What makes a good photo? It’s ALWAYS about the light
What makes a good photo? There are lots of factors, some technical and some aesthetic. There are rules about composition, about getting a pleasing expression on a person’s face, about getting good detail, getting close enough to the subject, or far enough back to get everything in. There are technical things like not cutting a person’s head off in a shot, or avoiding camera blur. I could sit down and write a list of dozens of things that make a good photo. But at the top of the list, every single time, would be one word. Light.
The word itself, ‘photography’ literally means drawing with light. It’s from the Greek words ‘photo’, meaning light and ‘graph’ which means to draw. Without light, all photos would be black spaces. It’s light that allows us to see, and it’s the kind of light we capture in a photo that makes it good or not.
What most people don’t realise is that there are different kinds of light, and they can make a photo look very different. To give you an example, look at this shot of my dog Leo on the beach. It’s a grab shot on my phone while we were out on a walk. What makes it work is the light on him. We were out on a winter’s afternoon as the sun was setting. Contrast that warm light on him, making his fur look even creamier, and contrast it with the cold grey and blue of the water and sky behind him. It’s the light that makes this particular photo work. If I’d shot this earlier, when the sun was behind clouds, everything would have looked grey and washed out. (Basically, this is why so many people take photos of sunsets. The light is warm i.e. orange in colour, it illuminates things and makes them stand out against things that are in shadow or out of the sun’s rays).
The exact same thing is happening here, in this shot of the Chrysler Building in New York City. Shot in the early morning, it’s the rising sun catching the building that makes the shot. Without that contrast between the skyscraper and the surrounding buildings still in shadow, the picture would be bland. There’s also that lovely blue-yellow contrast that our brains love (see this post for a bit more on colour theory, including why we like seeing blue and yellow together).
Here’s another photo, again taken on my phone. It’s of a local restaurant shot after dark. Again, what makes it interesting to look at are the different kinds of light in the photo, and what they’re doing. The lights on the building give the bricks that warm glow that we like to look at, while the uplighters above them are white and act as a contrast. The white floral display around the door is a point of interest, and as the light is white it lets us work out what we’re looking at. The pin lights in the bushes in the foreground highlight the green of the bushes, and give a sense of depth by drawing attention to the foreground of the shot. The interior light illuminates the internal wall and the face of the man sitting in the window. There are lots of things to catch our attention in the photo, and the brain enjoys moving around the frame, taking it all in. Finally, the sky at the rear is a deep blue, rather than black so it lends depth to the photo, as does the leading line of the row of buildings running towards it.
So while you’re out and about, start looking at light and how it behaves at different times of the day. See what it does to shapes and the shadows it creates. Spend time in the early morning or evening watching the sky change colour as dawn arrives or dusk settles. When you begin to understand light better, you’ll start to think of ways of using it in your photos, and they’ll improve dramatically.