Sunday, August 16, 2009

What makes a good photograph?

Its not just one thing that makes a photo looks good, there are several reasons.  Lets discuss in a layman’s language some of the aspects of taking a picture that makes it appealing. I am only delving into the aspects which I feel affect most. I am not touching many other aspects here which are also very important (such as exposure, white-balance, tones, gradation etc).


Framing is probably the most important factor in making a picture appealing to anybody. If the picture is framed well, then half the job is done.

A badly framed picture below left makes a beautiful scene look ordinary. Where as a slight change in framing makes a whole lot of difference on the right

Goa - Close to sunset Goa - Close to sunset

While framing a picture one must always keep in mind a few things.

  • What you see with a naked eye may not be as appealing in a picture. This is because your eye has more than 180 degrees field of view (also called wide angle) and your view finder does not. So when you see a scene with a naked eye, its lot more appealing because of various interesting areas in the scene. However same cannot be framed using a camera view finder because it just isn’t wide enough. So while framing the scene though a view finder, just ask yourself- including what things in the frame would make it better?
  • Center composition/horizon in the center– These are some of the most common mistakes. Most people compose the picture with the subject dead in the center or horizon in the center. Picture on the left above has horizon dead in the center while the one on the right has horizon off center. And you can see the difference it makes. Sometime however center composition does makes sense (picture below of the flower left). But such instances are rare. So the best best is to have the subject off center (pic below on right).
Top of the world - Lake george - close to sunset close to sunset - Lake george


  • Follow the rule of thirds to frame. – The rule of thirds is a compositional rule of thumb in visual arts such as painting, photography and design. The rule states that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject would. See the GIF below.

Source: Wikipedia

Author: User:Moondigger

Description: Animated image based on Image:Rivertree_1_md.jpg, demonstrating the rule of thirds

File:Rivertree thirds md.gif



Lighting is the second most importing thing when taking a picture. When taking a picture, you must bear in mind no part of your picture is overexposed (i.e. where details are washed out) and no part is underexposed either (i.e. portions which are too dark). On top of this, you need to ensure that your subject is perfectly exposed. And that we all know is easier said than done.

Some of the simple ways of ensuring that you have good exposure is to check where the light is coming from. If the subject is backlit, for example (meaning light source is behind the subject), then its a good idea to use a flash to light up the subject. Or if the subject is under bright sunlight then its recommended that you use a diffuser so that shadow under chin are soft.

Most people think bright sunny day is the best time to photograph. But its the exact opposite – you need a good cloud cover for getting great photographs. And if you need blues skies in you pictures then the best time for taking pictures is early sunrise and late in the afternoon when sun is about couple of hours to set. That way you will get the best possible light for your pictures.

If you are photographing flowers or other subjects for close-ups– then always remember to use one of the following techniques

    1. Using diffuser when shooting outside under bright sun
    2. Shooting indoor under natural light (example near a window or in a flower conservatory)
    3. Shooting the flowers indoor with a combination of natural light and flash (to enhance the lighting effects)
    4. Shooting inside the close-up box (for details see here)

Hover mouse on these pics to see how they were shot.

Shot using macro box Shot using macro box

Natural sunlight with diffuser near an open  window Inside a conservatory


Picture taken at the time of Sunset - But with a difference!


Aperture setting will let you decide the Depth of Field (DoF). DoF is the background or foreground of the subject. Greater the DoF implies both the subject and background (or foreground, as the case may be)  are in focus. Lower the DoF – implies that the subject is clear focus but the background if out of focus (the out of focus background is also “bokeh” – this word originate from the Japanese word “boke” - meaning haze or blur).

Depending on the situation you may want to blur the background or show higher DoF. As in the case of the Flower shots above the background is blurred while the flower itself is in perfect focus giving it a unique appearance. Where as in the shot above of the parasailers – the DoF is greater, so the parasailer in the background also appears sharp. For more details on how to use aperture – refer to my previous blog on related to this topic.

  • To get greater DoF (clearer background) – You should set the f-number to high on your camera - so f/18, for example, would give a clearer background than f/8
  • To get a bokeh – set the aperture/f-number as low as possible.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA With Bokeh – Shallow DoF (Aperture f/3.5)


Greater DoF (no bokeh) (aperture f/8)

Freeze or Flow

Sometimes you may want to either freeze the action to give your picture a sense of motion. This is particularly affective in shooting children or sports.

Or sometimes you may want to show the flow. This is useful in shooting waterfalls.

  • To freeze the action set the shutter speed to fast.
  • To show the flow – set the shutter speed to as low as possible (without compromising exposure). For this you will have to set the Aperture small as possible. You would need a tripod to use slow shutter speed otherwise you would get blurred picture due to camera shake.

Pictures below show the examples of Freeze and flow

Freezing Action

Finally – Do Not Hurry!

This is the most important aspect of photography. Most of us just point the camera and shoot. I blame this hurry on the most idiotic phrase ever coined - “point-and-shoot cameras”. Although most of our modern digital cameras (non-DSLRs) are small and allow you to take a pictures in a hurry, I feel “hurry” should be the last thing on your mind. Most modern digital cameras (non-DSLRs) are extremely versatile and have lot of features which you can use to get better control on your technique and on your results– sadly (for no apparent reason I can think of) these manually controllable features are not advertised properly by the makers (except in the manuals). 

Also I have seen people with a good DSLRs using the Auto mode to shoot pictures. It doesn’t get worse than that. You WILL get bad pictures.

By hurrying, you are losing out on experimenting, framing, proper exposure, aperture settings, shutter speed settings etc.  But if you take just couple of minutes to prepare and execute a frame, then chances are you will get a lot better result.

Remember – Camera is just an aid for taking pictures – Ultimately its the person behind the camera who has the canvas, brush and the colors. Use the tools properly and you will get good results.

See you again!