Five Key Things All The Best Photos Have In Common​

Kevin Landwer-Johan

What are the Qualities of

A Good Photograph?

The qualities of a good photograph will be evident when the following elements are well executed in the picture:

  • Light/Exposure
  • Composition
  • Color/Tone
  • Timing
  • Relationship

These are the five things the best photos have in common. You might choose to photograph the most amazing subject, but if these elements are lacking the photo does not contain the qualities of a good photograph. It will not captivate the viewer. The greater the degree of skill with which these elements are represented in a photograph the more attractive it will be – regardless of the subject.

This article is written with a focus on what the qualities of a good photograph are. It has very little reference to post-processing and the results this has on our photos. I will at times use example photos and at other times I will not. I want readers to practice visualizing photographs.

Pwo KarenPipe Smoker

5 Elements of Good Photographs

Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.” Man Ray, a visual artist most well known for his photography.

Everybody with a camera wants to take better photos, even seasoned professionals I know, (including myself.) We want to take better photos than we have previously taken. If you are reading this then I guess you are one of us who want to take better photos. We must ask “What are the qualities of a good photograph?” “How do we create better photos?” “What are the secrets of better photography? Good questions!”

Is the Subject One of the

Main Qualities of a Good Photograph?

Your subject is your choice. It might be a sunset? A pretty woman? A handsome guy? An athlete at their pinnacle moment breaking a world record? An iconic celebrity getting caught off guard pulling a funny face? A tiger about to pounce on its prey? A beautiful landscape? Any of these might be great photos, but, without certain photographic elements, you might not look twice at any of them.

Two Thai models in traditional clothing qualities of a good photograph
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f3.2, 1/400 sec, ISO 500

Our choice and taste in subjects to photograph is naturally incredibly varied. During this discussion I will aim to be reasonably generic concerning subject material. I wish to focus more on the qualities of a good photograph. The other elements a photo needs rather than focusing on what makes interesting and/or beautiful subjects.

Qualities of a good photograph of interesting/beautiful subjects are:

  • Great Lighting + Careful Exposure

  • Engaging Composition.

  • Careful Timing.

  • Pleasing color and/or tone range.

When we have an interesting subject to photograph, each of these elements can be studied and applied with a technical ‘correctness’. Creating pictures with such technique results will show qualities of a good photograph. But there is another important quality to factor into what makes a good photo unique. I’ll address it later in this article. First, let’s take a look at these four elements.

Integrating these elements into a single image is challenging. Learning to understand each of these qualities of a good photograph and their relationships will enable us to become better photographers. Sure, there are other aspects to creating good photos, but I believe these four, (plus one,) elements form the basis of good photographs.

Akha women picking tea in Doi Mae Salong, Thailand.
Camera: Nikon D200, Lens: 22mm, Settings: f5.6, 1/160 sec, ISO 100

1. Great Lighting + Careful Exposure

“Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman, founder of Kodak.

Light is the substance and essence of photography, not of photographs, but of photography. It is one of the essential qualities of a good photograph. Where there is no light it is impossible to make a photograph. Light is the raw material of photography. We are all very familiar with light and have been aware of it since before we were born. For most people awareness of light remains in their subconscious. They don’t really think about it. If we want to become truly creative photographers we must begin to consider light with our conscious minds.

The word ‘photography’ comes from the Greek language. Phōtós means light and gráphō meaning writing/drawing, so, together the meaning is drawing/writing, with light. To me photography is largely about storytelling. We use light to tell a story with our images.

Thai Mountain Sunrise during a custom Chiang Mai Photo Workshop
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f8, 1/250 sec, ISO 400

Since I bought my first camera I’ve known the more I can ‘see’ and understand light and have a feeling for it, the better photographer I will become. Being able to recognize differences in lighting conditions aids us immensely as photographers. Superb light is one of the definitive qualities of a good photograph.

I do not subscribe to the popular belief that light in the middle of the day is not good for photography. If we’re out with our cameras on a summer’s day and the sun is high in the sky we can still make great photos! Wherever there is light you can make photographs, learning to manage the light, and your exposure, will determine in part the qualities of a good photograph. Some subjects and locations will inevitably photograph better in some light than others so we must learn to anticipate the lighting conditions and plan to shoot when the light is best for the type of photographs we wish to create.

