The 5 Elements You’ll Find in Great Photographs

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What makes a great photograph? Is it the subject? Is it composition and framing? Exposure? What about the location and setting? Certainly each one of these elements contributes to the making of a good image, but there’s more to it. You can have a technically “perfect” image that comes across as stale and uninspired, while a shot that’s obviously flawed in some way can garner widespread acclaim. This typically leads one to conclude, correctly, that the line separating good photos from great photos is decidedly thin.

There really is no definitive list of elements that contribute to a great image; ask 10 experienced photographers and you’ll get nearly as many different opinions, which is great, because there’s no right or wrong when it comes to creativity. But if you listen to enough people with insight, you’ll begin to find some common themes about how to create great photos. Here are but five of those commonly recurring ideas.

1. Light

This may seem fairly obvious, as light is the most basic ingredient of any photograph. But in order to move beyond the basics, light has to be given a great deal of consideration. How a photographer uses light — harnessing both the quantity and quality of light, manipulating the direction of light, making measured decisions about what time of day to shoot when using natural light — demonstrates his or her understanding that this most essential element is the starting point for a potentially great photograph.

Read more: 4 Characteristics of Light Every Photographer Should Know

eberhard grossgasteiger

2. Tones

This is one of the many intangible components of a standout image; it’s something that we might struggle to describe coherently, but we know it when we see it and it does have meaning and importance. When a photo exhibits not just beautiful colors but beautiful gradation between all the colors in the scene, and those colors and tones serve to enhance the subject, then we are looking at a well toned image. A similar case is made for black and white photos, where contrast plays a role akin to color tone. Those who are able to visualize tones and the important role they play increase their potential for creating a great image.

Michigan Avenue


Photo by Aurimas

3. The Moment

Moments are elusive and unpredictable. Moments are fleeting. It’s a testament to a photographer’s observational skills, patience, and vigilance when we see a photograph and are seemingly magically drawn in to it based mostly upon what appears to be happening in the shot. Some photographers have attributed their “being there” to luck. While they may not be wrong in that regard, luck wasn’t responsible for the particular image they were able to create. The moment is such a critical element in a great photograph because our eyes can’t preserve a moment like a camera can. That frozen moment can then be shared, allowing others to experience the moment in their own way.

For further evidence of the importance of the moment in photography, just consider legendary “decisive moment” photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who stated, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”

improbable situation


Photo by piotr

4. Composition

Composition is something all would-be photographers learn about from the onset of our photography education and training, no matter if that training is formal or self-guided. We are inundated with information on the importance of composition, as if it were nearly as important as lighting. And perhaps it is. Composition brings order to a photograph. How much impact can a photo have if it is cluttered and disorganized? Even if the shot contains an interesting subject and catchy colors, it isn’t likely to resonate with viewers if they can’t make logistical sense of what they’re looking at.

In this way, composition means more than following specific rules; meaningful composition is more generally related to spacing, positioning, and lines. How does each one of these things interact with the other and with the subject? It is a matter of how the eye flows throughout the scene. Great photographs are aesthetically pleasing to the eye because the subject rests comfortably amongst its supporting features.

Read more: These 6 Essential Skills Can Turn You Into a Really Good Photographer

5. Polishing

There have been and will continue to be heated debates about post processing. How much is too much? Should you have to process an image at all? At some point these discussions become counterproductive. And the irony of the topic seems to be lost on some participants. Post processing was an integral part of photography during the film days as it is now; image editing software wasn’t invented just to keep digital photographers from getting bored when they aren’t actually shooting. How an image is finished or “polished” via post processing is the final chapter in the overall story. Great photographs are those that exhibit thoughtful processing touches which serve to complement all the other elements of the photo. Great post processing enhances, not distracts from, an already great image.

Read more: 7 Signs That You Have Over Processed Your Photographs


Photo by mario

Final Thoughts

Different photographers, each with their own vision and approach to capturing the world, may have a different set of elements that contribute to their creation of standout images. And that’s perfectly okay — what matters more is that they are able to communicate their vision with the rest of us. The elements included here are, indeed, present in great photos, but they aren’t the only set of five elements that might guide a photographer in making standout photos. It is incumbent upon each individual to determine what elements are most important and relevant to their style of shooting and follow them according to their creative leanings. Following one’s instincts is, perhaps, the ultimate means by which to make great photographs.

About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

It’s frustrating to hear, “You ‘photoshopped’ it. That’s cheating!” But to be honest, all too often I’ve fixed my poor photographic skills with my killer photoshop skills. 🙁
I’m working on improving the former and understating the latter.

As Jay Maisel states, there are 3 key parts to great photos- Light, Gesture and color. Gesture basically means ‘the moment’- those shots that capture someone’s gestures, postures, looks, etc- Get these 3 right and you will have some pretty good shots- like maisel says, content doesn’t even really matter much, as long as you have one or two or 3 of light gesture and color- also maisel doesn ‘t polish any of his photos, his photos are almost entirely straight out of camera, and he still manages to take shots bursting with color- it’s all about having a keen eye to SEE light color and gesture- he doesn’t do any post processing work on his shots- he’s worth checking out to see what he means by light gesture color, and you will immediately see that all his photos are bursting with all of those qualities without the need for post processing

Nice article- you bring up a coupel of extra thigns that make good photos- developing an eye for tones is a good idea too-

The photo by jason of the black girl is fantastic as for post processing what a mistake it would be to remove the small scar beside the girls eye it ads great interest and intriegue it would not be the same shot without it he could easily have used the other side of the face it is a marvelous photo i like it a lot

One reason there are arguments against post-processing is when the end product no longer represents reality. The post-processing on the photo of the rose seems to be more of a restoration. Often, however, it is usually an effort to turn it in to something it is not.

Another reason it is argued against is personal expectations. When the amateur photographer or uninformed viewer compares his or her photos to extensively post-processed photos, they become quite discouraged. They don’t realize that it is not because they don’t have a $6000 camera and $10,000 lenses, but that it is a couple thousand dollars worth of software and several hours spent at the computer altering the photo that creates the final product they admire.

If there are any awards or accolades, it probably should go to the post-processing, not the photograph(er). Like I told my Father, “You can’t believe hardly anything you see in photos or on TV anymore if you are looking for reality. Everything has been altered into what they want you to believe.”

Perhaps more important than a photographic eye (implies technical issues) is the photographic mindset from which the photographer develops an intent and purpose for taking photos. Photographs talk endlessly about technical aspects of making pictures but ask less frequently, “why am I taking photos.” What contribution to social discourse or transformation am I making with the images i create. What insights to the human condition am I exploring. What undefined human emotions am I revealing? Technical perfection means little without emotional content.

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