind, it’s the verb that makes the difference.  The first image where the bird is preparing to fly makes the image more dynamic.

Brown Pelican getting ready for flight
Brown Pelican on water

2.  In this example, a reinterpretation of all three elements makes the difference (in full disclosure I pulled an image of City Center off the internet because we did not have one in our archive that offered an alternate interpretation).  By changing the perspective of the building (the subject) we created a more interesting viewpoint.  The adjectives are the clouds which create a softness around the hard lines of the building, as well as the different tonality of the light.  The verb is tension that is created by the contradiction between soft clouds, and hard lines, as well as the sharp angles that are juxtaposed.

City Center straight on

3.  This example of downtown LA at sunset shows the different adjectives and verbs.  In the second image the light (adjective) is not as warm or varied in its tonality.  In the first image the verb for me is the excitement just as the sun hits the horizon and day begins to turn to night.

LA Sunset final seconds
LA Sunset midstream

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