Many photographers get fixated on just the subject and forget about all the other elements that make up a great photo. The result is generally just a snapshot, not an image that really “sings”. Strive for more!
There is no right answer to what makes a great image, but I usually give this simple formula to give new photographers a bit of guidance and encourage them to work harder:
SUBJECT + COMPOSITION + LIGHT + SOMETHING EXTRA = GREAT IMAGE
To show how this works, let’s take the image above of a western terrestrial garter snake from Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico as our “subject”. Here is the first shot I took as I approached it in the road.
It is an ok image but not particularly compelling. As it came closer, I looked for a better composition, such as a nice “s-curve” of the snake’s body and got the image below.
Ouch. That was worse. Not enough of the body is showing and too much dead space. But keep working it, right?
I got myself down to the ground and he kept coming toward me. He uncoiled into a nice s-curve leading line, and I shot it fairly wide open to let his body fade into softness while keeping his eye sharp. Much better, as you can see below.
Now that I had a nice shot, should I stop shooting? Oh hell no!
Go back to the formula I gave above. I now had an interesting subject, a good composition, and nice, soft light. But what about that critical “something extra”? Did I have that yet? Nope.
The “something extra” can be many things, and I will continue to talk about that, but in this case, I knew that that snake would eventually flick his red tongue at the air (snake gonna do what snake gonna do). So for me, that tongue flick would add a little element of action, motion, behavior and color and that was the “something extra” I wanted.
So I waited, poised to fire off as many frame as possible when the flick came. It took about two minutes, but it did finally come. One of my images showed the tongue at full extension (below).
This is often called “the decisive moment” after French photographer Henry Cartier Bresson (look him up!). I just call it my “something extra”, that turns a decent image into something better. Here is a GIF of the last few seconds of this sequence.
Check out the little ant crawling around the snake’s head too! As he crawled closer, I eventually got this version in a vertical composition, again with the tongue out. The sun came out a bit then, and added a bit of extra warmth, too.