Recently I’ve really been asking myself one question over and over; why is it that I like the photos that I like? Both in the cases of looking at other people’s work or in my own stuff. After some thought, I’ve come up with the 3 main ingredients that make a street photo good, at least in my opinion. It may be a weird way to put it but bear with me; I have a theory that if one were to craft an algorithm that judges photos, they would like be using some combination of these 3 elements.
The 3 ingredients are: Aesthetics, Story and Feeling.
This should be fairly self-explanatory, but I think that the number one factor for a good photo should be that it’s actually visually pleasing to look at. Unlike the two other factors, the visual aspect is an absolutely necessary ingredient for a good photo. To me, if it doesn’t look good, I am simply not interested in the photo, no matter how technically correct it may otherwise be. Therefore, when crafting a photo, I always begin with the basics: the visuals. It seems that after a few years of shooting, it has become more automatic over time – after you get a sense for the basics of composition and color science and know all the usual tricks in the book, you almost automatically implement the available elements into a potential photo while out shooting. So although I’m nowhere near perfect yet, I’ve noticed that the more I practice, the more brainpower I can free up to other tasks and the visuals kind of take care of themselves. All that comes with experience and practice.
At the same time, if looks are the only thing you care about, things get shallow quickly – whether it’s in photography or in your dating life. Personally I got tired of landscape photography after about 1,5 years of focusing on it, because I found street photography much richer and more dynamic in terms of possibilities of adding additional ingredients to my work. Not to say all landscape photography is shallow – there are definitely some greats that add a lot of meaning and especially feeling to their landscape work – one such example is this Instagram account I discovered recently: @atmospherics.
As a sidenote, another reason I got fairly tired of landscapes was that they were so reliant on weather. But ironically there’s no escaping from it, just instead of great sunsets I now wait for rain, mist and snow for optimal photos.
A photograph says more than a thousand words – except when it doesn’t. Too often a photograph doesn’t say anything at all other than “look how good this thing looks”. But what I believe separates a lot of the great photographers from the rest of them is their ability to tell stories with their photographs.
Stories happen all around us all the time. The key is to develop a habit of starting to look for them. Sometimes it takes more patience and sometimes you get lucky. But the higher you score on “visuals” and the more interesting the story inside of your photograph is, the better your photo will perform in front of our hypothetical AI photo judging algorithm – or humans for that matter.
I only figured out the whole “importance of story” thing last year, so my experience in creating stories is still very limited. But I can tell you this: storytelling is definitely a skill that you get better at over time, you just have to consciously start looking for them in order to get more consistent at catching them in your photos. What helps is patience – once you’ve found a particularly delicious composition that produces great visuals, stick around just a bit longer and wait for something more interesting to happen. Pay attention to people and try to anticipate interactions that are about to take place, and make sure you’re standing in the right spot ready to take the shot once they do happen. And stop shooting people only in their backs – a habit that I have to remind myself to break every time before I head out to shoot.
Not all photos necessarily have to have a storytelling element for them to be considered good. If a photo can instill a strong feeling in the viewer, it can substitute for a story. Or another way of thinking about it would be that the feeling is the story.
I’ve set a goal for myself that this year, that in addition to video work, I will try to focus on creating photos that really focus on a certain type of feeling. Feeling is a tricky thing to break down, or at least I haven’t been able to do it yet to the extent that I’ve been able to analyze aesthetics or stories. For me personally, I love photos with a somewhat depressing, dark vibe to them, such as the work of one of my favorite photographers, @visualmemories_ on Instagram. Staring at her work is actually what lead me to this conclusion initially, that instilling feeling can be an ingredient that really sets a great photographer apart.
My own early attempts at creating photos with feeling can be seen here, in a photoseries that I’ve dubbed as “Peaceful Solitude”. To me, there is a certain feeling that might seem dark or lonely on the surface, but is actually a sense of freedom and peace that I really want to get better at photographing.
The Perfect Photograph
So then would a perfect photo be one that scored 100/100 on all 3 factors, visuals, story and feeling? On the surface, that might seem like an obvious yes – but it might not actually be that simple, because perhaps a photo like that would have too many things going on and therefore be too busy to be considered perfect! It’s all somewhat subjective in the end. But what I am much more sure about is that if you wish to become a photographer that stands out, you must first become very good at visuals, and after that, get very good at either adding a story or feeling into your photos. If you get 2/3 down consistently, chances are you will be very successful.
In future posts, I will be going more in-depth into these 3 ingredients. If you’d like to get notified of new posts, sing up to my email list below! As a bonus, you’ll also receive my Lightroom presets for free.
Please let me know what you think and I really mean that! Part of the reason I’ve been writing these somewhat longer theoretical articles recently is because I’ve found that talking about these concepts that would otherwise be left in my head, and putting them into words really helps me personally to develop my own ideas. Having these in-depth conversations and nerding out with some of you guys has been very interesting and helpful. I’m not only doing it to share or to get 3 cents of ad revenue per 100 people, but because it helps me improve and reflect as well. So please share your thoughts! Even better if you do it below on the comments, just because then I can also keep it as an additional piece of content on the site that will hopefully compliment the main article.