Tag Archives: fine art

What Makes Great Photography? (Part 2)

My fiancee, Caitlin, standing in a field at sunset

Caitlin (2010)

Do you ever have a great idea, one that consumes you and eats at you and makes you so excited that you can’t wait to get started on it, but then when you do, you realize you never really figured out what the plan was to make the idea come to life? That’s how this series of blog posts has been. When I came up with the idea to share my thoughts on “What Makes Great Photography?”, I had a few general guidelines in my head that I wanted to touch on.

But, as any great author can tell you, general guidelines only take you so far. So every time I went to dive into this post and write a follow-up to the first element of great photography, the element of “story,” I was at a loss and my ideas fell short.

When I sat down to finally get this thing out, I wrote a few notes on a pad to truly outline what I was wanting to say, but I had that nagging feeling that I was missing something. So, I asked the one person that has no trouble giving me her opinion: the fiancée.

I asked her right out… “What makes a great photograph for you?” She brought up the recent viral image of Champ, the world’s happiest dog, and said how a great image makes you want to know more about the subject. That’s when it hit me: I shared the importance of “story” and had “emotion,” the topic of this second part, but that nagging feeling was because I missed one of the most important pieces to the great photography puzzle: character. We will save that for another time, but I thought it would be good to understand the three parts as we start to dive into the topic of “emotion” this time.

Turn on Your Heart Light

Toddler flower girl in a cute pink dress walking with her mother during a 2012 wedding

“Step by Step” (2012)

Not only is it a great song by Neil Diamond, but it should be the goal of every photograph. In order for an image to go above and beyond the average, we know that it needs to tell a story first, but how do we guarantee that the story is told and those who see it are truly connecting with it? Emotion.

Whether it causes someone to laugh or shed a tear, emotion is the driving force behind any great story, and in that same regard, great photography. Take the image here of the toddler with her mother. I captured this during a wedding that the fiancée and I were at last summer. I recently posted this same image on Facebook and asked my fans to “like” the post if this was an “awww” moment to them. As expected, there were a number of “likes” on the post.

So what is the emotion here? Why do we immediately see a cute toddler in an adorable pink dress, holding mom’s hands, and say “awww?” That’s right… emotion. We obviously know what the story is here without me having to say it, but it’s truly the emotion that we feel, happiness, that truly makes this a great photograph from that day.

Good Emotion vs. Bad Emotion

Here’s a question to ponder for a moment – if you can’t stand looking at a particular photograph, does that mean it can’t be great photography? In my mind, absolutely not.

Row of tombstones from the U.S.S. Maine Memorial at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, DC

“Remember the Maine” (2012)

It’s been said countless times before, but let’s remind ourselves once again: all art is subjective! Personally, I find Whistler’s Mother extremely boring to look at (I’ve actually seen it in person), but I can’t argue with its place in the canon of American fine art.

What does this mean for your photography? It means you shouldn’t be afraid to explore every type of emotion when capturing an image. The images we saw from Darfur, Cambodia, Somalia, and others can be extremely upsetting to look at, but they have brought about an awareness of issues that needed to be addressed and both stories and emotions that had to be told and experienced. That’s the key to great photography.

Great photography isn’t always about smiles and rainbows and it definitely isn’t about getting as many people as possible to love your images (even if it can be a nice side effect); truly great images aim to create an emotional response of any kind in the viewer.

If someone were to pass by one of my photographs hanging in an art gallery and spent a few minutes explaining to a friend how much they don’t like the photograph or the elements that turn them off from it, I’d be happier than ever. Fine art isn’t about pleasing the masses, but to make them question, analyze, explore, and, inevitably, decide.

Shooting for Emotion

So if emotion is one of the fundamentals of great photography, but how do we capture it? Luck, patience, and experience, as happens in all great photographs. Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time; sometimes it’s knowing exactly what you want to capture and planning meticulously to get it done.

All I can say for certain is that every image, every single pixel or ounce of light you expose on film, should be looked at from the emotional angle. In fact, if you got into a shoot, whether it be a portrait session or a photojournalism assignment or even your daughter’s Sweet 16 party, you should have the stories that you want to capture already “sketched” out in your mind and the emotions you are hoping to share with the world playing on your mind as you put the viewfinder to your eye. This will get you as close as possible to the “great photography zone” so when a truly human moment arises, you’re already there with the shutter release clicked.

What Makes Great Photography? (Part 1)

As a photographer and all-around nice guy, I enjoy giving back to my community when I can. Nothing pleases me more than having the opportunity to merge my passion for photography and teaching.

The Boys Club

The Boys Club (2009)

I was recently asked to give a presentation on photography for Lakeview Library, one of the local branches of the Peoria Public Library System. If you recall, I taught a nine week course on Photoshop Elements 9 at the Main Branch in downtown Peoria last year.

This time, I was contacted by the events coordinators at Lakeview, one of whom was the mother of a former model I’ve worked with. Insert “small world” observation here.

They didn’t give me any specifications other than the hour-long time constraint. Only an hour to talk about something I love dearly? I guess it would have to do. I decided that I wanted to approach the presentation from more of a discussion standpoint, à la David duChemin, and less of a “here’s how to do well at photography.” I offered my subject to them and they loved it.

So, on a Tuesday evening, I engaged a small group of interested people in some discussion and analysis of images, under the umbrella: “What Makes Great Photography?” It’s an interesting subject so I decided to share what I discussed in the class with a small series here on the blog. This week’s subject: story.

Every Picture Tells a Story

This Ain't Kansas (2011)

This Ain’t Kansas (2011)

At the heart of all the techniques, tips, and tricks that anyone can teach you about photography is the ability to capture a moment in time and, ultimately, tell a story.

