Why it works: What makes a great photo

Why it works: What makes a great photo

  • What makes a photo great — Sarah Wilkerson tells us why it works

As visual artists, we can be captivated by works of other photographers. We know when an image resonates with us personally. We can probably talk about the feelings an image evokes and the personal experiences it calls to mind. But how many of us understand and articulate fully what about an image makes it compelling to a viewer? Exactly what makes a great photo?

As viewers, having such an understanding can only deepen our appreciation of artwork. As photographers, how could this not carry into our own work?

That’s the premise and promise of Click Magazine’s regular department “Why it Works,” by Click & Company CEO Sarah Wilkerson: Understanding the elements of composition, lighting, story and more is a powerful way to advance your own photography, even if you’re already an accomplished photographer.

Twyla Jones

Fort Pierce, Florida

The photographer draws from the cinematographers’ playbook, bringing together character, wardrobe, setting, and lighting to establish a brilliantly atmospheric story. Careful composition employs the use of vanishing points along road and tree line to drive our focus into the dusky center of the frame. Just as the receding lines converge, headlights propel from their intersection, pushing the energy back out. Light streams forward, cutting through the atmosphere to penetrate the translucent folds of the gown and engulf the subject in fiery illumination. Focus falls on the road just in front of the subject, leaving her slightly obscured in haze and soft blur. And, of course, the symbolism of red, connoting danger and passion, brings even more excitement to a mystery that only the viewer’s imagination might unravel.

Gear & Settings: Nikon D750 + AF-S Nikkor 85mm lens; f/1.8, 1/125, ISO 1250

What makes a photo great — Sarah Wilkerson tells us why it works
Photo by Twyla Jones

Annmarie Kopey

Chester Springs, Pennsylvania

The photographer integrates elements along multiple planes to add depth and to tell the subject’s story, extending from her walker in the foreground, to the counter behind her, to the awards, trinkets, and paintings along the wall: all presumed evidence of her life past to present. The image looks, initially, to be lonely, but the viewer who spends enough time scrutinizing it is rewarded with details that hint otherwise, like the whimsical “#1 Grandma” inscription on the coffee mug, and the evidence that at least two others enjoyed donuts with her that day. And the softly side-lit subject herself, with curled silver hair and a light mint gown, is an unassumingly luminous figure framed between harder, darker elements: the black handles of the walker, ironwork of the barstools, metallic figurine on the console, and of course the ceramic mug before her.

Gear & Settings: Canon EOS 6D + EF 35mm f/1.4L lens; f/3.5, 1/80, ISO 1600

What makes a photo great — Sarah Wilkerson tells us why it works
Photo by Annmarie Kopey

Nuzhat A. Ahmad

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Creative exposure ensures that the bright yellow shirt is the focal point of the image. Indeed, anything brighter would have immediately drawn the eye first to the quartet of figures, whose silhouettes we can barely discern in the lower center of the frame. But the deep exposure shrouds in darkness both the human figures and the assuredly vibrant array of marketplace goods that flank them along the walkway. The exposure, together with the shirt’s high positioning in a vertical composition, presents the shirt as a sun-like object that outshines, both literally and figuratively, all of the other elements in the frame. In a setting wherein the dynamic range of a camera cannot nearly equal the dynamic adjustments the human eye makes when viewing areas of light and dark, the image is a reminder of what a subjective documentarian the photographer is forced to be: endlessly required to make judgments about what is worth capturing as she operates within the confines of the tools — field of view, depth of field, dynamic range — she uses to capture them.

Gear & Settings: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV + EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L lens; f/11, 1/1,000, ISO 800

What makes a photo great — Sarah Wilkerson tells us why it works
Photo by Nuzhat A. Ahmad

Carol Merriman

San Diego, California

The lines of the female figure are framed to form to the classical Golden Triangle, echoing “Martine’s Legs,” the iconic 1967 photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Beyond the compositional similarities, both images incorporate an anonymous woman engaged in a natural interlude, textures, and even a floral motif. Merriman’s minimalist inclusion of her subject’s face, however, introduces a flow that’s hers alone; from the positioning of the mouth, we recognize that the bride’s gaze is not directed at the activity of fastening her ankle strap, but outward and to the right, extending an implied hori – zontal line directing the eye to move into the otherwise empty space at top right.

Gear & Settings: Sony α7 III + Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 lens; f/2.0, 1/200, ISO 800

What makes a photo great — Sarah Wilkerson tells us why it works
Photo by Carol Merriman

Min Mohd

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Beautifully balanced color and tone with contrasting warm, cool, bright, and dark values, make the image aesthetically captivating. But it is Mohd’s presentation of the second-person point of view, with the subject seeming to reach out directly to the audience, that creates the commanding sense of engagement between viewer and subject. The photographer composed the image at a vantage point in which the child’s fingers frame both his eye and mouth. While we thus infer an imminent physical connection at the hand, the sharp focus on the face and framing of its most expressive features invite an even deeper emotional connection.

Gear & Settings: Nikon D700 + Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens; f/2.5, 1/400, ISO 200

What makes a photo great — Sarah Wilkerson tells us why it works
Photo by Min Mohd

We’ve got even more “why it works” right here…

Can’t get enough of this fabulous information? Get you free why it works guide from Click Magazine and read more of Sarah Wilkerson’s insights on what makes a photo great.

About the Author:

Sarah Wilkerson is the CEO of Clickin Moms and also provides mentoring services, teaches advanced CMuniversity courses on composition & creativity, and authors the “Why It Works” series in CLICK magazine. She specializes in low light photography, everyday documentary, and tilt-shift work. A former attorney and Duke graduate, Sarah resides in northern New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Visit Sarah Wilkerson online.
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