There’s something enchanting and satisfying about capturing the world around you through the lens of a camera – and making it look as incredible as our eyes perceive it.
If you’re reading this post in hopes of finding the secret to taking the perfect photo, keep searching. Art is a pretty subjective topic, and there’s no way to guarantee that an image loved by one person will be loved by many. As such, it’s impossible to create a singular formula for taking a perfect photograph. But, that’s not to say you can’t try.
Despite what Instagram filters have led many people to believe, it’s difficult to take a great photo. It takes time, a seasoned eye, some post-production skills, and, often, a lot of luck. While I can’t tell you how to take the perfect photo (because it doesn’t exist), I can use some images I’ve taken to help describe a few essential components that all great photos share.
You can’t have a great image without an interesting subject. Something that draws the viewer in and resonates with them for some reason. If your photo doesn’t make a reader stop scrolling, your subject isn’t exciting enough. Just look at the guy above. There’s no way you aren’t stopping to look at this photo if it pops up in your feed.
The rider represents an excellent subject for several reasons. First, there’s action in his movement down the slope, which always catches a reader’s eye. Next, there’s natural contrast between the darkness of the trees, the bright colored equipment, and the stark white of the snow. Beyond this, there’s action in the snow itself, drawing a reader in more as they notice the smaller bits of snow within the larger wave. You don’t always need to have an action shot, but a good photographer should be able to recognize a captivating subject that will make a great photo.
Timing is everything. If you want to be successful, understand that the moment is equally as important as the subject. If you’re shooting a football game, you’d better not miss that first touchdown. Photographing a holiday party and trying to capture fleeting moments of laughter and smiles? You need to be constantly moving and ready to shoot all night.
Often, it’s about being in the right location at the right time. But, sometimes, you just get lucky. This fiery sunset was taken from the window of a high-rise apartment just outside Boston. The elevation of the 20th floor window helped me get above the cityscape and brought the horizon into full view. I wasn’t planning on this shot, but I happened to have my camera out at the exact right hour that the sun slipped out of view and the sky exploded into color. Perfect timing.
The foundation of an amazing image comes from the photographer’s composition. But it’s more than just lining up the shot in your camera’s field of view, using the rule of thirds, and snapping away. Think of this as the bigger picture of your photo. What’s the message you’re trying to communicate? Block out everything that’s not essential to that message, then use your skills and intuition from there.
The image above is from a roof deck in Boston. The goal was to create an intimate feeling in the immediate space, while remaining connected to the larger city. By framing the shot from within the circle of chairs, I successfully establish the foreground space the emphasis of the photo, which feels warm and welcoming. As the eye drifts, further up the image, the skyscraper lights provide depth, and the scale of the city begins to set in. The result blends both worlds for a captivating final photograph.
I could write an entire ebook on light. It can truly make or break a photo. Beyond its obvious ability to darken or blow out an image, light can create an incredible sense of mood and add to the story of an image. Get the equation right, and you often end up with dramatic, emotion-invoking scenes.
In the image above, I set up the shot so that light would be a main component of the photo. The first and most obvious example of this is the city light reflecting off the water. The Boston skyline at sundown in the summer produces some amazing color based on all the lights in the immediate area. In this case, the light itself becomes more of a subject than the city. But, look closer, and you’ll notice other ways the light contributes to the overall mood of the photo – the shadows cast from the chain barrier, the street lights twinkling in the distance, the vague remnants of the sun setting after a blue-sky day. Light is what connects all these components.
Vibrant color, or the absence of color, is one of the most important aspects of an excellent photo. It’s the single most attention-grabbing component there is, and will instantly help make your image pop. But, it’s not enough to simply capture the color – you must get them right, which can require a little finesse with your camera’s white balance.
I love this image for a lot of reasons. For starters, the spectrum of color produced by this particular sunset was a sight to behold. The near cloudless sky produced some of the deepest blues and oranges I’ve ever seen, and the juxtaposition of that vibrancy against a silhouetted foreground made the scene even more dramatic. Again, thanks to the color captured in this shot, there’s no way you’re not stopping to view it.