8 Elements That Make Great Photography


Have you ever wondered why taking a transcendental photograph is so difficult?

Have you ever analyzed the elements that iconic photographs share in common with each other?

Well, making a list of things common to every great image is almost impossible, because every picture has a unique aesthetic and transmits a unique message.

But even though every image is unique and can be read in different ways, some commonalities can be listed – and at least one of them will be present in any great photograph.

But what is exactly a great photograph? Due to the flood of images, we drown ourselves in each day, a great photograph is simply an image that stands out from the crowd. And it will stand out to certain viewers because it triggers their feelings in a unique way. The broader the array of minds and feelings touched by that single image, the more broadly meaningful it becomes for humanity itself.

Without further ado, here are eight elements that all great photographs possess to some degree:

1. Concept

A lot of great photographs have a supporting concept that justifies the photographer’s reason for shooting the image in a specific way.

2. Plan

We can't talk about concept without mentioning planning. After defining the concept, the photographer must plan various things.

The photographer will find answers to things like “what?”, “how?”, “when?”, “where?” and “with what?”. These are commonly defined at this stage by any organized photographer with a solid workflow.

3. Influence

Many creative people worry about the “inspiration” element of their creations. In recent years, the concept of “influence” has become increasingly accepted by many creative disciplines.

The final image usually reflects – to some extent – all the influences the photographer has previously been exposed to.

Here we can include photography, movies, theater, literature and other arts consumption, as well as travel and life experiences.

4. Evolution

As Josef Koudelka once said, “with photography, you never stop learning.” Great images are the result of a certain level of evolution within the photographer.

All the limitations, mistakes, and frustrations they have experienced and/or endured will build a desire in them to push things even further. Also, the reaction to critiques that the photographer has received, and the way they received them, is omnipresent in the photographs. 

5. Expertise

Experience is achieved only by exhaustive yet rewarding practice. Thanks to resources like Magnum Contact Sheets, we know that many great photographs weren't the result of just one shot.

Well, in some rare cases they were – but typically there were more shots, and skilled editors picked the best ones for public consumption. 

6. Gear

The only thing we can say about gear is that before shooting anything, photographers must know how to control their photographic tool. If they understand the logic of exposure, they'll easily work things out with any camera.

And this applies not only to the camera body – but also the lenses, filters, tripods, developing software (and even printers, if you’re into printing).

Every photographer should be the ultimate master of their gear, not the other way around. Personally, I like to have few gear options, because by having fewer options I manage to find more creative and risky solutions and avoid getting distracted by the stuff in my camera bag.

7. Creativity

Great photographs exhibit a certain level of creativity. Some creativity is more obvious, like in advertisements and fine-art photography, but every image showcases a creative solution not just to capturing light, but also to reflect reality.

8. Being Prepared

Being prepared can include luck as well – the luck of being at the right place at the right time. But preparation goes beyond that.

Being prepared is the ultimate skill of any photographer who has produced great photographs, even if the images weren't made under controlled situations. Being prepared is different than planning because it’s the sum of all of the photographer’s experiences.

Many of the great images we recognize came from photojournalism. In these cases, “concept” might not have been a factor due to the photographer’s lack of control of their situation.

Still, all these photographers had a wealth of experience and knew how to anticipate light to capture those amazing iconic photographs.

Photo by Patricia Serna on Unsplash

Practicing daily, and always having a camera with you, is the best way to prepare for the photo (and hopefully the photos) of your life.

Sometimes you'll have to be extremely patient;  sometimes, other you just have to instinctively react to situations. The trick is to practice daily, and never leave your camera behind. Trust me, you just don't want to suffer from not having the camera with you during that moment of your life.

Much has been said recently about “work that matters”, and the meaning behind photographs. The main reason for this debate is the new democratization of photography thanks to technology. Everybody now has the potential to create great images, so there’s more competition to create images that will imprint in viewers’ memories.

So, if you’re aiming to create meaningful work that will eventually matter, try to keep these elements in mind when shooting.

If you think we’ve missed something in our list, please share your thoughts in the comment section. We always appreciate them.

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

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