Ok, admittedly this post might not have the best title. Judging whether a photograph is successful or not isn’t as easy as it might sound. A large part of this decision is subjective. Even objectively “bad” photographs can be considered “good” if they’re of emotional value to the viewer or if they display a historic event. But I still think that there are 4 vague rules which let a photograph be successful in what it wants to achieve. You will find that many of the best photographs follow at least some of them, and they can also help you to turn an image from “good” to “great”.
1. A Unique Subject
Obviously the most important aspect of a successful photograph is the right subject. The primary point of interest should be something which sets it apart from similar images. For example, this could be a distinctive face, a temporary event, a colour or a special connection between the subject and its surrounding. But whatever your subject is, it has to be worth looking at.
How often do you see street photographs of people walking in front of a somewhat special background? What sets the first image apart from the second image here?
It is not just a random subject that carries the image. Firstly, the umbrella has a special pattern and secondly, this pattern is a connection to the background. This connection makes it stand out and not easily recreatable, the last of which is a key element of a good photograph.
2.Using the subject
A successful image has a good subject. But a successful image also just isn’t a picture of that subject. When you see something interesting on the streets don’t just photograph it. Instead think about how you can use the subject to tell a bigger story, to convey a message or to create a certain atmosphere. As an example, you could connect or juxtapose the subject to other elements in the frame or you could use an unusual angle to highlight your point of interest.
In probably one of my favourite photographs of all time Elliott Erwitt does this brilliantly.
Here you have this sweet couple which would make for a beautiful image on their own. But Erwitt focusses on the essential element of that scene, the kiss and her smile, and puts it into a broader context. He creates a relationship with the surrounding and at the same cleverly includes the car which hints at a possible backstory.
So next time you see a beautiful dress or kids playing on the streets don’t just photograph them. Think of what’s really special and put it into context, use other elements to tell a story about it.
3. Include the viewer
Looking at a photograph ideally shouldn’t just be a one-way experience. Many of the great photographs show a certain thing but ultimately let the viewer finish their story. They’re as much an incentive to think further as they are an image to simply look at.
You achieve this by creating a sense of mystery and obscurity around your subject. Don’t just show what “is”, hint to what “could” be. You could even go as far as suggesting the existence of something that would make the image outstanding, even though it actually doesn’t exist.
However, this is something extremely hard to achieve. You can start practicing this by using objects to cover someone’s face or hiding elements using shadows. This gives you an understanding of which elements to hide in order to create a certain effect. Eventually you will get to a point where you don’t see scenes on the streets for what they are but for what they could be seen as.
4. Fill the frame
Now, by filling the frame I don’t mean having people or objects everywhere – sometimes quite the opposite. Negative space often brings the most quality to an image. But when framing your composition, in order to succeed you should always try to give every element a purpose.
A good photograph won’t contain something which doesn’t add to its general message. Wherever your eyes enter the image, there should be something to look at – or something that leads you to an interesting part.
I think a successful photograph is about the photographer being in control. Your subject, the light, people in the background, the surrounding – seemingly manipulating everything around you is what will make your photograph fascinating to look at. Even more so if it’s taken candidly on the streets. So don’t be just a spectator following a play in front of you. Be the director who puts the play together.
As I said in the beginning, there probably are no clear rules for a good photograph. Some images work because they’re following a certain set of rules. Others seem like everything has been done wrongly, and they still work. But having a certain set of rules to go by will certainly improve your photography, especially if they have proven to make for great photographs in the past.
These were my 4 rules I think you should follow – what are yours?