How to make a great photo

Getting a great photo is much easier
when you do a controlled photo shoot

We're often told the best way to improve our layouts is to improve our photography skills. Take a critical look through the magazines and you'll see that good design is important, but great photos are still the key. What makes a great photo? If you'd like to improve your odds of getting great photos while taking candids and snapshots, read on. ✓

Getting a great photo is much easier when you do a controlled photo shoot, because all the elements of great photography are carefully arranged. Snapshot photography is a bigger challenge because of its unpredictability, but with a few tips, you can get compelling photos that capture a moment and tell a story. Elements that make a photo "great" are:

  • Composition
  • Lighting
  • Technical Aspects
  • Storytelling
  • Resources

Clouds over the Marina

"Clouds over the Marina"
I have used this photo on many of the Camera LCD screens throughout this website

I'd like to suggest a fourth element that will take your technically good photo into that rare category called "great": storytelling.


A friend of mine has only recently learned that basic lesson of photo composition, the one that prevents the subject's head from being chopped off. Hopefully, you've moved beyond that point and would like to sharpen your compositional skills. The first step in doing this is to train yourself to look through the viewfinder just like the camera does. Sounds simple, but our brains "edit" scenes in front of us, ignoring extraneous details in favor of our visual target. Your camera, as you know, doesn't. Before you press that button, check to see:
    Is it free from distracting elements, such as a telephone pole "growing" out of a head? If you shift your position slightly, you can often improve your background, removing the worst background elements. If background elements can't be avoided all together, seek uniformity, preferably one that places the subject in its setting.

    Are there elements, such as grass or branches, that will occlude part of your subject? I often make this mistake when shooting wildlife, because I'm so intent on stalking my subject that my eye edits that branch right out of my mind, only to have it reappear across an owl's eye in the final photo.

    Learn more about background, middle ground and foreground.

    Perhaps you've heard of the Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds states that the main element of an image should be at a point within the frame of view that places it one-third of the way into the photo. This can be one-third from the top or bottom, or from the left- or right-hand side of your frame. Placing your subject in such a fashion makes the image more dynamic. As you compose your photo, think about placing your subject in such a way as to suggest forward movement. For instance, if your photo shows your child playing soccer, place his or her back closer to the edge of your frame, giving space into which he or she can "run."

    Along with the Rule of Thirds, fill your frame. If you think you're close enough to your subject, take one step closer. If that's not possible, make use of your telephoto lens to bring your subject closer to you.

    Simply put, framing can add interest and draw your eye into the main subject, adding depth. This can be especially effective with landscape photos, framing the main image with branches of a tree in the foreground. Consider similar approaches for your people photos as well. Using a door or window can be an effective frame. Sometimes the subject itself provides framing to draw your eye in, as with the gulls swirling around the little girl.

    Learn more about framing.


Effective use of light is the element that truly sets a photo apart as "great" instead of simply adequate. Experienced photographers seek out the light either right after sunrise or just before sunset, because the angle of the sun is low, illuminating the subject with a lovely glow. Unfortunately, our photo opportunities are rarely timed to coincide with these "golden hours." Knowing about the various qualities of light can help you arrange your shots to best advantage.
    High Noon
    This is the harshest light imaginable, right overhead, leaving the top half of your features in stark light, while the undersides are casting shadows. Move your subject into the shade, or if it's a cloudy day, wait for cloud cover. Use your camera's flash to fill in the highlights.

    Placing your subject so that the light hits one side helps to diffuse and spread light across the scene. As with composition, it may simply be a matter of placing yourself at a different angle to your subject. This kind of lighting is often the most flattering.

    This can result in a beautiful glow, but is tricky to accomplish. Place your subject's back to low-angled light, then use a reflector or fill flash to eliminate deep shadows. Natural reflectors, such as a sandy beach, work best. Many cameras have settings to help you compensate your exposure to achieve nice backlit effects. Read your manual to find out how.

    Learn more about lighting solutions.

Technical Aspects

Entire books are devoted to this topic. The most important ones to keep in mind are focus and depth of field.
    If your subjects are active, trying to achieve a crisp focus is a real challenge. I find that in most cases, using the focus points on my SLR screen, set on auto, will yield crisp results. If you don't have the luxury of that kind of technology, remember to wait. Focus on a clear landmark in your field, then anticipate your subject arriving at that point

    Here are some great tips for taking sharper photographs

    Depth of field
    This is simply a fancy way of describing how much of your subject field will be in sharp focus. If you have an adjustable camera, you can set it for large depth of field by choosing the f-stop with the biggest number. This is desirable for landscapes, in which you want most of the scene in sharp focus. Using the smaller numbers will leave just a narrow field of focus, which can be especially useful if you are forced to work in situations with backgrounds that are distracting. They will still be visible, but not in focus, drawing the viewer's eye to your intended subject.

    Learn more about using aperture.


This element is the most difficult to describe, yet the one that often sets a photo apart from all the rest. Think of all the photos that have defined an era-the young woman at Kent State in anguish over a slain student, the dramatic kiss from a returning sailor at the end of WWII- photos transcending all the rest of the elements of a good photo in their ability to tell a story. In fact, when taking snapshots and candids, this may be the element on which you focus most. Many of my favorite photos lack in other aspects, but their power to convey a mood or moment in time transcends those shortcomings. Think about the essence of what you are seeing, then watch for that moment that captures it. Press your shutter, then press it again!

Watch for intensity of emotion, whether it be absorption in an activity, movement or interaction. Direct eye contact is great, but consider watching for those unguarded moments. Your zoom lens will be an asset in capturing these moments. Practice and review of your photos will help hone your sense of when you've got a great photo in your viewfinder.

When you're feeling frustrated with your results, take comfort in the knowledge that professional photographers take hundreds of shots to get that one great image. Especially if you've gone digital, follow the lead of the pros and shoot away.


The single best book on photo technique I own is Understanding Exposure, by Bryan Peterson. If forced to give up all but one of my many photography books, this would be the one I kept.

For ideas on shooting great photos of your day-to-day life, the topic of most of our photos and layouts, look to any of the books by photographer Nick Kelsh. How to Photograph Your Family, How to Photograph Your Life and How to Photograph Your Baby are some of the titles available.

Make sure you read your camera's manual. I know, not the most exciting reading, but if you know your camera well, you're able to concentrate on capturing the scene, instead of on operating the camera.

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