Two Categories of Light

To help us understand light and how it affects the photographic process we can put it in two categories, ‘hard’ light and ‘soft’ light. Hard light originates from an apparently small source, is relatively bright and casts a shadow with hard edges. Soft light generally originates from an apparently large light source and casts shadows with soft edges or no shadow at all.

I say ‘apparently’ when I am talking about light sources because the distance the light is from our subject and the strength of the light must be considered. The sun on a cloudless day, for example, is a hard light source. Light from the sun casts hard shadows. Even though the sun is a huge light source, because it is so far away, it is apparently small. On a cloudy day we will see soft or no shadows because the clouds diffuse the sun’s light, scattering it and making it softer. Even though the clouds affecting the light are tiny compared to the size of the sun, because they are closer to our subject they create an apparently large light source.

Where there is more than one light source and/or reflected light affecting our subject, this will have an influence on how hard or how soft the light appears. The relative brightness of each light source and location of the light source also has a significant effect on how we see our subject and how our camera will record it.

In situations with hard light, on a sunny day, using our camera’s exposure meter set to ‘spot meter’ taking a reading from the brightest part of our composition, we might get a reading of 1/250th sec, f16 at ISO 100. Taking a reading from the darkest part of the same composition we might get a reading of 1/60th sec, f2.8 at ISO 100. That’s a seven stop difference. Most cameras will not be able to produce acceptably well exposed detail in both the highlight and the shadows. Because of this limitation we need to be more creative to produce good photos in these conditions. We must be more creative in our exposure and composition.

Photographers often prefer to shoot in softer, rather than harder light because camera sensors and film have a limited ability to record detail at the extreme dark and extreme bright ends of the tonal range produced by hard light. If we were to take an exposure reading of the same composition mentioned previously on a cloudy day we would get results showing a lower contrast range. We might get a reading from the brightest part of the composition of 1/60th sec, f8 at ISO 100. Taking a reading from the darkest part of the same composition we might get a reading of 1/60th sec, f2.8 at ISO 100. That’s a three stop difference and well within the capability of most digital cameras to produce an acceptably well exposed image with detail in the brightest and darkest parts of the composition.

Making photographs where the light is softer, with a narrower dynamic range, affords us a greater flexibility, and is generally easier, as we are able to capture more well exposed detail. But easy isn’t always best and we will not always want to see all the detail. I believe it’s possible to make our best photos when we are able to light our subject with me most appropriate light source for the style of photograph we want to create.

Photo #1. Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 35mm, Settings: f2.8, 1/8000 sec, ISO 400
Photo #2. Camera: Nikon D300, Lens: 50mm, Settings: f5.6, 1/60 sec, ISO 640

My favorite example I like to share to illustrate this is my two photos of the same Buddha statue taken on different days. Photo #01 was made at 3 pm on a sunny October day at Wat Umong in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My shutter speed was 1/8000th sec, aperture was set to f2.8 and ISO was 400. Photo #02 was made at 2:15 pm on an overcast day in June at the same location. My shutter speed was 1/60th sec, the aperture was set to f5.6 and ISO was 640.

Photo #02 reveals far more detail across the whole composition with a tone that fits well within my Nikon D800’s dynamic range. Nice subject, but it’s pretty boring. Photo #01 where the tonal difference is vast and obviously reaches far beyond my camera’s dynamic range is a much more satisfying photograph. Photo #01 displays more qualities of a good photograph than Photo #02.

The relationship between the light and the subject is highly significant. Some subjects will photograph better under hard light, others will not. Some subjects will photograph well under either hard or soft light, just returning significantly different images. For example, a landscape might appear vibrant and alive when photographed on a sunny day, creating a warm and inviting image. The same landscape photographed early in the day, before sunrise, when the light is flat and dull with very little contrast, might appear more sullen and drab, but still result in a pleasing image, just one with a very different mood.

Not Just Black + White

Variation in light between the hardest and softest is immense and it’s within this range and variation we must find the most pleasing light to create our photographs, with what ever subjects we choose.

Photographing with a single light source with little or no reflection we are somewhat limited in the options we have. Our light will be hard or soft. Once we introduce more than one light source or make use of reflected light to affect our subject, then our creative options become far more diverse. By adding light from alternative angles and any manner of sources (soft or hard,) we are able to manipulate the tone range within our photographs.

