Jay Sousa: The five elements of creating stellar photos

August 8, 2013 

Jay Sousa

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of playing a round of golf with a gentleman I had never met.

As we walked the course, my playing partner asked what I did for a living and when I responded with "professional photographer and photo educator," he became very excited as he had an interest in photography.

This normally makes me a bit nervous because as much as I love photography, both teaching it and practicing it means that sometimes you need to get away from it — and just play golf.

This gentleman had just one photography question for me, and it was a good one. He asked me if there was just one element that made a great photograph and if there was, what was it?

This got me thinking: Why are we drawn to some images and not others? What is it about a really great image that catches our eye … and holds it?

I came up with five points that all have to click (no pun intended) for an image to be stellar.

The light. It really is all about the light. After all, the meaning of "photography" is derived from the Greek words "photos" for light and "graphos" for drawing. Without light we cannot have a photograph, but the quality and angle of that light is what gives our images form, emotion, clarity, depth and beauty. I believe that good, interesting light on a boring subject will yield a better photo than bad light on an interesting subject.

Technical qualities, which includes focus, exposure and correct color, are very important to the overall quality of a photograph. We must learn proper exposure, how to focus our cameras and how to get color that is accurate. To do this on a consistent basis requires classes, reading and, of course, practice, practice and more practice.

Composition, where we place objects within our frame. It can be as simple as moving our camera so there is not a telephone pole growing out of a person's head. Or it can be a daunting task, like trying to figure out the best placement of our subject matter to draw the viewer's eye to a certain location and, more importantly, keep it there. The best photos, the ones we can't take our eyes off of, are normally very simple. Most inexperienced shooters try to say too much or include too much in the photo. This makes a picture hard to look at — and so we don't. The key to good composition is placement of subject matter; the use of other elements in the photo to draw the viewer's eye to your subject; and simplicity.

Subject matter, or center of interest. Every good image has a subject, a reason that you took the picture in the first place. A good example of this would be a photo of Lake Yosemite. This would be a boring image and a little static. Now add a sailboat in the foreground and you have a subject in your image, and your eye has a place to go. Any subject, even a not-too-exciting one, can make a picture interesting when combined with good composition, lighting and technical attributes.

Viewer interest is an overlooked area of photography. As photographers, we sometimes become emotionally attached to an image. An example of this would be if you had a dog. Let's say you really loved that dog and made some OK pictures of the dog. You might want to frame a photo and hang it on our wall because it is your favorite dog of all time. The problem is that if we share that image with others they have no emotional attachment to the dog and may not respond to your image the way you do.

If we can pull all five of these elements together in one image, we have made a very good photo.

Now, if I could just pull all of the elements of my golf game together at once, I might be able to break 90 on a consistent basis.

Jay Sousa, a former Sun-Star photographer, has his own photography business in Merced, conducts private classes and teaches photography at Merced College.

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