I’ve been a photographer for nearly three decades now. I’ve done all kinds of photographic work including photojournalism, weddings, portraits, stock photography, as well as commercial photography. I’ve had photographs published in numerous magazines and books, on billboards, used in advertisements, sold as fine art and so forth. With all the different types of photography I’ve done over the years I’ve sold nearly 200,000 photographs. I don’t share this information to brag but only to help you understand that I have a lot of experience with what makes a good photo.
In addition to doing a lot of photography I love to read photographic books, blogs, and magazines. I follow a selection of photographers and keep an eye on their work. I love to look at great photos and analyze what the photographer did right. I also like to critique photographs and pinpoint what could be done to make a photograph better.
With all of this knowledge and experience I’ve often been asked to teach others how they can create a good photograph. Rather than spending my time talking about the rules of composition or how to get the right exposure or the theories of great art I really try to keep things as simple as possible. I’ve come up with a three-word formula that can be used by any photographer to help them create awesome photographs. These words are: Isolate, Eliminate, and Accentuate. A short explanation about each of these words will help illustrate my formula.
One of the biggest problems most photographers have is that they really don’t know what it is they are taking a photograph of. In other words, something may catch their eye and they think it looks pretty or beautiful or amazing but they can’t really describe what it is that caught their eye in the first place.
When I am working with another photographer to help them understand this formula a little better and we’re talking about the Isolate portion, the question I ask them is: “What is the subject of your photograph?” Once the person can articulate for me what the subject of their photograph is I can then begin talking with them about how they could better isolate that subject to make it a better photo.
This leads to the Eliminate portion of the formula. Once we know what the subject is we can then work to eliminate everything that distracts from the subject.
To show someone how elimination works I do different crops of a photograph so that I can illustrate to the person how they can better display the subject. We also talk about perspective, and angles and lens selection and focus and so forth but only to show how these things can be used to eliminate distractions.
When we focus on the Accentuate part of the formula we’re really talking about the things that we can do to make the subject of the photograph look it’s very best. A lot of this can be done while the photograph is being created. Additionally, some can be done through post production such as in Lightroom or Photoshop by increasing or decreasing contrast, or working on saturation, or by burning or dodging the light.
Now that I’ve shared the formula with you, let’s look at some example photographs to illustrate how the formula works. In our first example I have the exact same photograph of the Capitol Building in Washington DC. The first is the raw photo. The second is the completed photo after applying the formula.
Now let’s apply the formula. Isolate: what is the subject of the photograph? It isn’t the dome. Rather, what caught my eye was the flag, because of the color. In contrast, the building was monochrome. Eliminate: a little bit of cropping eliminated the distracting portions of the sky at the top corners. I also straightened the photo a little. Accentuate: I desaturated the building so the only color in the photograph was the flag. I also bumped up the contrast and then burned down several portions of the image. The result, the viewer’s eye goes right to the flag, which is exactly what I want. Is it a perfect photo? Of course not. Is it a better photo? Absolutely!
The next example involves track photos. These are two different photos shot within minutes of each other at the Simplot Games.
Let’s apply the formula. Isolate: what is the subject of the photograph? To me, one word sums it up: speed. How to isolate speed? The answer for me was motion blur. Show the speed. Eliminate: The track and the signs and the runners waiting to run do not capture speed, so these are all eliminated. Accentuate: I really didn’t do much. A little more contrast, a white balance adjustment and a little saturation did the trick. To me, the second photograph is far stronger than the first.
The next example is basketball. Three photographs I took in succession show the process of the formula in action.
Isolate: The subject of the photo is basketball. The first photo is a snapshot. In the second photo (which to me is much better) I worked to isolate the subject by getting closer and closer to the basketball on the floor. Eliminate: In the final image, I got rid of the power plug below the backboard. Then, not only did I get closer but I also changed perspective by getting lower to the ground. However, notice that I kept the backboard and hoop in the photograph. Accentuate: In the final image I tilted the photo a little to give it some energy. I also boosted contrast and applied more than normal burning and dodging, because it felt right. In the end, after applying the formula, the final photo is much better than the first photo.
The final example for this article includes the night photos of trees and stars.
Let’s see how applying the formula helps. Isolate: The subject of these photographs is the stars. Eliminate: I wanted less sky and more stars. In other words, I wanted less empty space in the sky so I eliminated the blank sky and composed on an area of the sky that had more stars, which was the Milky Way. Accentuate: I used a longer exposure and a higher ISO to get more stars in the photograph. My goal was to fill the sky with stars. In post, I boosted contrast slightly to bring out even more stars. The final photograph is much stronger than the first.
There you are. You now have a simple formula that you can apply while you are creating your images, and later during post, that will immediately help you create better photographs. The more you apply the formula the more intuitive it becomes.
By the way, none of these photographs were taken with super special or expensive camera gear. You don’t need pro gear to create pro images! I used Nikon and Fujifilm cameras and lenses. I also only used an older version of Photoshop Elements in post because it does everything I need.
The bottom line is that if I can do it, I’m confident you can too! Let me know how applying this formula works for you.