These 3 Things Make Great Photos

There’s 3 important components to great photography.

If you’ve been reading any photography guides at all, you probably think I’m talking about ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
Not quite! That stuff is important – but all that gets you is a great exposure, not a great photo. You could take a perfect exposure of a sidewalk and that would not be a great photo.

The real components to great photography are

  • You – Namely the sum total of the photography knowledge you have, your eye for composition and your skill at getting the shot.
  • Your gear – Your phone, camera, lens, tripod and filters and other accessories, and what they enable you to do
  • Your location – The environment in which you are taking the photos, the views, the details, the weather and the light.

The Most Important Component is You

Don’t you feel special? But it’s true, the photographer’s eyes, knowledge and skill comprise the most important component.

Your eye for a great composition or framing is an important part of what you bring to your shots.

Two people can walk the same path and see completely different photo opportunities.

There was an interesting post where multiple photographers took photos of the same man, and brought out different aspects.

In addition to your eye, you should be able to understand and use your gear, of course. But you should also have an arsenal of techniques you can draw from, when the opportunity presents itself.

Timing is really important and if you don’t remember how to use a technique or you aren’t skilled at using your gear, you can miss the shot while you try to figure it out.

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri-Cartier Bresson, the renowned photographer, was big on capturing the decisive moment and you can see the result of his impeccable timing in many of his shots.

The hairdressers here look like they are in the middle of a choreographed dance. Capturing this moment and their glances, with no blur and good focus took great timing and preparedness.

Henri-Cartier Bresson Europeans
The Europeans © Henri-Cartier Bresson | Magnum Photos

You can bet he wasn’t futzing around with the settings when that decisive moment came his way.

The Gear is Less Important Than You Think

The gear is important but in some ways, it’s the least important.

The reason it can be important is simple – physics. Photography is all about light and light is governed by some basic physics (at least here on earth).

I’m sure you can do some crazy things in space but that’s above my pay grade.

Great photography is being creative within your constraints.

So there are some shots you can’t create depending on the limitations of the gear you have on hand. If your phone won’t let you use a bulb setting, you can’t create the same kind of long exposure as a camera that gives you that control.

This photo below would not have been possible without my tripod and long exposure.

Long Exposure Milky Way

On the other hand, the gear is also the least important because there are always constraints, no matter what your gear. And a big part of great photography is being creative within your constraints.

The best camera is the one you have with you

Sometimes all I have is my phone on me, and that’s the best camera I have. I wouldn’t get the shot at all without it.

Location, Location, Location

This is the component that’s given the least attention for some reason. And frankly, I think it gets my vote for the most important.

Here’s why. Look around you right now.

Are you at home on your couch reading this on your phone?

Okay, take it from me, you’re not going to get any amazing imagery right there. Or at least it’s going to take quite a PR department to sell your limited edition print of “Crumbs on the Coffee Table”.

Most of photography is about going outside and finding the shots. Finding locations that are visually interesting with beautiful colors, light, people and architecture to be your subjects.

Tulips in the park, Helsinki

Sometimes it’s about finding part of the shot and waiting for the rest of it to show up – waiting for the weather to reveal amazing colors, waiting for the golden hour, waiting for the kid with the skateboard to leap right in front of the cool graffiti.

None of this happens on your couch. Seeking the right photo op is a huge part of making beautiful imagery.

Take It To The Next Level

So those are the three components, you, your gear and your location.

How are you going to take those to the next level?

Improving Your Skill and Eye

On the technique side of things, there are some excellent websites that teach you anything you need to know – from the basics, to everyday techniques like panning, or advanced material on using off-camera flash.

A Stanford professor, Marc Levoy, just put his whole photography course online. How cool is that?

The key with technique is to learn what you actually need for the kind of shoots you enjoy and practice right away.

If you’re about to go shoot surf photography, that’s a good time to learn how to use shutter priority and focus-tracking. You need to go out and shoot right away to try what you learn and cement your knowledge.

On the other hand, it might be futile to learn off-camera strobe techniques if you have no intention of using that skill anytime soon.

Buying the Right Gear

Pick up any photography magazine from your neighborhood newsstand and it’s hard to find an article that isn’t about more gear you *need* to buy. It’s no surprise since that’s great advertising copy disguised as articles.

There’s also plenty of websites that do detailed comprehensive reviews of every lens and camera, so you too can start scrutinizing the upper left corner of every image to see if you’ve got some funny looking pixels.

You’re definitely covered in terms of information about gear. In fact, I think most photographers pay too much attention to this.

Finding a few versatile pieces of gear that you know how to use is smarter than buying a large assortment of gear you can’t carry and won’t use.

Get out there!

Let’s focus on the location.

Here’s why location is so important

  • The location gives you the raw materials – Your availability of scenes and subjects is dependent on your location.
  • The location puts constraints – Depending on your location, you may have limited light, challenging weather or fast-moving subjects (think rock concert!) and these constraints make you work harder and get more unique imagery
  • The location is where the magic happens – By this I mean, the combination of everything we’ve talked about in this article.
    The location is where you take all this stuff and put it together and Press. That. Shutter.

This is also why I’m making this website.

I want to share with you reviews of great photo locations so that you too can go shoot some amazing images with all the information you need.

But I also want to make you prepared to get that shot. I’ll give you information about the location, the best time of day and weather, as well as some useful techniques and gear to have at the particular location.

I’ll pop in a bunch of photos I took at that location. Remember, I’m not a professional photographer, these are photos anyone can get with the right tools.

I also provide the settings and capture time for every photo in the reviews, so you too can get your camera out of auto.

I don’t believe in keeping this stuff secret because everyone has a different style and will come away with different images. I want to share this stuff with you and see what shots you create!

In exchange, I ask for one thing. Pick up your camera, walk out that door and shoot. I can’t wait to see the results.



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