What makes a successful photograph? Ask any professional fine art photographer that question, and you’ll get a different answer every time. After many years of making LOTS of bad photographs, and a few that work, I’ve given this question much thought. Here’s my answer today, but stay tuned…. art & the world are always changing so my answer may be different next year!
The Photographic Trinity Rule
I like to hone in on the essence of any situation; maybe that’s a byproduct of learning from lots of bad photographs! (I don’t show these on the website!). These bad shots are good teachers if you let them speak to you that way. Why didn’t it work? Why did the successful one of the same scene or subject work and the others fall short? A photographer becomes an artist when they stop “taking pictures of things” and start capturing scenes that convey more than the sum of their visual parts. They capture the essence of a scene where the empty spaces seem to be filled with an emotion or compelling presence.
How do you accomplish that? In my experience, I need to be an excellent listener of the landscape & nature. I’m listening & looking for the building blocks of all great art:
- compelling light
- a particular moment in time
- distillation into unity (removal of distracting elements, cropping into the essence of the scene)
- negative space
- selective focus
There may be more to add to the above, but this is a good start. When I find successful photographs in my work & the work of others, I consistently find that the most compelling images use three of the above elements very convincingly. There is very little doubt about the mood or intent in a masterful picture. Just like a tripod or a three-legged stool, you remove a leg, and it falls flat.
Let’s look at the picture in this post as an example. I found it to be successful enough to include on the website because of the following:
- Depth: In my opinion, this may be one of the most critical of the compositional elements. If you aren’t conveying a sense of depth, you better be making up for it big time in other ways. Viewers don’t want to look at flat things, they like going on visual journeys, and you need depth to do that. In this shot, you can see the opposite shore which illustrates distance, and the mist on the water adds a little softness & nonthreatening mystery or tranquility to the scene.
- Color: Color can be used successfully in many ways. First is just its presence & associated mood. The backlit green leaves give vibrancy, life & optimism to the scene. Secondly, the photograph uses a technique called aerial perspective, where blue colors seem to recede, and warm colors tend to move forward. This adds to the depth and motion conveyed.
- Balance/Movement: I lump these two compositional elements together because they work hand in hand in most cases. The tree trunk is the balance pivot point here, and the movement of the lines on either side keep your eye moving about in a balanced way. For me, the two branches on the lower right side of the trunk start the eye moving down & to the right, then you notice the space & far shore above them, and then the angular branches in the upper right seem to form an unfinished arc back over to the downward arcing branches on the left side of the tree. I’ve marked some of these ideas on the picture below. The overall effect is to have created a meandering, pleasing circular movement & balance.
This idea takes some pondering & practice to gel, but I’ve found it to be beneficial in both the compositional approach and in the editing process. Try it with the next really moving picture you see. Did the photographer do three things really well? I bet they did!
What I hoped to convey with this photograph is not just a pretty scene, but a tranquil, introspective experience; greater than the sum of its parts, where the viewer can breathe in a transcendental experience of the scene from the empty spaces.