The Three Elements of Every Photograph

The Three Elements of Every Photograph

Today, I’d like to talk about three key elements that I feel make up each and every photograph we take. Of course they are not the only elements, but I feel that they are the most important. Specific shoots, like fashion or automotive commercials, require all sorts of preparation and specific skills. However, at the photographic level, three key elements still apply. If you consider your composition, light, and moment, you will be well on your way to making a successful photograph.

The Composition

Composing your photograph is such an important part of image making that entire books, blogs, and workshops have been dedicated to it. It’s also an extremely difficult thing to do. Whereas many compositions, such as music, painting, sculpture, and design, start from a blank canvas and compose through the art of inclusion, photography is the opposite. As photographers, we start with the world as it is and practice the art of exclusion. Rather than adding elements to an empty canvas, we are taking them away from a very messy canvas.

We have a lot of different tools we can use to do this. The first of course is our brain. We are able to make decisions on where to shoot, which direction to shoot, and what time of day to shoot. All of these things influence what will be in the frame, and what will be out of it.

Our next tool, of course, is the lens. By using one lens over another, we are able to choose what we include and exclude. A 24mm lens is a very inclusive lens. It has a wide field of view and an inherently deeper depth of field at a given aperture. You will see more of the scene than you will with, for example, a 200mm lens. That focal length can be used to exclude a lot of extraneous information in a busy scene.

Another tool, which is part of the lens but forms a separate control, is aperture. Using our aperture, we are able to include or exclude things from our scene using selective focus. By using an 85mm lens at f/1.4 to photograph a close-up portrait, we are able to keep only our subjects eyes in focus and completely blur the background. However, by switching to a 35mm lens and shooting at f/11, we will show much more of the surroundings in focus.

One final tool that can make up part of our composition is light. We’ll discuss light below in a section of its own, but as a compositional tool, light can be used to include and exclude through selective exposure. By exposing for a bright highlight, we may plunge other areas into complete darkness. Light can also be used to draw lines and make shapes in the image. Think of a person’s shadow, or the shadow of a building covering half of a street. These lines can be used in the same way other lines can in your composition.

The Light

Light, as mentioned above, can be used as a compositional element. However, it is also an important part of the photograph as a whole. Different qualities of light can evoke different responses in your viewer, and as such, it is a very potent tool to understand. For this section, I will divide the properties of light into three key elements: quality, direction, and color. Of course, light also has intensity, how bright or dark it is, but we touched on that above.

Quality

This is how hard or soft a light is. Hard light creates deep shadows that have sharp edges, whereas soft light creates gentle transitions between dark and light. Both of these can be used to your advantage. Choosing either will create a different response in your viewer and may or may not be appropriate for the message you are trying to convey. A hard slash of light across the face of a new-born baby will give a very different feeling to a soft, enveloping light. 

Direction

Light travels in straight lines, and thus has direction. Lighting something from the camera position will take away its depth as one is unable to see shadows. However, lighting it form the side will give it apparent depth in the two-dimensional output of a photograph. Lighting it from behind can offer a myriad of different possibilities depending on your choice of exposure. By understanding how to create depth with your light, you will begin to produce much stronger images. 

Color

Light also has color, which can have a great effect on how your viewer perceives your image. Think about a beach with beautiful white sand and cerulean waters. At midday, the stark white of the sand and the beautiful color of the water will be visible. But wait a few hours until the sun is going down and the warm glow of sunset hits the area. Now the whole scene takes on the color of that light.

The Moment

This I would argue as perhaps being the most important aspect of any photograph. The moment you choose dictates the light and composition. Especially with photographs of humans, the moment is truly important. A perfectly composed, perfectly lit photograph of the bride on her wedding day will fall short if she doesn’t like the moment you chose to photograph her laughter.

Moment is so important to us that we will wait hours for the light to glint off the water in just the right way, or the perfect character to walk into our scene. We will throw away images where the wind blew hair in the wrong way, dismissing them as subpar. Focusing on this element of your image is a sure way to make better photographs.

When I shoot, as often as I am able, I will follow this order in preparing to press the shutter. First, I will look for light, then I will compose around that light, then I will wait for (or create) a moment. This goes for all the photography I do, and it has made me a much more deliberate shooter.

In Conclusion

Of course, different types of photography have different elements that go into them. In fashion, for example, planning, clothing, and makeup can be even more important than the photography itself. However, at the point of pressing the shutter, these three things are still key for the photograph to be successful. Focusing on these as a photographer will do wonders for improving your images.

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8 Comments

I would also add the quality. I know it's trendy to dismiss image quality but that's always been an important element of photography. While it isn't necessary for creating a great photo, I can and do appreciate superior image quality. It's why I own two Sigma cameras. They are frustrating and slow to use, but produce incredible and unmatched image quality.

That second photo is really nice.

Great article!

As a newbie to photography this really helps to reinforce the basics.

Thanks

Kevin Thornsberry's picture

I think you make a great point about choosing light before compsition. Quite often we are attracted to a composition or to a moment only to be disappointed in the end because the light just wasn't right.

Michael Dougherty's picture

Excellent article. I use a similar concept that I call SLC (subject / light / composition). I put subject first because I have to go somewhere to shoot and it there is no subject (e.g. Yosemite winter), then I don't go and have the opportunity to work the light. I put composition last because once I have the subject and then the light, it's up to me to get the composition correct. Regardless of style, all 3 elements are needed for a successful image.

The light could be the subject. 😊

zeissiez lee's picture

When Dylan Goldby writes, I stop and read, because I like his work. Agreed with these 3 technical aspects of photography. I'll add The Story before all these. We too often forget about the content and keep looking for lines, light, subject isolation etc.

Jonathan Adams's picture

You must have sat in on my basic photo class..... I tend to use it as the TLC. Back in the day TLC meant Tender Loving Care...and I tell them if you want people to care about your photographs you need to work hard to include Timing Lighting and Composition.

Moreno Tagliapietra's picture

Very nice article, thanks. When I look at photography I see 3 overarching components. The 1st one is creativity or everything that a photographer does before taking the camera to his/her eye. This includes seeing meaningful subjects, evaluating the characteristics of the light, deciding on the framing, perspective, moment, exposure, focusing, etc. The 2nd one is mastership of the camera (and computer gear is one is doing his/her own processing) so that the pre-visualization is properly captured. The 3rd one is knowledge of human visual perception (the eye/brain system) to process the raw images in a manner that is consistent with the way people see (which is dramatically different from digital captures). I find the 2nd component (camera and computer gear) to be by far the easiest to learn.