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…

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