What Makes A Photograph?

Could you be suffering from gear acquisition syndrome?

GAS is a peculiar blight of the modern photographer: advertising materials abound with glorious images created with the latest lenses, bodies, filters and tripods. All you need to do is get this… or buy that… and you, too, could be the next Ansel Adams! This time out we will be eschewing the urge to acquire more equipment and look at some simple techniques to improve your images, no matter what camera you are using.


A photograph can be broken down, most fundamentally, into two components: » The exposure: the way in which the range of tones from dark to light have been captured by the camera » The composition: the arrangement of the subject of the photo as directed by the photographer.

Nailing your exposure is the first step in taking a good photograph – entire tomes have been written on this one subject (The Negative by Ansel Adams is a good place to start). Here, we are going to acknowledge technological progress in a single statement: modern camera meters (and thus exposures) are generally rather very good. Beyond using positive and negative exposure compensation to brighten or darken an image (the +/- button, even available on most smart phones), to alter the feel of a shot – and using manual modes, strobes and filters to choose very long or short exposures – one rarely needs to alter the exposure that most cameras produce.

If we can automate the process of taking a photo, it should be plain the real art of photography lies in how you go about composing an image or, put simply, the art of learning to ‘see as a photographer’, and there are many positive guides available that will teach you about the ‘rules’ of composition, such as the rule of thirds, golden ratios and Fibonacci spirals (and there is certainly some merit in using these as a starting point). The most common negative advice you will see ranges from ‘never put a horizon in the middle of a shot’ to ‘avoid large empty areas in your pictures’ through to more abstract suggestions such as ‘avoid even numbers of objects in your frame’! However, I believe keeping a few simple steps in mind every time you grab your camera, is a wholly more positive exercise.


Let us take a look at some general pointers that can lead to a strong image:

» Actively deciding on your main subject and highlighting it, either by arrangement, focal point or lighting

» Giving a sense of order to the frame: the composition is deliberate and well thought-out » Keeping a sense of balance in the image: relating to colour, tonality or spatial relationships in the frame

» Using rigid symmetry where symmetry is suggested by the subject (often, but not solely, applicable in architectural shots)

» Emphasising repetition as your main compositional device where the subject allows

» Considering how you can frame your subject within the shot. This could be using a tree branch to frame a landscape, architecture to frame a person or leading lines to draw your viewer’s eye in to the main subject of the image.

Perhaps the most useful of these pointers, and one that is often ignored by most casual snappers, is the first: consider what your subject truly is, and thus how you can really emphasise it. If you give this a little extra thought, the likelihood of producing a stronger image is inherently increased. Look to simplify, de-clutter and focus your composition solely on that subject.

Below, I will break down three examples to see how refining your thought process before you press the shutter button will improve the results that you achieve afterwards.



This shot was taken at Cabo Da Roca in Portugal, the most westerly point of mainland Europe, an oft-snapped tourist spot. When I took this shot, my main aim was to reduce the landscape to its simplest form and emphasise the movement of the sea using a long exposure time. As such, the real subject of this shot is the sea, and the currents leading out to the ocean beyond. By choosing a high horizon line (between a third and a quarter from the top of the image) this gave me space to show a large expanse of the sea. Carefully framing the cliffs around the edge of the image, and actively using the ‘leading line’ of the promontory jutting out in the left corner of the frame to lead the eye into the waves, the entirety of the coastline is effectively reduced to a single curved shape, providing both a framework for the slurred waves and a strong colour-balance between the sunset and water.

TOP TIP: Locking the camera on a tripod allows you the time to consider fine spatial relationships and details in a shot such as this.



Conceptually, negative space is an area of the image which, whilst lacking objects, can add ‘support’ to the rest of the picture. In both the opening shot and this shot of the Canary Wharf skyline, I actively used negative space to highlight the subject. The iconic buildings of Canary Wharf are rendered here with a few compositional tricks. I was lucky enough to encounter a spectacular sunset and wanted to really emphasise the drama, so I pulled back with a wide angle lens, carefully framing the buildings as symmetrically as possible and then, having taken a test exposure, picked a horizon line that allowed a lot of negative space above and below the buildings to infuse the image with pure colour.

TOP TIP: Next time you are out, consider how using negative space can add impact to your image.


Concrete carbuncle or modernist masterpiece, the National Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames is a photographer’s playground. Paying close attention to the details of the symmetrical relationships of the shapes is crucial nationaltheatreto achieving the desired result – if you have the option to switch on gridlines in your viewfinder these can be a great help. Note that whilst this is a very ‘balanced’ composition, none of the elements in the frame fit with any of the established rules of composition (thirds, golden ratios or spirals). The sense of balance is achieved by using the hand-rail at the foot of the shot to lead the eye in, and then carefully considering the height the shot was taken from and the focal length, to precisely capture the lines of the building.

TOP TIP: Architecture favours a systematic approach to photography, so consider how the designer of the room/building wanted it to be viewed, and then find the right angles to show that off.


The difficult truth of good composition is there are no hard-and-fast rules that always lead to good photography – as these examples show – none of them were framed with the rule of thirds in mind, or specific considerations of how a good photograph is supposed to look. This photographer would suggest for every rule, there are at least as many situations where doing the opposite can lead to a better shot!

However, taking the time to consider how these rules might alter the way you are currently taking photographs is a very worthwhile exercise – try taking a few shots with a specific emphasis on placing the subject, a leading line or item of interest on one of the third-lines or intersections. Consciously doing this may strengthen your approach to compositions in surprising ways.

TOP TIP: Study your favourite photographs and try and visualise how the photographer viewed the scene before capturing that inspirational image.

Posted in In the Frame, Technology

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