Making a Good Photograph

I have been asked many times, “what goes into a good photograph?” and “what do you look at and think about when you take a photograph?” There are so many aspects to making a good photograph. When all of these are done well, a star is born. We photographers aim for this result with every click. But, it is elusive.  Just when we get one aspect perfect, another one fails us. I’m going to try and answer these questions by talking a little bit about my thought process before I press “click.”


Beautiful or striking light (not lightning) piques my interest. When I see great light, I think “photo time”. Light can be from almost any source. There are natural sources such as the sun, moon or stars. We also have man-made sources that could be used such as a overhead room lighting. Or, I can introduce my own source to control the lighting of my object. Combining one or more of these sources is also an option. Sources we can use are endless, which makes it all the more fun. I can go on and on about light (it is all about the light, right?) which I will do in a future post. When the light is beautiful on my subject, I move onto color.

This shot of San Xavier del Boc has nice clouds behind the mission but is lacking in a key element.

We are rewarded by waiting just a few moments for the sunlight to hit the face of the mission.


Throughout my life, color has not been my thing. I do not see colors in the way I see numbers. A numerical pattern smacks me in the face while seeing a complementary color is near impossible. Knowing this about myself, I stick to some basics that have helped me. Blue is cool, red is warm. Take the photo during the Golden Hour or Blue Hour for best results (also best results for lighting too). Red wins contests – enough said. With these few basics I can usually get beautiful coloring. When I think the color is right, I move on to gesture.

Purple may not be your favorite color but it is vibrant and striking, making for an interesting photo. Imagine the purple wall as white.


I learned a lot about gesture from a world-famous photographer and my mentor, Jay Maisel. Jay doesn’t know he is my mentor. But, that doesn’t matter to me. Maybe it matters to him, but I don’t care. I purchased a few books penned by Jay where he describes the concept of gesture in detail. It made sense to me. I bought his books, lining his pockets (Light, Gesture, and Color and It’s Not About the F-Stop). Thus, he is my mentor. What is gesture? For something animate, it is easy. A dog’s funny face, a person smirking, a person dancing, a football player making a big play. For inanimate objects it is tougher to identify. Consider a rock that is shaped like a face. Wouldn’t this be gesture? In Jay’s world, everything can have a gesture. I tend to agree.

Even a rock can have gesture. This rock looks like the face of a dragon. Imagine a plane boulder instead. Even the nice lighting couldn’t save the photo.


Now that I have assessed the light, the color, and the gesture, I am surely ready to take my photo. Right? Nope, not yet.  There is one more thing to look at which may be the most subjective of all – composition. Another way to look at composition is to see how to arrange all the elements I see through the viewfinder into a cohesive unit (supporting my main subject) that tells my story. Do I need to eliminate a distracting element such as a tree branch? If so, I could move over slightly. Or, I could chop it down! So many “rules” for composition exist that it can drive you crazy. There is the rule of thirds which I follow sometimes. Sometimes I break the rule and put my main subject right in the middle. “Photographers” out there would be aghast. I would say this to them, “all rules are made to be broken”, or so I have been told.

Although not the greatest photo, it does demonstrate composition. I had to position myself so that the creek moved from left to right, the rocks provided an anchor point and the tree trunks formed a mini-amphitheater.

Putting it Together

I do all of this in a NY minute. If you are not from NY and don’t know what the heck I mean by a “NY minute,” then you will miss the shot. A NY minute means “FAST.” I assess the light, color, gesture, and composition real fast. Sometimes I only have a second or so to shoot.  My subject could be running through a field with the sun bathing on her hair, making her look angelic. Then she darts left and is gone. If I spent a real minute (as opposed to a NY minute), I would have missed the shot entirely. Get it?

Over the next few months, I will delve into to each of these aspects of taking a good photo in a bit more detail. If you are interested, and how could you not be, follow along on this new category of blog posts I am doing: Photography LearningInstruction.

And, remember, it’s all about the light and color and gesture and composition!