Common Traits That Make Great Photos, Part 1

Common Traits That Make Great Photos, Part 1

Take a moment to think about the most famous photo you know. What made you choose that picture? Think of another equally powerful one. What made you choose that image? Come up with an additional five. Were they all black-and-white, color or a combination? Were there emotional ties to any? Were any of family members? Were they of a specific genre—for instance nature, news event or portrait? Were there commonalities among them—things like dramatic light, strong composition, impact, saturated color, etc.? The reason I asked the above questions is to get you to think about why certain images leave an impact. In this two-part series, I share six common traits that make great photos that leave an impression. Follow up with next Monday’s Tip for an additional three.

Common Traits That Make Great Photos, Part 1

Trait #1—Dramatic Light: My business tag line is, “It’s All About The Light.” To me, light is the single most important characteristic that makes or breaks a picture. I’ll be the first to admit that there are others that run a close second, but dramatic light often leaves a viewer saying, “Wow.” To add credence, another tag line of mine is, “It’s better to photograph a mundane subject in great light than an amazing subject in terrible light.” The best light appears at sunrise and sunset. It’s warm in tone, low in the sky and lasts but a short time. It provides depth with strong shadows and highlights. It provides three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional medium. Add in a few strategic clouds and the skies light up in color. The clouds become compositional elements. The color is short lived, so work fast. If there are storm clouds on the horizon opposite the sun and contain moisture, a rainbow may appear. It’s times like this when you look to the heavens after a session and thank the weather gods.

Common Traits That Make Great Photos, Part 1

Trait #2—Good Subjects: A tree, is a tree, is a tree—right? NOT when you’re a photographer! Certain trees have more character, shape, lines, color or other attributes that make them stand apart. It’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but photographically, it’s essential the photographer is selective and chooses the subject that provides impact. Compare a wilted flower to a perfectly shaped specimen, the photographer wanting a great image will point his or her lens toward the fresh bud. Combine a good subject with great light, and the results can be stunning. If the light lasts long enough, change lenses and zoom in to be more selective. Conversely, change to a wide angle and find the best angle to take in all the subject matter. Be sure the foreground is clean and contains an element that will hold the viewer’s attention.

Trait #3— Good Composition: Composition is the orderly arrangement of subjects seen in the viewfinder. The operative word is orderly. Photography is a subtractive process. The entire world is in front of the lens. It’s up to the photographer to create a pleasing visual arrangement of the elements. Painters have the luxury of painting whatever subject they want, wherever they want to place the subject on a blank canvas—this is Additive. Photographers have to eliminate distractions and find ways to organize what’s left. Depending on the scene, this may or may not be possible. Use the rule of thirds. Find a way to include leading lines that course your eyes through the image or bring you to the primary subject. Use balance to have all sides of the image equally weighted. Create photos that have a strong foreground, mid-ground and background. Think about the arrangement of elements in the top five images you thought about at the beginning of this tip. How they use the rule of thirds, balance, leading lines, foreground impact, etc. Incorporate these concepts to create one of your own top five photos.

Visit for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.

Photography is what motivates me to move through life in a positive way. Photography is ͞All About The Light͟ and it’s the first thing I seek out before I press the shutter. Optimally, I pursue great subjects in great light, but if there’s an ordinary subject in great light, I still press the shutter. I love to share the photographic knowledge I’ve accumulated and I hope my enthusiasm is contagious so I can motivate others to feel the same way I do about my photography.


    Russ, in addition to being a great Photographer, you are also a great Teacher, and Essayist. You have the talent to capture beautiful and moving images of the world we live in. And you have the heart to share that skill with your readers in beautiful prose, that distills the complexity of your artistic passion into words that are not only a joy to read, but fun to learn from. Bravo! And thank you for the many essays and beautiful photographs you have shared in the past.

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