The Elements of Photography

I was consumed by the technical aspects of photography during the early days of my career in photography. Getting a sharp image was all that I had in mind. “Which shutter speed should I use to capture birds in flight? Which ISO will give me images with less noise? What aperture will give me a creamy background with a sharp subject? What are the recommended auto-focus settings?”. These cliché questions were the only ones running through my mind most of the time.

Little did I know then that the art of photography was much more than sharp subjects and creamy backgrounds. I don’t mean to say sharpness is insignificant. Obviously, no one would take a second look at a blurry picture. But good photography goes way beyond mere sharpness. In this article titled, “Elements of Photography”, I shall discuss the four elements that would distinguish a good photograph from a casual click.

Table of Contents

Light and Shadow

Light is obviously the most important element in any photograph because of the basic fact that photography itself is about recording light. As a beginner, I often used to wonder why my sharp image isn’t as eye-catching as I supposed it should be. It was only later that I realized that even the sharpest of the pictures when shot with bad light end up becoming mediocre ones. The human eye registers only the frequencies of light reflected all around, irrespective of the subject that one is trying to capture.

Photographed during close to ideal light
NIKON D7000 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1/320, f/8.0

The above picture was photographed at about 9 AM, during the month of September. Had I photographed the same image under harsh light (either at mid-day or during summer months), the picture would not have had the same visual impact.

The quality of light that is reflected from the subject is almost as important as the subject itself. Textural details and contrast are directly proportional to the quality of light that illuminates a subject. For any subject under the sun, every hour would produce a different photograph. This is one of the reasons why some photographers are able to capture a stunning original picture out of the most beaten-up photo-spots. Soft light accentuates the highlights and shadows, thereby contributing to the overall mood of the picture.

Warm early morning and late evening ambient light brings out best texture and details in a photograph
Warm early morning and late evening ambient light brings out the best texture and contrast in a photograph

Shadows

If light makes an image, shadows enhance it. Shadows push the highlights pop-out, eventually bringing about depth in a picture. In the picture above, it is the dark clouds and reflections that give the trees depth.

Most often shadows are confused with underexposure. A picture with a lot of shadows might not necessarily be a dull picture. When used properly, shadows add to the feel of an image, provided the highlights are in place. A number of us often make the mistake of trying to extract details from almost every pixel. It should be understood that we are only compromising the overall contrast of an image by making the shadows brighter. The balance between highlights and shadows is what gives life to an image.

Balanced highlights and shadows give life to an image
Balanced highlights and shadows give life to an image

Backlit Scenes

The source of illumination (the Sun) was behind me in all of the above images. Does that mean shooting against the sun always yields bad images? The answer is NO. Backlit images bring out a different mood. In fact, sometimes backlit shots end up being more lively than the ones with the sun behind the photographer. Pictures shot against the sun might not bring out the sort of contrast as seen in the above images. However, they bring out soothing warm tones in the overall image. Still, one must be careful when dealing with backlit subjects, as they are trickier.

Backlit scenes throw harsh light earlier when compared to directly bounced light. As a result, the window to shoot backlit images becomes narrower. Photographing against the light inherently puts us between extreme highlights and shadows. Care should be taken not to blow out the highlights. In most cases, it is best to avoid the source of light in the frame unless it is deliberately desired.

Backlit during the Golden hour
Backlit during the Golden hour
Silhouettes are amazing examples of backlit images
Silhouettes are amazing examples of backlit images

Factors Affecting the Quality of Light

Sometimes, we get amazing light at the least expected hour of the day. For example, the image below was shot at about 12 noon. Many of us would not pull out our camera during mid-day as we are all aware that mid-day light throws harsh highlights and shadows. However, if you want blue tones to dominate your frame, mid-day is pretty much the best time.

Sunlight has to pass through substantially longer distances through the Earth’s atmosphere during the early hours of the day. The increased distance scatters most of the blue frequencies, leaving behind the warmer tones.

Photographed during mid-day
Photographed during mid-day

Nevertheless, good light during mid-day is uncommon. The above image was shot at an altitude of about 15,000 ft. Light tends to get softer and devoid of heat haze when the altitude increases. Light also tends to be the harshest around the equator and progressively gets softer as we approach the poles.

In addition to the altitude, as one would notice in the picture above, I was standing at an elevation much higher than the lake. If we get an obtuse angle, while connecting the source of light, the camera, and the subject, we get smooth highlights and shadows. One should worry about harsh undesirable highlights and shadows when the angle is acute or about 90 degrees.

NIKON D750 @ 210mm, ISO 100, 1/400, f/5.6

For further reference on highlights and shadows, there is an in-depth article titled, Light and Shadows, by Rick Keller here on Photography Life.

Color and Tonality

Color is another predominant entity that sets the mood of a photograph. Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow can bring about a happy emotion whereas tones of blue bring about a cold or gloomy feel. In most cases, colors act as a defining factor of the picture itself.

Take a look at the picture below. It has the mountain saturated with golden hues set against a blue backdrop and a neutral white (moon) in between. Similar to luminosity, colors also bring contrast to an image. As we know, most of the light we see in the digital form is set in RGB (Red, Green, and Blue). Their counterparts are CMY (Cyan, Magenta & Yellow), respectively. Had the same picture been set against a red backdrop, it would not have had the color contrast as this one does.

