A plush toy sheep in a hammock
Image

What Makes a Good Image?

If you know how to make strong images you can do it with any camera, unless you’re photographing something specialist like wildlife. If you don’t know how to make strong images, the best camera in the world will only give you a tack sharp photograph of nothing (or at least nothing interesting). That’s why the camera you use is relatively unimportant to making fantastic photographs, and why it’s so much more important to know how to structure and compose your photographs.

When photographing anything, you must remember that the finished photograph will be in two dimensions only. While you can convey a sense of depth in photographs, generally the result will be flat. Your photograph therefore has to work well in two dimensions, not the three that you’re used to. If you’ve ever taken a photograph of a scene (and it will typically be a landscape scene) and then looked at it on a computer or print and wondered what you were trying to achieve, it’s because the three dimensional scene hasn’t translated well and the result is inevitably a dull image. You can’t just snap and hope what you see before you emerges in the photograph. It doesn’t work that way. I know, I’ve tried and been disappointed with the results.

Image Structure

In my experience good photographs have a strong underlying shape and structure that help make them interesting despite not having any depth. This underlying structure is then what the details of the photograph ‘hang’ from. Without this structure there is no order to the photograph, making it confusing, cluttered, and uninteresting. An analogy I like to think of is that creating a strong image is like writing a good story, essay or book. If you can’t structure and order your writing in sentences, paragraphs and chapters the overall piece will be confusing for the reader and your writing won’t come to life, no matter how beautiful the words you’ve used. The same principle applies to a photograph: if you can’t structure your photograph it probably won’t work, no matter how beautiful and intricate the details.

I’ll illustrate this with an example. Below is a photograph I took in York and it’s one of my favourites. I doubt it’s prize-winning material, but it holds itself up as a good, strong image that I’m really rather chuffed with.

A plush toy sheep in a hammock

I like this photograph especially because you can almost feel the textures of the velvety hat and the roughness of the cloth, the colours of the hat and wall are deep and rich, and, most importantly, it’s of a sheep in a hammock. But without an overall structure to the whole image, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. The details are hanging from an underlying structure of just a few basic shapes.

Shapes highlighted from previous photograph

 

I’ve highlighted the shapes. The walls (yellow), hat (red) and hammock (blue) give the photograph its underlying shape and structure which, in my opinion, make it work overall and entice the viewer to look closer and discover the finer details. The shapes also provide a structure for the viewer to ‘refer back’ to, and help them move their eye around the image in an ordered way and maintain their interest. Without these shapes the details are not enough on their own to make a captivating image.

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