Ten Attributes of a Good Photograph
Written by: steve
By Steve Russell
All of the attributes I’m going to discuss in this article have been discussed at one time or another in an article, or in multiple articles, on Beyond Megapixels. Aside from reminders being a good thing, we thought it would be helpful to have all of the attributes in one article in case some of our readers wanted a single reference.
None of the attributes I’ll list are applicable for every photo but they all are for most photos. Also keep in mind that if it’s your photo it can be however you want it to be. Still, striving to make sure your images have these attributes will help you create images that are pleasing to a much broader audience.
1. Exposure is correct
Nothing ruins a great shot more than being over or under exposed. Frankly, with today’s automatic cameras and incredible post processing software there’s no excuse for under or over exposed images. Yet, I see them all the time. There are times when I purposely over and under expose and image but I’m going to combine them with a correctly exposed image to make an HDR image. Most other times I can fine tune the exposure plus or minus one stop in Light Room or Photoshop.
2. The subject is in focus.
It’s amazing how many photos I see where the subject is out of focus, even with modern cameras that have auto focus. The subject may look in focus when it’s viewed online but a practiced eye can see the softening caused by the subject not being in sharp focus. In nearly all instances when photographing people or animals the focus point should be the eyes. If the eyes are “tack sharp” a viewer will see the photo as being in focus. I realize that there are times when you, as a photographer, want the image somewhat out of focus for artistic purposes, but those occasions should be the rare exception rather than the norm.
3. The background complements the subject, not detract from it.
I don’t think there’s anything more distracting in a photo than a cluttered background that is completely extraneous to the image. If you’re photographing someone working in the kitchen preparing a big holiday meal, you would expect to see pots and pans as well as other kitchen items. However, if you’re photographing your daughter dressed up for her prom, a cluttered background would be completely inappropriate.
4. The horizon or horizontal lines in the image are level.
Have you ever seen a photo of a boat sailing up hill? I have and it was a result of the photographer not holding the camera level. Granted, a certain amount of camera tilt can be corrected in Photoshop, but it’s easier to visually check and determine if what you see through the view finder or on the view screen is level. I’ve seen some very interesting photos where the photographer purposely turned the camera about 30 – 45 degrees for a certain effect, but it’s also something that’s been way over done.
5. Rule of thirds is utilized.
Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with the subject being centered in a photograph. Always having the subject centered in photographs produces uninteresting images. While the subject of a portrait will generally be centered left to right, the eyes of the subject should be on an imaginary line that is one-third of the distance from the top. This is true for human subjects and animal subjects.
The eyes of subjects in motion should be, as much as possible, on a vertical line that is one-third of the distance from the side of the photograph that is behind them. This gives the subject someplace to go. If the subject’s nose is the part of its body that is closest to the edge of the photo, it gives the viewer the impression that the subject is trapped. This approach works best if the image is made in a landscape orientation.
A lot of people like to argue about the need to follow the Rule of Thirds. But look at what sells. Look at magazine cover photography and content photography and observe how the subject is oriented in the image. On occasion you will see the Rule of Thirds not followed, but in the vast majority of images the rule is followed because it’s more pleasing to the eye.
6. White balance/color temperature is correct.
Most photographers shoot in automatic white balance (AWB) mode. In fact, most photographers probably never change the white balance setting from the AWB it was set on at the factory. Guess what, that’s okay. Except for the fact that the camera isn’t as smart as you are. Just like the camera tries to set the exposure based on 18% gray as the mid-tone, thus rendering snow as 18% gray instead of white, the AWB setting renders an average temperature based on what the sensor reads. This is especially true when you have multiple light sources, all with different temperatures. For example, using an on camera flash in a room where there are both bright incandescent and florescent lights. Fortunately, you can correct this in post processing as seen in the two images below.
I should add that it’s about 20 times easier to correct if you’re working with a RAW image instead of a jpeg but both can be corrected.
7. The picture tells a story or communicates an emotion.
I said this in an article last week. A picture is worth a thousand words, or at least it should be. If the image doesn’t do this then it’s really just a snapshot. I like to be nice and call them documentary photos. You know, “I was there and I saw this” kind of photo. No art, no composition, no interest.
8. The overall composition of the photo is pleasing to the eye (viewer).
Composition is the culmination of all the above. Exposure, focus, where the subject is placed is the frame, background and surroundings, story, etc. Score well on all these elements and you’ll have good composition. Take short cuts on a couple and you’ll have an image that very average or worse. An interesting thing about composition is that good/great composition usually isn’t noticed until the viewer starts trying to figure out why they like an image so much. Bad composition comes through immediately, loud and clear like a stadium full of people blowing on vuvuzelas.
9. The subject is pleasing to the viewer.
Unless you’re on a commercial photography assignment for Waste Management, why would you take a photo of an active landfill? I doubt that anyone is going to get very excited over it regardless of how good it is technically. Now, I don’t particularly care what people photograph, but I’m surprised at what photographs people will post so they can be viewed publicly.
10. You, the photographer, think it’s a good photo.
Photographers are usually their own harshest critics. If you’re trying to improve your photography skills and the images you capture and if you’re trying to learn as much as you can about photography, then you’ll know whether or not you have a good image.
Good luck with your photography.
All photos by Steve Russell with, in some cases, a little help from Photoshop.
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