I believe everybody is capable of taking beautiful pictures. For me, the difference between an amateur photographer and a professional is the ability to consistently produce quality photographs. In order to improve as photographers, we need consistency in our work, and to produce consistence, we need to identify what makes for a great photo. Today I am attempting to answer one of the most fundamental yet difficult questions in photography: what makes a great photo? Personally, I find the challenge of creating a photo essay by far the most challenging and rewarding part of photography; a series of images that communicate a single idea. As my passion lies within the realms of photodocumentary and travel, this post will be closely associated with both.
I have been trawling through the web searching what other people have written on the topic and frankly I have a pretty bad taste in my mouth as a result. Insight like this (sorry Kodak) is, in my opinion, not only clearly outdated — it’s damaging! Creating a great photo has never been about “using flash outdoors” or “using a plain backdrop.” If history has taught us anything, it’s that great photos come from an emotive place rather than a technical one. A great photo needs to be stimulating visually and mentally — but above all it needs to draw an emotional response from the viewer, and this applies to all forms of photography. My advice to budding photographers is to spend less time fussing over gear and spend more time considering why you are taking a photograph. Be conscious of what you are trying to communicate. I have put together a handful of factors that I believe are the building blocks of a great photo. With each tip, I have attached an example of my work which I believe communicates the idea and a link to one of the masters who influenced me. Enjoy.
Learn how to capture emotion
One of the many reasons I love mixing photography and travel is because it allows me to step outside my comfort zone and seek authentic experiences. Put yourself in a foreign location and moments of importance just seem to come upon you. My only technical advice for capturing moments like this is to get in the habit of predicting changes in lighting situations and to predetermine how you want the photo to look (e.g., fast shutter speed, shallow depth of field); this is interconnected with how your viewer will receive the photo. Be ready to grab the moment when it happens so you’re not fluffing around changing settings.
I took the photograph below in a remote village in Ghana. The lady pictured was seeing her grandson for the first time in many years. The significance of this moment is written all over her face. I find hands can speak volumes about emotion also. Every time I look at this photo, something stirs in me; it’s her raw emotion.
Spanish born Sebastián Liste is phenomenal at this. Check out his work here
Have a connection with the subject
I see it all the time when traveling: people having their entire ‘experience’ through their camera. Learn when to not take a photo and genuinely connect with what is in front of you! I have found that this approach leads to better photographs. Nothing is more powerful than a portrait that eliminates all distraction; create situations where it’s only you and the subject. Black and white photography lends itself beautifully for this.
I took this photo of a Maasai boy while driving along an endless road towards the Serengeti national park in Tanzania. The face-paint is worn to signify a rite of passage where Maasai boys become warriors within their society. If I had approached this situation with the camera to my face, I would never have shared this moment with him.
Australian photographer Stephen Dupont is a master at this. Check out his work here.
Take a photograph that tells a story
We have all heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but putting that into practice is a lifelong challenge. Being conscious of how you frame and what you leave in the picture is crucial.
In 2012, I visited Siem Reap, Cambodia to document the lives of those impacted by landmines. It is estimated that there could be as many as 5 million landmines still left in the ground in Cambodia, with some planted as recently as 1998.
The man in this image is Teng Dara who became a double amputee in 1990 as a result of a landmine accident. Teng invited me into his home on the outskirts of the city and I photographed this moment of intimacy with his family.
Nobody is better at this than James Nachetwey. See his work here.
The decisive moment
“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment.” — Cardinal de Retz (b.1613 – d.1679)
The decisive moment is a phrase that the father of photojournalism and one of the all-time greats Henri Cartier-Bresson made famous. The idea is that a single photograph taken at the perfect moment can define an entire story or action.
This photo is taken in Doryumu, Ghana of a little girl named Portia. The moments before and after this frame were nothing particularly special, but, at this fraction of a second, everything aligned perfectly. A teacher of mine once told me that if you see the “decisive moment” in the viewfinder, then you have missed the moment. Capturing it is often by feeling the situation.
To see the genius of the man who owned the decisive moment check out the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson here.
Learn how to read the light
At the very beginning of my photography studies, we were sent out on regular “light walks.” Our aim was nothing more than to be conscious of light. Once you start practicing this, you start to see photos everywhere and it’s still something I practice after all these years.
The majority of my personal work is with available light. I find it such a refreshing way to approach photography. My advice to starting photographers is to break the rules – push your camera and or film to its threshold – shoot into the sun – don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
The photo below was taken in a remote fishing village in Ghana’s lake Volta region. It was early morning and this boy was preparing food for his family. I remember vividly watching the light shift across the scene until this moment unfolded and the light gently wrapped around his shoulders and lit up the smoke.
Melbourne photographer Michael Coyne is exceptional at this. See his work here