5 Important Components of a Powerful Image

5 Important Components of a Powerful Image

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A Contribution by Mitchell Kanashkevich – author of 3 dPS eBooks on the topics of Natural Light, Travel Photography and Colour.

Quite often people have asked me: “What are the components of a powerful image?” I gave the question a lot of thought and decided that there’s so much in it that a whole eBook could be written on the topic, which is exactly what I did, with lots of practical examples to illustrate the points. This post is something of a sneak peak and an overview of some of the most important components that make up a powerful image.

1. Subject

Woman smoker

Most would agree that a powerful photograph needs a subject that resonates with us for some reason. The kind of thing that makes us say “Wow!” or “I want to know more!” or “Isn’t that beautiful!”.

This woman’s wrinkled face, full of character and stories is one example of a strong or special subject that resonates with the viewer.

Segovia Aquaduct

The beautiful aqueduct in Segovia, Spain is a completely different, yet also powerful example.

I’m not saying that an obviously special subject is an absolute must to make a powerful photograph. We can photograph more subtle things that might not usually stand out in everyday life and make them look amazing in photographs. It’s also true that a special subject alone doesn’t make a powerful image. I am however going to put things in perspective. A special, captivating subject is definitely a good start. Ultimately, even a badly executed photograph of that special subject will, to at least some extent interest the viewer, while a masterfully executed image of something that nobody finds interesting might not do the same.

2. Strong Composition

What makes a strong composition? It’s not necessarily a framing which strictly follows the rule of thirds, or any other of the usual rules for that matter. The rules help, but they’re a means to a bigger aim, which is to make it clear what the image is about–what you are trying to communicate. Before anything else it is important that everything that does’t matter to what you’re trying to communicate is framed out, then we can think about how to position all that does matter within the frame for maximum impact. This is where the rule of thirds, use of geometry and all the other compositional theories come in.

Pilgrim Feet

The image above is a good example of framing out everything that doesn’t add to the story. The story is about a pilgrim’s physical sacrifice to make the journey to the sacred town of Lalibela, Ethiopia.These are feet that have walked a lot of miles. To communicate effectively, a minimalist approach was the best one, I got in very close to the feet with a long zoom lens and framed absolutely everything else out. Imagine if I had something else in the image, we’d be distracted from the main story and as a result the impact wouldn’t be the same.

Desert Geometry

This image is about the beauty of the geometry in the landscape. Again, to make it abundantly clear that this is what I’m trying to communicate, I composed the photograph in such a way that the curves and triangles dominate the frame. Everything that doesn’t say geometry or that breaks up the rhythm is excluded. The curvy lines lead the eye around and through the photograph and that’s what makes the composition work.

And so, all in all a strong composition is one that makes it clear what it is you, the photographer are trying to communicate. No matter whether the subject is a pilgrim’s worn out feet, or curvy sand dunes.

3. Moment

Granma and Child

Capturing a moment can mean a few things – capturing an expression (a smile for example), or the wind blowing and moving the trees, or it can be a tender moment, like the one between the grandmother and her grandaughter in in the photo above.

Stork Building a Nest

A moment can be that of an action frozen in time, like this stork bringing a twig to build a nest.

Beautiful Seaside

Of course a moment can also be an instance during the day, for example an instance during the golden hour, when the light from the setting or rising sun makes everything look warm, vivid and generally more beautiful. What makes the photograph above powerful is the fact that I captured it at that moment. The landscape looks beautiful and lively. The same photo at a different moment could produce a much lesser result.

To conclude on this point, capturing a moment which is somehow special or different from what most of us consider mundane definitely contributes to the creation of a powerful image.

4. Light

Light needs a further, more detailed mention in this post. It can be crucial to creating a powerful image. Light is capable of creating a strong sense of mood, it can add to the story and, it can even become a subject in its own right, which often leads to dramatic, powerful images.

Ethiopian Kitchen

This image of Ethiopian women cooking in a traditional kitchen is a good example of light adding a strong sense of mood to the photograph. It also adds to the story by accentuating the smoky conditions in the kitchen. The image would be decent without the light beam, but with it, the photograph goes to another level, where we not only see, but feel what we see to an extent.

Moroccan Landscape

In this landscape from Morocco you could say that the trees and the hills in the background are the subject, but, the light and its’ effect is equally prominent, hence, this is an example of light actually becoming a subject in its own right. An image of the trees and the hills in a different lighting scenario would not have nearly the same impact as it does when the light is so distinct and prominent that it becomes a subject itself.

Editors Note: for a comprehensive exploration of the topic of light check out Mitchell’s best selling eBook on Natural Light.

5. Emotional Impact

Emotional impact is probably the main factor that makes an image powerful, but, it isn’t something that’s always obviously tangible. It’s sometimes hard to pin-point exactly what causes the emotional impact. It can be that the subject captures you, or that the light really sets a strong mood, or, that the moment captured is fascinating, maybe even rare. Of course, it can be a combination of all the factors I’ve mentioned here and this makes for truly powerful imagery.

You can learn more about making Powerful photographs with Mitchell’s new eBook “Powerful Imagery” released through Eyevoyage.

Mitchell is a travel/documentary photographer. He has an online project called Eyevoyage – a site for anyone interested in travel photography and improving their travel photos. He’s also the author behind 3 best selling dPS eBooks on Natural Light, Travel Photography and Colour.

