Before we get into any technical aspects of what makes a good photograph, I don’t care what anyone says, if it’s a photo of somebody you love and it makes you happy, it’s a good photograph.
Putting sentiment to one side, here are 6 skills you need to take a good photo – kinda really important if you’re photographing a client!
I’ve written it in a way that takes you logically through each skill you need to develop to becoming a better photographer. Practice a new skill and come back to learn the next skill as you get further ahead in your photography journey.
The last one has nothing to do with actually taking a photo, but is essential to a good portrait photo. So it’s worth reading all the way through first.
1. Focus tips for good photos
In portrait photography the most important part of the photo is the person you’re photographing, so you want them to be sharp. But there’s more to it than that.
When we look at a portrait photo we’re immediately drawn to the eyes, so the eyes need to be the sharpest part of the image. It’s unsettling on the viewer to encounter an out of focus eye, because we’re also drawn to the sharpest part of the image.
If the eye isn’t sharp we automatically go looking for the area that’s in focus. If it’s not the eye, we’re drawn away from the subject.
So make sure you use the appropriate focus area mode to focus on the eye closest to camera. Mirrorless cameras are fantastic for this as they have auto eye detection. If you have a DSLR I recommend using single point autofocus.
TOP TIP: If you intentionally photograph somebody out of focus, it’s important that they’re not looking at the camera.
A good example is when one person in the image is the main subject and the other person or people are further back in the image and therefore out of focus. This is using a composition technique called differential focus which can make great photos. You often see this shot in wedding photography.
In this case the background person, or people, should either be looking at the main subject (ideally), or away from camera altogether.
Now that I’ve gone on about how a good photo is a sharp photo, let me contradict myself…
When a blurred photo makes a good photo
Intentionally out of focus photos also make great photos, as long as the subject isn’t looking into the lens.
Examples of good photos with blurred subjects are:
- When photographing somebody behind a rain splattered window. It can be a lovely effect to focus on the water droplets and allow the person in the background to be out of focus. This creates depth in an image, which adds to the composition.
- Using a slow shutter speed to allow the subject’s movement to blur in the image. This is one way of creating movement in an image.
- Panning photography, where you focus on a moving subject and move the camera with the subject during the exposure to create streaks of blur in the background. Often the subject won’t be pin sharp, because of the camera movement. Again, it’s a great way of portraying movement in a photo.
Further reading: The ultimate sharp focus guide for photos you can be proud of
Allowing the windows in the background to blow out in this image removes distractions and adds to the carefree atmosphere.
2. Exposure tips for good photos
Just like with focus, there’s no hard and fast rule of when a photo is correctly exposed, because it depends on the intention of the photographer.
With that said, if you want an accurately exposed photo with detail retained in the shadows and no blown out highlights, you need to consider dynamic range – the difference in exposure between the brightest point in an image and the darkest point.
More specifically, the dynamic range of your camera versus the dynamic range of the scene you’re photographing.
This is important, because our cameras can’t see as well as our eyes. We have a far greater dynamic range than cameras. Plus, some cameras have a better dynamic range than other cameras. Top of the range cameras have a much better dynamic range than entry level cameras. They have more advanced sensors.
An overcast day has a narrow dynamic range, because the light is flat and even, so there are no deep shadows. A bright sunny day presents us with a high dynamic range from bright highlights to dark shadows.
You need to decide what part of the image you want accurately exposed, which in portrait photography is the subject.
If you also want the background to be accurately exposed, you need to consider lighting the subject with a reflector or off camera flash if the background is bright.
Good exposure is the main reason for shooting in RAW instead of JPEG, because in post production you have a greater ability to adjust the highlights and shadows.
Alternatively you might choose to allow the highlights to blow out.
So, as you can see, the correct exposure for a good photograph is the one you want for the look you want.
Further reading: Overexposure and underexposure in photography
Which leads me onto the next point for what makes a good photograph.
Photographed on a clear sunny winter day using natural light only. The angle of the sun was perfect for butterfly lighting.
3. Lighting for good photos
Once you’ve nailed focus and exposure you’re ready to concentrate on lighting. This is the absolute essence of what makes a good photograph IMHO.
I’m not talking about natural light vs flash. Both are equally relevant and amazing for good photos.
It’s how you use the light that you have that makes the photo. Here’s what you need to know:
Direction of light
Backlight – creates a lovely rim around the subject and separates them from the background. In this case it would be good to either reflect light back into the face with a reflective surface or use off camera flash to light their face.
Side light – fantastic for making a two dimensional image appear more three dimensional. Where you place the light affects the shadows on your subject’s face. Learn portrait lighting patterns so that you can use light to flatter your subject and impact the mood of the image
Front light – ideal for flat lighting a subject for minimal shadows. Alternatively, also ideal for magazine cover style photos using beauty lighting aka butterfly lighting aka paramount lighting. This produces a small shadow under the nose and is good for highlighting cheekbones and creating shadow beneath the jawline.
Type of light
You can learn this before or after learning about the direction of light. I think it’s best to learn direction first so that you get used to seeing where the light is coming from and therefore the impact it will have on your subject.
Whichever way round you choose to learn it, you need to know about the difference between hard and soft light.
Soft light – slower transition from light to shadow and the shadow areas are often not particularly dark. That said, I use soft light a lot, but with deep shadows. The main thing is that the edge of the shadow isn’t clearly defined – like your shadow on an overcast day.