If we are making a portrait of a person outdoors in the middle of a sunny day using only the sun as our light source and no reflector, we will be faced with some challenges. We can have our subject stand facing the sun, which will result in dark shadows around their eyes and under their nose and chin. They will also be squinting their eyes. If we turn them sideways any degree we will have some of their face in shadow and some in the sunlight. If we stand them with their back to the sun we will have even light on their face but may encounter problems with the sun’s light flaring in our lens, an over exposed background and possibly some color cast reflecting in their face. If we were to introduce even one more well placed light or reflector our options broaden as the tone range in our composition will be narrower, (because the shadows would be diminished by the additional light,) and our camera will more easily capture a fuller dynamic range of tone and the shadows will be .

Many factors affect the quality of light. The more we are able to see and appreciate the light we have to work with when we are making photographs the more creative we can be and the more they will display the qualities of a good photograph.

2. Engaging Composition.

“Now, to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravity before going for a walk.” Edward Weston, photographer.

Composition is how we arrange the elements within the frame of our photograph. It’s about what we include within our frame and what we leave out. We can control our compositions by our choice of lens, our point of view from where we take our photograph and sometimes by moving the physical elements we are photographing. Composition is another one of the essential qualities of a good photograph.

Rules of composition can be studied and used rigidly or as guidelines when we look through our camera’s view finder or at its monitor. But following these rules does not always produce the most engaging compositions. The more we can incorporate our chosen subject material within the four corners of our frame so everything we choose to show is a meaningful part and suitably balanced, the more engaging our compositions will be – regardless of whether we follow the rules or not. I hope this does not sound too abstract! Let me explain …

Using the rule of thirds, drawing the viewer’s eye to our photo’s subject with leading lines, lining up your camera so your subject is framed perfectly symmetrical and other learned techniques will give us well composed images when we can apply these techniques meaningfully. But using the rules of composition just because we think we have to will not necessarily mean we are creating engaging photographs. Truly creative composition does not come about by merely applying a few rules and techniques.

If we are trying to apply some compositional rule to an image we are creating and stick to it rigidly, because think we must, we may find other aspects of our photograph will suffer and the end result will be unattractive. For example, if we have a subject framed up and there’s a strong leading line drawing our eye to the subject, but there’s a distracting background, then we’d be best to abandon the idea of using the leading line and explore other possibilities to compose our photo. If we are constantly looking for situations we might be able to apply the rules we’ve learned, we may well miss seeing what could make the best photos. I rarely will think of composition before I have selected a subject and I occasionally continuously think of compositional rules to apply when I am taking photos.

Many photography teachers expound the benefits of the rules of composition and then tell you to break them. I would encourage you to learn the rules so well you can put them into practice subconsciously, so you can make use of them in your photography most creatively.

Samlor Rider with his tricycle in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 50mm, Settings: f5.6, 1/250 sec, ISO 400

Why Do We Have These Rules?

Compositional rules have been developed over the centuries traditionally by painters. These rules have been tested and applied by students and the great masters with their paint brushes on their canvas. Our tools for creating pictures are significantly different, as is the amount of time we would typically take to create our pictures. Not many of us will spend years or hours to make a photograph the way a painter can. The qualities of a good painting will differ from the qualities of a good photograph.

Another significant difference to consider here is the ability a painter has to manipulate all of the elements they choose to include in their paintings. For example, they can pose a person in their studio in Paris for a portrait painting and for the background paint in the Sydney Opera House if they wish to. The painter is unbound from their location, as photographers we are bound to ours. Take note, I am not considering post processing here, this is only relevant to composing and shooting single photos with our cameras. Yes, it is possible if we are working in a photography studio or working with scale models to have a large degree of compositional control over what we include and exclude from our photographs, but I am talking broadly here as most photographers do not physically manipulate the subject matter of their photographs.

Painters, particularly those who paint with oil color, have infinite opportunity to compose and recompose their paintings. One day a painter might like the idea of including a building as a background to a portrait they are painting. The next day the painter could decide they don’t like it and paint over the building and replace it with a tree and a river. The painter has the ability to manipulate composition far more exhaustively than we as photographers do.

The rules of composition have developed over time with a different medium. As photographers we can adopt and adapt these rules to our advantage as we create images, but not separated from the other three elements I am discussing here. As we balance our compositions of our beautiful/interesting subjects with lighting, timing, color and tone we will be creating engaging photographs.

3. Careful Timing

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographer.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous term (and book title) ‘The Decisive Moment‘ sums up what is regarded as another essential element in creating good photographs. The moment we choose to open our camera’s shutter has a significant influence on the qualities of a good photograph. Depending on our chosen subject this could be a split second decision or it may even take weeks and months of planning to finally reach the right moment.

