What makes a great photo? This is a question I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. My qualifications for writing anything on the subject are limited but it seems like to capture really great photos on a consistent basis you need three things: equipment, technique and opportunity.
I should define what I mean by great photos. This is subjective but… great photos have enough resolution for printing at 8×10 or larger, they capture the viewer and have wonderful composition. More could be added to this but it will do for now.
You can’t take a photo without a camera and you can’t take a good photo without a good camera. Of course there are exceptions. I’ve captured some wonderful shots on my iPhone but are they really great when they aren’t big enough for a decent print? I say no, others will say yes. Either way you slice it a good camera with a good lens will consistently take WAY better photos.
While a good camera takes you a long ways towards capturing that great photo it’s unlikely you can be very consistent unless you master the techniques involved in using the equipment to capture the moment just as you want it. This would include be able to use your camera in Manual mode and understanding all the basics of light (aperture, ISO, shutter speed etc.)
This is a big one. Opportunity is being in the right place at the right time to capture a beautiful moment. I live in Spokane and in the dead of winter when there’s no pretty snow on the ground, and all the color is washed out of the outdoor world it might be hard to capture a great landscape photo. If I lived in Hawaii I would have more opportunity for easy shots that would be really amazing. This is not to say that the great shot doesn’t exist in “winter Spokane” but it’s harder to find. Opportunity is something that sometimes comes very easy and other times you really have to work for it and even create it (i.e. create a photo studio).
Real World Example
I am in Trout Lake, Washington standing in the dark on the edge of an icy lake with Mount Adams in the background. I lost my tripod in the woods. Looking at the list of three things…
I certainly have an opportunity to take an amazing shot. It’s clear, the stars are out, and there’s an amazing mountain in front of me which is being reflected perfectly in the lake.
I don’t have all the equipment needed for the photo. The biggest issue was the lack of tripod which I definitely could have used for a 60 second exposure. The image quality reflects that I had the camera on a saw horse and didn’t have a remote shutter release. I also forgot to put on my wider angle lens which resulted in missing out on the lake and a more open shot.
Regarding technique: I know how to use my camera in manual mode and knew I could keep the shutter open using the “bulb” setting. I also needed a way to focus in almost complete darkness. I was able to do this by focusing on the moon behind me and then switching the camera to manual focus in order to “save” that focus for the mountain shot.
The resulting photo is interesting but not great in my mind. It lacks some sharpness (see stars) and needs to be lightened up a bit in Photoshop before being really usable.