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  • Here is another example of a photo where lighting was key – taking this photo later in the day would have lead to a flat uninspired photo

    https://twitter.com/lawsonphoto99/status/333246247676833794/photo/1

  • Great tips! People always think having the best gear will create the best photos, but they forget how important composition, lighting and timing are.

    http://500px.com/photo/41513636?from=popular

  • Inspiring Tips.
    I think if a photo has a strong emotional impact, even without proper lighting and composition, it would still be as interesting as properly set-up photographs. Although composition and lighting adds up to the drama or mood of a scene or an image.

  • Most of my photos are all about Moment and Subject & Emotional Impact. I need to spend more time on adding geometry. I’ve always added good composition by cropping but need to increase my compositional skills when actually taking the photo.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • james

    I’m sorry, but I find this one a bit too shallow. Everything is a bit cliché and about the obvious.

  • Very inspiring and another point of view! Tkx!

    Some of my image

    https://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • G.Allan Carver

    I enjoyed the point about the emotional impact. That is what “sells” a photo.

  • Geoff

    Some great images here. Many thanks Mitchell.
    One thing I’d like to comment on is the ‘model village’ look that seems to be all the rage at the moment. I think you know what I mean; where people look like plastic toys. The aquaduct photo above has some of these qualities. You feel like you’re a giant – enormous shoes just out of frame – bending down and looking at the reduced-scale, fuzzy focus, scene from a pigeons point of view.
    When used well (and sparsely) it can be an interesting approach, but it can quickly gain the ‘flared-trousers’ syndrome where in 10 years time it looks horribly old fashioned (So 2010-ish! we’ll all surmise).

  • “Light” is first. You can’t make a “great” shot in “good” light. “Great” has different meanings at different times but the light has to be “great” for the shot at hand or the photo won’t be.

  • kartikjayaraman

    Great article. IMHO the “moment” takes the cake when it comes to a great photograph:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/djkj/4356048231

  • SimSima

    thats very inspiring *.*

  • Asdrubale88

    IMHO not.

    For example, the composition in your shot, doesn’t let the viewer clearly see the subject, because it’s covered by the bird on the left.

    So, the moment is just an ingredient. Like Chocolate for a cake, but you probably will need eggs (good quality eggs! 😉 )

    Just to point out why your argument was too “absolute” for my tastes.

  • Cydnie M

    All of the above are helpful and ring true to me. Looking through the internet and especially DPS and Nat Geo, the ones that leave an impression are those which I would not have the opportunity to take myself. Also the surprise element, (like the first photo being a woman!). And for those opportunities that I could capture, I get ideas and learn how the shot would best be executed. We can learn from others’ experience so easily now and it makes photography more exciting.

  • SKDRSL

    Thank you for tip no. 3 and 15. I will try this at midnight. Happy New Year DPS!

  • Coconut

    I plan to have my junior high photo students read this! This is something they can grasp and walk outside and shoot with.

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  • Nice article! I like it!

Some Older Comments

  • John August 6, 2013 07:34 am

    "Light" is first. You can't make a "great" shot in "good" light. "Great" has different meanings at different times but the light has to be "great" for the shot at hand or the photo won't be.

  • Geoff August 2, 2013 07:20 pm

    Some great images here. Many thanks Mitchell.
    One thing I'd like to comment on is the 'model village' look that seems to be all the rage at the moment. I think you know what I mean; where people look like plastic toys. The aquaduct photo above has some of these qualities. You feel like you're a giant - enormous shoes just out of frame - bending down and looking at the reduced-scale, fuzzy focus, scene from a pigeons point of view.
    When used well (and sparsely) it can be an interesting approach, but it can quickly gain the 'flared-trousers' syndrome where in 10 years time it looks horribly old fashioned (So 2010-ish! we'll all surmise).

  • G.Allan Carver August 2, 2013 04:39 am

    I enjoyed the point about the emotional impact. That is what "sells" a photo.

  • marius2die4 July 30, 2013 05:30 am

    Very inspiring and another point of view! Tkx!

    Some of my image

    https://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • james July 30, 2013 05:14 am

    I'm sorry, but I find this one a bit too shallow. Everything is a bit cliché and about the obvious.

  • Brian Fuller July 30, 2013 02:44 am

    Most of my photos are all about Moment and Subject & Emotional Impact. I need to spend more time on adding geometry. I've always added good composition by cropping but need to increase my compositional skills when actually taking the photo.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Irol Trasmonte July 28, 2013 06:44 am

    Inspiring Tips.
    I think if a photo has a strong emotional impact, even without proper lighting and composition, it would still be as interesting as properly set-up photographs. Although composition and lighting adds up to the drama or mood of a scene or an image.

  • Elindaire July 27, 2013 08:22 pm

    Great tips! People always think having the best gear will create the best photos, but they forget how important composition, lighting and timing are.

    http://500px.com/photo/41513636?from=popular

  • Lawson July 27, 2013 02:11 pm

    Here is another example of a photo where lighting was key - taking this photo later in the day would have lead to a flat uninspired photo

    https://twitter.com/lawsonphoto99/status/333246247676833794/photo/1

  • Steve July 27, 2013 06:38 am

    The power of nature

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/African-birds/G0000XwUHH9qS0yY/I0000ygkP_vLy4AY/C0000bdEkyK_8Dzs

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