Cartier-Bresson, regarded as the godfather of photojournalism and street photography, said: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Cartier-Bresson didn’t do much landscape photography, so his reference to recognizing the fraction of a second is more relevant to his chosen genre of photography than it is to others. This, however, does not diminish the importance of careful timing throughout other photographic genres.

hot air balloons over Bagan, Myanmar qualities of a good photograph
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f8, 1/250 sec, ISO 400

Hmong Kart Racing taken during a Chiang Mai Custom Photography Workshop Camera: Nikon D700, Lens: 180mm, Settings: f5.6, 1/400 sec, ISO 400[/caption]

Waking up early to arrive at a suitable vantage point when visiting Bagan to photograph the hot air balloons at sunrise, is important to capturing the decisive moment as is reacting quickly when something unexpected happens which makes an interesting photograph. Obviously, the urgency of timing my shot when the wheel from the cart came flying off is far different than on the morning I photographed the balloons at Bagan. With the balloons, as with any moving subjects, timing our shots when all the elements form an engaging composition is critical.

Ansel Adams, the famous American landscape photographer, was well known for carefully timing his photographs. He understood the qualities of a good photograph. He timed his work with the seasons and the sun. Choosing the optimal time of year and time of day, (or night,) when he knew he could achieve the most pleasing exposure. In his work we see careful timing in relationship to lighting and composition. Calculating the best time for the right light he could obtain all the tonal detail he desired in his stunning, large format, black and white photographs.

Anticipation and planning are two important factors in achieving well timed photographs in any genre. Not many remarkable action shots happen purely in the spur of the moment. There’s usually a certain amount of preparation. In sports photography the most successful photographers specialize. They will study their sport, they will know the teams, they will know the players and their style, so as best to anticipate how the action will be played out during the game or event. Wildlife photographers will research locations, track their ‘prey’, position themselves in concealed locations premeditating the arrival of the species they aim to photograph. Being prepared to capture the decisive moment usually takes far more effort than just bringing our cameras up to our eye and squeezing the shutter release.

It does not always need to be so complex. Our preparedness can be rather more casual depending on what we are photographing. Frequently when we take photography workshops at the local fresh markets I am capturing fleeting slices of life. We’ve been visiting the same markets for a number of years now and I’m used to the flow and rhythm of the place and it’s people so it’s easier to predict the action than when visiting for the first time. Whatever situations we find ourselves in to make photographs, it’s important to observe what’s happening around us and anticipate when the most interesting action to photograph will take place.

Composing our image in anticipation of the action we hope to capture is a method employed by most of the best street photographers and photojournalists. Finding a location that will afford us an interesting composition, with strong element to support our subject, good lighting and a pleasing background will inevitably help us produce more captivating photographs. There’s nothing wrong with shooting on the fly, but if we are able to incorporate as many of the four elements we are discussing into our photographs the more satisfying the results will be. Precise timing is certainly one of the qualities of a good photograph.

novice monk lights candles and is surround by smoke as he poses for photographers.
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f2.8, 1/100 sec, ISO 1600

4. Resonant Color and/or Tone Range

“The ability to see the quality of color and it’s different relationships is an art, as well as a skill that must be honed through continual exercise.” Nevada Wier, travel photographer, and author.

Where light is the essence of photography, color, and tone, (tone only when we work in black and white,) are the expression of reflected light captured by our cameras. If light is the raw material of photography as flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and water are the raw materials of bread, color and tone are like the baked loaf of bread. Color and tone are what we see when we look at a photograph. In reality, we do not see light, we see what light is reflecting off, and this is represented by color and tone in our photographs.

Incorporating resonant color and/or tone into our photographs will result in better pictures. When we are looking to make photographs, seeing the color/tone within the frame of our composition is just as important as seeing the physical shapes and elements that make up our composition.

Referring to ‘resonant’ color in our photographs I am meaning color which affects the viewer because it is significantly incorporated into the photo. The same goes for ‘resonant’ tonal range in our black and white photos. These are further qualities of a good photograph.

Cream Rose Soft Tones filling the frame
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 180mm, Settings: f2.8, 1/160 sec, ISO 400

The color of this cream rose resonates a romantic, gentle softness. While the red rose is less subtle to our eye. Maybe we still see it as romantic, but not with the same gentle, softness of the cream rose. In both images color is the key element in how we perceive the flower.

