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11 ways to build a better photo

A recent article in the New York Times warns, “generic photos are ignored. “

Because most digital work is displayed online on blogs and other sharing sites, the travel photographer cannot afford to take a generic photo—a photo which does not tell a story, tickle the imagination, and fire neurons into attentiveness. The photographer has to think about each image and carefully design what is captured so that the resulting photograph is compelling, creative, and meaningful.

Just like stories, photos have to contain balance and impact, two very powerful ways to engage the viewer’s attention. Designing balanced, impactful images begins in the mind. Photos that are mindfully created are the ones with the most impact, and impact is what makes the difference between a photo that is ignored and photos that draw the eye to them, again and again.

Here are some techniques for composition that an image hunter can practice to get rid of the generic and find your vision within.

Girl with offering, Bali.

Nuns reading, Burma.

1. Find different angles

“Zoom with your feet” is something a photography mentor told me. With today’s powerful zoom lenses, it is almost too easy to be lulled into letting the camera and lens do the work that the photographer should be doing. Moving around gives you a chance to see differently, and it just may be a different point of view that makes the shot.

2. Use the Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds has to do with imaginary hotspots that would appear if we drew a grid of three by three over the viewfinder or photo. The intersections between the two lines of the horizontal grid and the other two lines of the vertical grid would be the hotspots. The human brain is attracted to these hotspots.

3. Isolate the subject

Man smoking in the shadows, Bali.

Uncluttering an image involves both luck and skill. Zooming in to the subject whether with the zoom lens or walking to a tighter frame will give the photograph a cleaner composition. The less distractions in the photo, the more impact the isolated subject will have.

Prayer flags lead to the golden spire of a stupa, Nepal.

4. Use leading lines

Leading lines are elements in the frame which act like arrows to the main emphasis. In this photo, the prayer flags lead the eye from one corner of the image to the stupa spire. Leading lines make it easy for the viewer’s eye to travel to the point of interest in the photo.

5. Use the foreground

Walk at sunrise, Bali.

Something interesting in the foreground can give a tension to a photo. In this photo, the woman walking beside the boat is just as sharp as the boat. Her apparent motion gives a story to the photo and makes it more dynamic.

Khon mask, Thailand.

6. Depth of field

Depth of field is the quality of sharpness from foreground to background in a photo. A large aperture (small f-stop number) gives a photo blurry background or shallow depth of field, while a small aperture (big f-stop number) gives a photo sharper background. In the photo of the Khon mask, the shallow depth of field created patterns in the light that hit the lens, giving it a dreamy quality.

7. Patterns

Looking for patterns can turn a photo into something special. This photo of a row of monks begging for alms in

All in a row, Laos.

Luang Prabang, Laos tells a story with the variation in the theme—one monk is anticipating the food a merit maker will offer, and breaks the pattern, and that becomes the interest point of the photo.

8. Scale

Scale can show the subject in relation to its environment. This large Buddha on a mountainside in

Big Buddha on mountaintop, Bhutan.

Bhutan is large, and the scale of it is shown through the wide view showing how it sits visible amongst the giant mountains.

9. Framing

Looking for natural frames is a great way to add interest and story to photos. This rickshaw driver,

Rickshaw driver, Nepal.

obscured by the roof of his rickshaw, tells a story with his eye—within the frame through which he looks daily as he makes his living.

Color at the market, Vietnam.

10. Fill the Frame

There’s no use including space if the space does not add to the story. Sometimes, the subject is more than adequate to tell a story. Other times, any other element in the photo would take away from its impact. The woman selling vegetables and her colorful environment fills the frame and creates a kaleidoscopic story of one woman in a market in Vietnam.

11. Use a Vertical Frame

Puppeteers, Thailand.

Shooting Vertical is a decision—the vertical frame has to work for the story in the image. In the photo of the puppeteers, the smoke rising from

Monk folding robe, Thailand.

the incense sticks offered to the artist’s patron spirits add to the image. In the photo of the monk, the robe he is folding is better as part of the framing and so demanded a vertical composition.

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You might also like:
The Man at the Window
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts
How to Stay Creative

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About Aloha

I am a photographer and writer currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. My work has appeared in CNNGo, Canon's PhotoYou magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, Thailand Tatler, and a few photography books including recently Blogging for Creatives, a book published in the UK. I believe there is nothing you cannot imagine that you cannot do.

8 Responses to “11 ways to build a better photo”

  1. These are really great tips and my favorite line is when you mentioned that it’s not only skill but also luck. I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Great list. It is almost a perfect match to what I use when I teach my introduction to photography class. I’ll be pointing students to this entry in your blog.

  3. Hi BellaVidaLetty, thanks for your comment. Yes, luck has a lot to do with getting the shot, but I think luck gets better with the skill of knowing how to hunt for the good shot, too! The more we practice knowing how to see, the more good compositions we can make.

  4. Hello Orcatek Photograpahy, Thanks for the comment. I hope your students learn from my blog! Let me know how it goes, I’d love to get some feedback from your students. Also, please don’t hesitate to let me know what sort of topics you and your students want to see in Imagine That! Thanks much.

  5. Daniel de Culla June 17, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    I like yr Bolg. I enjoy Youand Yrs so much.
    Blessed Be¡

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