Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The 10 Basic Elements of a Good Photograph

Not all pictures are created equal. Just like not all cars, furniture or chocolate are. Since the digital camera began, we have seen a boom in images that have flooded the internet, making it seem there is excess offer. And there is. But just as there are shoes out there, good and bad undistinguishable on a store shelf, so there are photographs on the internet. Once you take a closer look, or try those shoes on, you will find that only a few pass the standard of quality you are seeking. And suddenly you find there is actually a scarcity for the good stuff. This guide should help you develop that critical eye and be more able to unmistakably narrow your choices in your selection or appreciation of photography.

A good photographer doesn't just capture what he sees, but actually tries to create a picture; by manipulating or controlling the elements, the angle, timing, equipment, among so many other variables. Today, we have the further advantage of digital manipulation, giving us a powerful tool to express our vision; to portray the scene they way we saw it, experienced it, felt it; or how we want to project it.

How would a painter do it? Is perhaps a good question a creative photographer would ask in his mind. A painter has the power of his brush to add, ignore, alter or enhance a scene, even when he may be in front of it, or painting from a reference photograph. He would control every element in order to come up with balance, feeling, and impact. So does a good photographer, albeit with different limitations and challenges. By its very nature, photography lends itself more to the recording of reality, for which reason we cannot expect even the best photographers to have a record of perfect pictures all the time; many pictures will be snapped without major pretensions. Many will be snapped for the relatively easiness of doing so. Nevertheless the good photographer will be able to constantly produce a wealth of quality pictures, that speak of his skills, style and vision; pictures that will outshine the sea of average recordings of reality available out there.

Following are the basic elements that must be present in any good photograph, according to my own experience of 20 years in the field. Though they may seem obvious, it is surprising how many fail (oh, I have failed many times) at one or more of these basic concepts. In a future writing I intend to get into the specifics on some or all of these elements.

Correct Exposure. One of the first things you will notice in a photograph is whether it is dark or light. Though a picture can be low-key (dark tones predominate) or high-key (light tones predominate) there are always indications whether it is under or overexposed. An underexposed picture will have muffled highlights and shadows may be totally black, without any discernible detail. On the other hand an overexposed picture may have grayish shadows and hot or blown out highlights. When a picture has been captured with lack of detail in the shadows or washed out highlights, it becomes impossible to fix later on.

Pleasant White Balance. This means no unappealing color casts throughout the picture. Clouds should look white, foliage should look green (not cyan or yellow), and skin tones should look reddish (not magenta, not yellow). Exceptions to this rule are color casts purposefully left on the picture, as the reddish light of the late afternoon sun or the bluish light of a snowy morning. Still, most pictures will benefit from a correct or pleasant white balance.

In Focus. A good photograph is in focus and sharp; or at least one of its elements (usually the most important one). The best way to see the focus is by zooming in at 100% and seeing up close its details. Though some soft pictures (slightly out of focus) can be worked up digitally and made usable, bad cases have no fix.

Good Contrast and Definition. A good photograph must look crisp and have well defined elements. It is properly sharpened, with controlled noise, and good differentiation between objects and its surroundings. It should be free of apparent artifacts, pixelation, and posterization of tones. Watch out for glowing highlights that point to overall softness. Equipment, optics, camera shake and settings used are factors that have an effect on the quality of the final image.

Colorful but No Clipping. Blobs of color without any detail or contrast are the result of overly saturating an image. This is called color clipping and is a very common problem, consequence of digital manipulation. A good photograph will have the right amount of color boost without losing any color detail. Check objects of saturated colors up close, like flowers, to spot this flaw. Of course, the smaller the object in the picture the less importance any clipping will have.

Proper Lighting. A properly lit scene will make a photograph with good highlights and good shadow detail, as well as present the subject in the most flattering way. Overblown highlights or totally black shadows may be a result of poor lighting. While a photographer may not be able to control the natural lighting conditions, he can and has to control the angle, subject, and/or timing in order to achieve a well lit photograph. As a matter of fact, the difference between a good photographer and a snap-shooter is how the former plans for the perfect timing, even when that involves returning to the scene as many times as necessary, while the latter will only photograph the scene as it was accidentally presented to him.

Enough Resolution. The amount of pixels the photographs has will determine how much it can be enlarged. It is important to point out that not all resolution is equal; a maximum blow-up from a good 10MP DSLR will certainly look far better than the same resolution from a consumer snapshot camera.

Good Composition. A well composed photograph will look balanced and will lead your eye to the most important element(s) of the frame. The eye should rest within these elements, and should stay within the picture. Other qualities as movement, tension, energy are also key to good images and are a consequence of composition. Watch out for competing elements, ambiguous subject, and disproportionate empty spaces. When in doubt, the "rule of thirds" may aid in judging a picture's composition.

Cleaned-Up. A good photograph is clean of dust specs, scratches or any other foreign marks to the picture. Zoom in to the sky area to search for such imperfections.

A Strong Subject. Last but certainly not least. The subject photographed must be interesting, or else no one will care to look at the picture. It can be beautiful, it can be big, it can be old, it can be unusual or unique. A waterfall, a skyscraper, an old door, a close up of an insect. Of course, this will depend on the intended audience, as not everybody is interested in a man catching a football, or a cute puppy chewing a shoe. Be also aware that a subject does not necessarily need to be a well defined concrete object but it can also be a color, a texture, a pattern, a shape and even light itself. A picture of an open sea may just be about the color blue, just as a close-up of the bark of a tree may be about texture or patterns.

So there they are. Hope this help you gain better insight in the identification of basic good photography. As implied previously, it is actually quite unrealistic to expect all the work of a photographer to comply with this rules, and I am certainly not one of them. Nevertheless it may contribute in the raising of the standard for both image creators and image reviewers. In upcomming posts I will discuss the 10 Elements of a good
scenic photo and also those for a great scenic photo. Cheers.

©A.E.Amador. All Rights Reserved.
You may see my scenic photography of Puerto Rico and The Caribbean at

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