Join Natalie Fobes for an in-depth discussion in this video What makes an effective photograph?, part of The Elements of Effective Photographs.
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What makes an effective photograph? For me, a successful photograph is one where you achieve your intent in a thoughtful skilled way. These photographs combine intelligent light and motion, skilled composition and color, and ideally a message that educates or moves the viewer. Not all photographs live up to this standard and yet they can be effective too-- and I am talking about photos I call happy snaps. By that, I mean the quick photographs we take of family and friends and events that we want to remember.
In fact, these photographs are downright priceless, but when you show them to other people, that's a different story. When was the last time you really enjoyed looking at someone else's vacation snapshots? It comes down to the decisions you make before, during, and after the shoot. Our cameras give us lots of technical choices: what exposure, what ISO, what shooting mode, and what lens? And then there are the creative choices. Where is the best vantage point? How will you compose that shot or pose your subject? Will you try to capture peak action or the decisive moment? How much depth of field do you want? Will you try to add special effects in post? And if so, what? As a photographer trying to create photographs that really work, your job is to answer them.
Let me show you what I mean with one of my recent assignments. Riley is a very talented young musician who needed professional portraits for promotion. He plays in symphony halls as well as jazz clubs, so the photographs had to work for both. He needed two kinds of photos: a standard headshot and ones more like a CD cover. The message we wanted the photographs to send was that Riley is sophisticated, cool, incredibly talented, and artistic.
I did the headshot series first, because most people are more comfortable posing for these and I wanted to get it out of the way before we went to the more creative stuff. I shot it in my garage with a concrete wall as a backdrop. I opened my garage door to create a soft sidelight that wrapped around his features. I set the camera in the manual mode, so I could have maximum control. My focal length was 105 and the aperture was f/4.
This combination of telephoto lens and wide aperture threw the background out of focus. I asked Riley to dip one shoulder forward to create that nice diagonal line through the composition. Then we worked with his expressions and his head positions. This last shot is the winner. It is the moment when it all came together. His eyes, expression, the turn of his head, the lighting, the composition, and the selective focus make it the most effective photograph of this series.
The portrait works well in color, in black and white, in sepia, or in selenium tone. Next, I wanted to create a feeling of him being on stage. Still in the garage, but now with the door closed, I set up a single strobe to replicate a stage spotlight. I wanted the light to give hard shadows, and I wanted those shadows to be on the wall. I wasn't sure at the beginning what pose I would like the most, so I took lots of photographs with a lot of variations.
These photographs are my notes. They are like the notes for a reporter. I keep working the situation by photographing until I can clearly see the best photo. Many of these work well, but this one is the one that I think is the most effective. The message of the light is late night and jazzy. The greater depth of field shows the detail in the concrete. Even though all of the horn isn't visible, there is enough that you know he is a trumpet player.
His expression is thoughtful. He raised his arm and it made it look like he was thinking. And by tilting the camera, the composition comes together. This last shot was taken outside on a cloudy day. I wanted to emphasize Riley's face while still including the horn. I used 180 at 2.8 to give me a very shallow depth of field. The focus is on Riley's eyes and the horn and vegetation is out.
I pushed Riley way over to the side of the frame. Now, to keep this from being awkward, I positioned the horn on an angle so that the line brings your eye right back to Riley. It holds the composition together. And check out how beautiful the texture of the background is. This is called bokeh, and we'll get into that later in the course. The photograph works fine in color, but in this case, it's much more effective in black and white. The background isn't distracting, so your eye goes right back to Riley's.
Riley and I were both very happy with the photographs. So what sets these photos apart from happy snaps? Planning and forethought-- before I press the shutter I thought about each photo and the message I wanted it to convey. After that, I chose the lens and the aperture that would give me the right depth of field. I created my lighting, and played with the composition and pose to make sure I achieved the message.
So yes, you are right; that's a lot to think about! But with practice and experience, this kind of thought becomes second nature.
The course explores compositional elements that guide a viewer's eye, including the rule of thirds; leading lines, patterns, and curves; and depth of field. Natalie then details the roles of color and light in a photo. She shows how to work with the natural light in a room or outdoor location, and how to enhance it using reflectors, newspapers, a T-shirt, or whatever might be handy. She also shows some simple indoor lighting setups that can replicate the look of natural light.
The course continues with a look at movement and how a photographer can convey a sense of motion by blurring part of the image or freezing a fast-moving subject. Next, Natalie explores the concepts of peak action and the decisive moment—those split seconds that capture the essence or emotion of a subject or scene. The course wraps up with a discussion of the roles of planning and research in creating effective photos.