There are a multitude of tools in the photographer’s arsenal that help us tell a better story or one with a more definitive plot, but at the root, all of these compositional elements are just stepping-stones to the bigger picture, if you will.

Great stories need some basic pieces: interesting characters, a conflict and resolution, and a plot that allows the reader to easily follow and connect with the characters as they meet the conflict, and hopefully, the resolution.

You are probably scratching your head and wondering where this is all going? Well, great photographs also need these three things. But, how do you take what most authors spend pages on telling and cram it into one click of a shutter?


Well, start at the beginning… interesting characters. Does this mean you have to always have people in your images? Certainly not. Character is any main subject of an image; in the image above, the characters are the barn and the two windmills. To drive the focus of the viewer to the character and force them to connect, we can use some of the tools we will be talking about in coming posts. But, it’s always good to find what you feel the character of any image is before you start to frame it up in the viewfinder.

Conflict & Resolution

Once you have identified what your main subject, or “character,” is, you have to figure out how it will conflict, and ultimately, resolve within a single frame. Huh? Stay with me here.

Flying Solo (2008)

Flying Solo (2008)

Conflict in an image comes down to intentional imbalance. You know the Rule of Thirds? Why do you think we prefer not to put a face right in the smack middle of an image?

Our brains tell us that images shouldn’t be perfectly balanced, but rather we prefer some small conflict in how elements are laid out. This forces us to not only engage with the subject of the photograph, but to also seek out the other part to conflict: resolution.

In the example shown here, the “character” is the single red leaf. The conflict and resolution are two-fold: the composition with the single leaf in the lower right corner and the use of a negative space around to the left and top to help balance it out as well as the use of color on the single leaf and black and white on everything else. With these tools, the viewer is drawn into the leaf and forced to engage mentally.


If the subject of the photograph is the “character” and contrast and balance the “conflict and resolution,” then what is the plot? Everything else? Not quite.

Another House of God (2010)

Another House of God (2010)

In our story, the plot is what leads the reader, or viewer, in our case, from the first introduction of the character through to the final conflict and resolution. In an image, this is all the other smaller compositional elements that draw the viewer “in.”

In “Another House of God,” the subject, or “character,” might not be too clear, but for me, it was the altar at the front of the church. The “conflict and resolution” is based on the size of the character (altar) vs. the size of the entire church.

With the plot being all the minor compositional elements that drive your eye into the subject, I would have to say leading, or receding, lines is one of the easiest to name. You can see how the aisle, the columns, the hanging lamps, the pews… they all seem to “point” at the altar from the vantage point I’ve decided to show.

Another piece to the “plot” would have to be the use of repetition or pattern; you can see this in the floor pattern, the pews, the hanging lamps, the columns, and even the windows. We will take in more detail about pattern later, but just know that when a viewer sees a pattern and then the pattern is interrupted as they follow it, it forces them to interact and engage. When a viewer mentally engages with an image, that’s how you know the story gets told.

Stay tuned…

Tuesday Viewsday XXII

I took this week’s featured image a few years ago during a trip back to my hometown to visit with my parents. For those who are unaware, I grew up in a very small town in central Illinois named Petersburg. Until I was in high school, it wasn’t even on the standard Illinois road map. I still chuckle when I meet someone who says they grew up in a small town too and I ask “Oh? How many people?” and they say something like “10,000.” They are pretty surprised when I tell them I graduated with a class of 95 students and our county, not town, but county had one stop light… yeah… it was small.

I love that I grew up in a small town, though, and while it was scary to adjust to the “everyone knows everyone” mentality when we first moved there, I enjoy that aspect now that I have grown up and moved away. It’s nice to visit old friends and still know exactly who they are talking about when sharing stories and updates on local happenings. The town has stayed consistently small and not been enveloped by the growing populations of the world, which I also enjoy.

Final Harvest

Final Harvest

Why am I telling you all of this? To set up the scene, of course. With a farm town the size of Petersburg, there are loads of opportunities for a photographer to capture some beautiful shots of rural Illinois and small town America. In case you can’t tell, I’m totally into that sort of thing!

So when I drove past an old farm access road and saw two abandoned barns and an abandoned tractor or two down that road, I couldn’t pass it up. I had passed this road many times as a kid, but never with the knowledge and passion of photography in my head, but now I was armed and dangerous.

I let my Mom know that I was heading out early the next morning to shoot. I got up around 7 a.m. and drove the few miles over to the road. I parked at the beginning of it and hiked on in. I knew that it was private property so I was being prepared with a quick getaway plan.

Let me say now that I am not advocating that any photographer violate the rights of a property owner, but I’m still pretty young and stupid at times and being back in my hometown turns me back into a high school kid so I went ahead and did it. And, let me be even more honest, I still do it from time to time. I try to find an owner when possible, but sometimes it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission… I’m just saying!

Trust me… it was worth it! This place was a photographer’s paradise… burnt out mobile homes, abandoned tractors, rusty tools thrown all around, and three barns including one with a collapsed roof and one that was hidden back in the woods. I couldn’t stop shooting and ended up with a whole load of great images.

The shot you see here is one that quickly became my favorite and is always a favorite among those who stop into my fine art booth and view my prints. The colors are phenomenal and I’m glad I went with the cropping I did. While I could have done a wide shot (and I did) or allowed more to be seen of the sky or road (I did that too), this cropping gives just enough detail without giving away the bank, so to speak.

Well, as you would suspect, I shot for a solid two hours before I finally saw a tractor making its away across a corn field from a farm-house and it was headed in my direction. I will never know if that tractor was truly heading my way or if I was just pumped with the adrenalin of being on private property and capturing great photos at the same time, but I ran the half mile back to my car, threw my car inside, and hit the gas.

So what do you think of this week’s image? Is it up your alley or is there something you would have done differently? Let me know; I love photo critiques!

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