Great for a relaxed feel in the image and flattering on skin, especially older skin, as lines, bumps and dents aren’t as obvious.
Hard light – creates a quick transition between light and shadow, so the line between light and shadow with hard light is very clear. Just like your shadow on a bright sunny day.
Great for bringing drama to dynamic photos and for highlighting texture as it skims across surfaces, especially when side lit.
High key or low key
This is purely a mood choice and you don’t have to shoot one or the other.
Right in the middle of the high key and low key is the standard type of lighting, with expected lights and darks that you see around you in reality.
High key photography – perfect for family photography, newborns, toothpaste (etc) adverts and anything that is upbeat and summery.
Low key photography – perfect for dark and moody photos.
Further reading: Light quality & quantity of light – essential knowledge
4. Composition for good photos
Some photographers advise learning composition early on, but I think you should concentrate on the technical side of what makes a good photograph before the creative. Either way, it’s up to you.
Rule of thirds
What I will say though is stop putting your subject smack bang in the middle of the frame as soon as possible. This is the one rule of photography composition that you should learn as soon as you pick up your camera – the rule of thirds.
Now I’m not saying that every single photo should be captured using the rule of thirds. Definitely not. BUT it’s significantly better than a bullseye composition and is much more appealing to the human eye.
When the subject is in the middle of the frame our eye doesn’t really have anything else to do, but go there and stay there. Positioning your subject off center allows the eye to travel around the frame.
Speaking of travelling around the frame – leading lines!
This is another beginner photography composition tool for better photos. Leading lines that go from the edge of the frame towards the subject encourage the eye to travel along the line to the subject. They can also lead away from the subject and back.
Humans are curious and like to explore images. Leading lines provide this opportunity.
Perspective is another composition tool that you should start using as soon as you start photographing intentionally. By this I mean as soon as you start forming a vision in your head of what you want a photo to look like and then apply your skills to make it happen.
Don’t always stand to take a photo.
Get down low and photograph upwards or get high and photograph downwards. The unusual view is much more interesting and you’ll find as soon as you start moving around more, you’ll have far greater variety in the images you take.
And who doesn’t like variety?
Juxtaposition requires a little bit more work and preparation before picking up your camera.
A really simplified way of explaining juxtaposition is to include opposites in your image. So, big and tall, or rough and smooth, young and old. Use the opposite of your subject to highlight something about your subject and deliver your message, or create atmosphere.
Consider the message of your image and how the background vs the subject is helping to deliver the message. Or the difference between subjects.
Photography composition is a huge subject and I’ve written a LOT of articles on it – click Categories in the menu and select Composition. But these four are a good place to start when it comes to what makes a good photograph.
Further reading: 19 essential photography composition rules for creative photos
Textures in her clothing and in the brick wall add to the three dimensional feel of the image and contrast with the model’s smooth skin.
5. Elements of design in photography
These are directly related to composition, because the elements of design in photography are the building blocks of composition. How you bring the elements together in an image massively impacts the atmosphere.
If you’re a beginner photographer, or even intermediate photographer, you might find this a bit overwhelming. It’s good to be aware of them, however, so that when you’re ready to progress you’re aware of the next steps to take on your photography journey.
I’ll mention them briefly and if you’re ready to progress further, follow the link below to the article I wrote on elements.
Shape – different shapes have different feelings. Think of a round balloon versus a rectangular building. They also bring movement to an image as our eyes follow their outlines.
Form – adds depth to an image, because it’s shape, but with light added to create a three dimensional feel in a two dimensional medium. Think of a silhouette of a person versus a normally lit person. The type of light used creates different types of shadows, which impacts the mood (refer to lighting above).
Line – like shape, different types of lines create different feelings. Think of a meandering river versus a straight road. They also bring movement by leading the eye slowly or quickly around an image.
Color – some colors are more demanding than others, but more than that, when using color in composition it’s about using color harmony to create a mood.
Space – how much space is included and where you place your subject in the space has a huge impact on the feeling of an image. Think of a face filling the frame versus a full length person occupying a small part of the image.
Tone – takes us back to the light and airy versus dark and moody styles mentioned above. Tone is about the contrast between light and dark.
Texture – makes an image feel more real. It can be demanding if rough and draw our attention, or relaxing and gentle if smooth. Great to use when thinking about juxtaposition mentioned above.
Further reading: 7 elements of design in photography every photographer should know
6. Emotion for good photos
We’re emotional creatures, we function on emotion and we respond to emotion. So photos that show some sense of emotion are automatically better than unemotional photos.
Think about your passport photo where you’re not allowed to smile or display any emotion. I bet it’s not your favourite photo. I can’t imagine anyone actually liking their passport photo. Most of us look like we’ve just been arrested!
Emotion in photos doesn’t have to be anything dramatic, so there’s no need to grin like the Cheshire Cat or scowl down the lens to portray emotion.
It’s often very subtle, just like in the headline photo where there’s a glint in her eye. It draws you in and makes you wonder what she’s thinking.
With two or more people in a photo, especially families, the emotion is between the subjects. It shows their connection.
In my opinion this is so much better than an entire family grinning at the lens. I love seeing real interaction and when I look back at photos of my family, these are my favourite photos, not the perfectly posed, well behaved photos.
So encourage that connection if you’re photographing two or more people. If you’re photographing one person, connect with them so that they can connect down the lens with you.
Portrait photography is about people and personality, not mannequins. Emotion is what makes a good photograph.
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