Deep Red Rose close up filling the frame
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f5, 1/100 sec, ISO 640

Rendering the same two images in black and white, see how the tone of each photo results in considerable differences.

black and white image of roses close up

As we incorporate a diversity of color into our photographs we must be aware of the relationships between the colors. Asking ourselves if the color in our frame supports the overall composition and makes a more interesting photo because of it. If we find the color we are seeing within our frame when we are lining a shot up is not pleasing we will need to recompose or consider rendering the image in black and white. If, for example, we were photographing a summer landscape and we have chosen to convey a soft, harmonious feeling with our photo, we must take care to ensure the colors within our frame support what we want to convey. Within this composition, which is made up predominantly of soft green and golden colors, if there were an object of contrasting color, say electric blue, we would need to move the object or recompose so as to exclude this object from our framing to ensure we are able to convey the desired harmonious feeling.

In another scenario the interruption of harmonious color may well be advantageous to us. If, for example, we were on our way to a football match and everyone in the crowd are wearing our home team’s signature bright yellow color. Then we come across a small group supporting the opposing team and they are wearing their team’s signature electric blue color. The contrast in color would add a rich dynamic and resonance to the photographs we could make of our experience of going to the football match.

In each of these two examples it would be unlikely we would consider rendering the images in black and white as the role the color plays in each photograph is fundamental to the feeling we want the photos to convey.

The absence of color in a photograph leaves a far greater reliance on the tones in the image to make it work. I found when I started shooting black and white, a few months after I bought my first camera, I began to appreciate how important it was to pay careful attention to the light. I started to understand tone.

Many photographers who work in black and white learn to visualize in black and white. Looking at a scene and disregarding the color as we think about it helps us to be conscious of how the light is affecting our composition. It does take some practice, but if you enjoy producing black and white photos it will be worth the effort.

Technical purists will tell that we must show a full tonal range, from black to white and a substantial variance of grays, in our black and white photographs for them to be acceptable. I don’t agree. I don’t believe a good photograph can only happen if it adheres to a set of technical rules. Shooting in hard light and exposing for the highlights can produce powerful black and white images with little or no grays at all. A lot of popular street photographers employ this technique very well.

As we develop our awareness of the tone range and colors we’ll be able to better frame our compositions and choose how we wish to expose our photographs. In doing this we are combining the qualities of a good photograph into one frame.

+ 1. Combining The Elements with Intuition

“Photography is the art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” Elliot Erwitt

abstract photo of a tricycle taxi in Chaing Mai, Thailand qualities of a good photograph
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 35mm, Settings: f4, 1/320 sec, ISO 100

As I stated previously, qualities of a good photograph can be very elusive and difficult to integrate into a single image. As we learn to look for these elements, appreciate them and incorporate them into our photographs we will see a marked improvement in our work. Implementing these techniques will be easier the more intimate we are with our camera equipment and become easier as we practice. In any form artistic expression has more impact the more the artist is familiar with and has practiced their technique and can create intuitively.

Knowing our camera intimately, how it functions, what dials to use to set the exposure well, (and understanding why we need to,) where the most essential settings are in the menus and when we are best to adjust them, will free us up to be more creative with our cameras. If our brains are pre-occupied trying to figure out how to use our spot meter so we can expose for the highlights, for example, we will be distracted from really connecting with what we are photographing and the situation. The more using our cameras becomes second nature, the freer we will be to connect with our subject and follow our intuition as we make our photographs.

The qualities of a good photograph tend to reach past visually obvious clichés and will stimulate a response from the viewer. I believe achieving this quality in our photographs depends very much on the relationship we have with our subject, whatever our subject may be. If we are distracted trying to figure out our camera settings we will not be so open to the environment we are in or be so ready to relate to who or what we wish to photograph. Once we have learned the technical functionality of our cameras we will be more ready to explore the way we see our subjects and begin to express our experience through our photographs.

Having learned to use our cameras so we can make well exposed photographs intuitively will free us up to focus on creating photographs that convey not just what we saw, but the way we saw and our experience of that moment in time.

If you have enjoy reading this essay and are interested to learn more, please take a look at our Online Photography Workshops or visit us in Thailand for a photography workshop.

Further Reading

If you’re heading to Chiang Mai take a look at my blog post Best Tested Tips for Travel Photography Etiquette in Thailand.

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