Thursday, January 1, 2015

What It Takes To Make Great Photographs

Light Rays - Stallion Springs, California
What does it take to make great photographs? That is an excellent question, and one that's not asked often enough. The answer is critical.

There are so many aspects to a potential answer. There are physical aspects (getting to a place to capture the great photographs), there are mental aspects (having the knowledge and experience to correctly operate the equipment to capture the great photographs), and emotional aspects (infusing meaning into the great photographs). It takes all of these aspects working together to make great photographs.

But that's the quick, easy answer. If the answer was easy everyone would be making great photographs. There is much more to it.

First, let's take a look at some principals of great photographs.
Cathedral Spires From Cook's Meadow - Yosemite National Park, California
Great photographs are aesthetic. They are visually pleasing.  They are purposefully and thoughtfully composed. Throw out the "rules" because rules and formulas don't work. Each photograph is different, and what works for one may not work for another. It's the photographer's job to figure out how to best compose an image for whatever the scene is.

Great photographs are creative. This is coming up with some way to show through a photograph your own unique perspective. It's putting a piece of yourself into your image. Creativity is trying new things. It's experimenting. It's failing. It's trying again and again and not giving up. It's pushing yourself to try harder, to think deeper. Creativity is doing what others are not doing.

Great photographs are meaningful. Photography is a form of non-verbal communication, and a photograph is strongest when the communication is strong. The meaning doesn't need to be immediately obvious and the meaning can sometimes be found in the context of a series of photographs. What's important is that the photograph non-verbally says something

Great photographs are simple. A common mistake is to include too much in a photograph. The meaning gets lost in all the clutter. Communication is strongest when it is clear and concise, and the best way to keep it clear and concise in a photograph is to keep the image as simple as possible.
Mystery Drive - Stallion Springs, California
Great photographs tell a story. You not only want to say something with your photographs, you want to say something interesting. You want your communication to be fascinating. Photography is interpreting--it is breathing life into the scene. It is saying something interesting and in a way that grabs the viewer's attention.

If you already use these principals, then you already know what it takes to make great photographs. If these principals aren't a natural part of your photography, then you have not realized the answer to the question posed at the start of this post.

So what does it take to make great photographs? Work. Failure. Practice. Repetition. Experience. Experimentation. The five principals mentioned above become natural with time.

Henri Cartier-Bresson said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." I like to add that your next 10,000 are your second worst. It takes that to understand your photographic vision. It takes that to fully realize the principals of great photography.

There are no shortcuts. You cannot be zapped with the necessary skills to craft great images. It is a journey. It's an adventure. And, since it is New Year's Day and 2015 has officially begun, now is the time to head down the path to better photography.

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