Golden hues of the mountain set against a blue sky brings color contrast to the picture
Golden hues of the mountain set against a blue sky bring color contrast to the picture

Tones

Some of us consider all monochrome images to be black and white. All black and white photographs are monochromes, but not all monochromes are black & white images. Take a look at the picture below. Unlike the one above, this one does not display a definitive color contrast, instead it is made up of various tones of blue, making it a monochrome image.

DSC_2542
The image despite not being completely black and white is a monochrome that is predominantly made up of hues of blue

In the two pictures above, we could clearly see blue being used to bring out two entirely different emotions. Let us take another scenario. The oriental darter is a rather dull-colored bird except for the yellow bill. It is the green background that makes the subject stand out. Color contrast or the lack of it can be used in almost endless ways to bring about a specific feel to a photograph.

_DSC2502
The green backdrop makes the otherwise greyscale bird to stand out
Compare
The same subject with difference only in the color of the backdrops

As seen in the picture above, the same subject with almost similar bokeh and composition feels totally different when the background color is alone changed. The only major difference between the two images is that the one on the left has complementary color as the backdrop whereas the one on the right has a backdrop with similar tones as that of the subject.

Composition and Direction

Framing

From a broader perspective, pretty much everything in a photograph boils down to composition. Using light and color to our advantage is done predominantly through composition. Most of us know of all the guidelines like the rule of thirds, spirals, leading lines, etc. Here at Photography Life, we have tons of resources on all the guidelines.

A lot of us use the rule of thirds almost blindly as it comes embedded in the most modern camera live views. It is just not enough to know the above-mentioned guidelines and techniques. It always matters to choose the right one in the right context while taking a picture.

_DSC8355
NIKON D750 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 1/100, f/5.6

Take a look at the picture above. Contrast and depth are what I wished to convey in this photograph. Had I tried to fit this picture with the rule of thirds, I would have ended up pushing the valley to one of the sides. It would have negatively affected the sense of balance in the photograph.

Understanding the scene is more important than trying to fit it into one of the rules. Once you are clear with what you wish to convey, selecting a rule that fits your desire best will not be much of a hassle. But without a clear idea of what you wish to portray, guidelines like the rule of thirds will not help us the way we think they would.

Direction

Photography is about finding the most beautiful rectangular area in endless chaos. What to include and what not to in the frame makes or breaks a picture. Let us compare the two images below. The former one is a perfect reflection with nothing else in the frame. The latter has pebbles in the foreground and stars in the background to compliment the reflection in the center of the image. The former is all about geometric balance with the entire frame split into almost two identical vertical halves while the latter isn’t. It might fall into individual perspectives on which one is better, but the bottom line is, even though both the images appear to be similar, they have two different views to convey.

In the first image, the viewer’s eye is drawn first to the center which then is guided outwards. On the other hand, in the second image below, the eye moves into the frame below upwards. This is how a composition directs the viewer around the frame.

Simple mirror image with nothing else in the frame
Simple mirror image with nothing else in the frame
The pebbles and stars compliment the reflection around the center of the frame
The pebbles and stars compliment the reflection around the center of the frame complimenting the geometrically proportional center area of the image

The basic idea here is to hold the viewer’s attention as much as possible into the frame. As a photographer, we can either choose to guide the viewer’s attention around the frame or make it glue to one or a few points of interest inside the frame. Guidelines like the rule of thirds play a major part in arresting the viewer’s attention. But such guidelines can never be used as a foolproof approach blindly for all compositions. Blurry pixels around the intersection of thirds can easily make a viewer lose interest. It can be overruled efficiently if there is something overpowering it in the image.

Subject and Negative Space

Most of us are so pivoted into frame-filling images, especially with wildlife photography. In fact, reach is the primary reason why most wildlife photographers even think about 500+ mm lenses. It is obvious to get inclined to get as much data on the subject as possible. Textural details will grab the attention of anyone. But how long a viewer’s attention stays inside the picture depends more on the story-telling capacity of the image.

_DSC6567
Frame filling shot

The image above of a black buck is a tighter crop of the one below. The above image simply speaks of a leaping gazelle whereas the one below conveys a more detailed story of how high a black buck can leap. With modern DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras that leap over 50 MPs of data, it is possible to extract details like never before. Even though a sharp image with tons of details can make a viewer’s eye pop, it is the storytelling capacity of the image that keeps the viewer’s attention hooked into the image.

_DSC6567
This image conveys more details on how high a gazelle can leap

In most cases, negative space is almost as important as the subject itself. It conveys the vastness of the scene. A picture of only the subject in the frame with inadequate negative space often gets boring to a viewer. For example, it is a general practice to add more negative space in the line of sight of the subject.

_DSC0500
More negative space is used to the right as the line of sight of the subject is towards the right
Since the subject is looking almost straight into the camera, it is aligned to the center of the image.
_DSC9860
The green pine leaved background makes the laughing thrust stand out in the image

There is a general notion that negative space becomes prominent only in portrait and wildlife photography. In reality, the prominence of negative space is not constrained to wildlife and portraiture. Take another example of two different crops of the same image below.

DSC_9062
Viewer’s attention hovers more over the architecture
DSC_9062
This square crop conveys a message that the landscape and architecture is part of a bigger scene

Conclusion

In this article, I have pinned down the basic elements of the artistic aspects of photography that I wish I knew as a beginner. A technically sound photo might not end up being a great photograph if it lacks artistic elements. The scope of this article is to give an introduction to the basics of the four elements of photography: light, color, composition, and subject. If you have any questions or if you think I have missed out on anything, please let me know in the comments section below. I shall try to update the article or include it in future articles.