New To Photography:Understanding the elements that make up a photograph

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This page is a chapter in the book New To Photography Book.


The elements that allow the photographer to create a photo that is a ‘work of art’ rather than a ‘happy snap’ are:
  1. Subject
  2. Light
  3. Composition
  4. Camera Settings

For the photographer, these four elements all have to come together to get the photo you WANT. There is another element and that is emotion, which I will discuss further near the bottom of this article. Emotion is sometimes a hard element for the photographer, how do you put emotion into a landscape photo?

The goal of this page is to get you thinking about the above elements and learning to use them in your photography, all at once, to ensure your photos are the way you intended. Depending on the photography genre, your approach will vary, but the majority of the different approaches will be related to camera settings.

Let’s start investigating the four elements:


Remember that the goal of your shoot is to make your subject appear in the best way possible. Make sure your subject is clear of non primary distractions. A good photographer will spend much time and effort to acquire the most basic photography skills and techniques to provide the best shot. Once you have acquired these basics but essential skills, the subject of your photos will be up to you

Your goal is to make your subject the primary vision in your photo. You want the viewer to look at your subject, not the tree in the background, or the bit of rubbish on the ground in the lower left. Learn to slow down a little (just a couple of seconds) and scan the entire scene in the viewfinder before you press the shutter. If something is amiss, deal with it now!

Your subject should be in focus! Learn to use the focus points that your camera provides and focus on the very subject in your photo. For example: with people, animals, birds, and other creatures the focus point should be on the subject’s eyes.

All of this can be done in about 1-2 seconds (or faster) once you have gained a good understanding of the basics of your camera.


Light is the key! Photography is about capturing light. Try taking a photo in a completely black room. Light is the one thing that you need.

The trick with light is learning how to see it, and how it affects the results out of your camera. Landscapers have known for years that sunrise, sunset, dawn and dusk often provide the best light for landscape photography. Studio portrait photographers have lighting setups and know how to position them to flatter their subject.

Light is paramount! As you delve further into photography you will learn to ‘see’ good light. You will just instinctively know when the light is good, or not. Harsh bright light from say the middle of a summer’s day is a good example. How often do you squint in the midday sun if you are not wearing sunglasses (how can you focus on your subject’s eyes if they are wearing sunnies?). The midday light shining straight down from above creates harsh direct shadows. When the sun is near the horizon, the light is less intense and the angle means shadows can be placed behind your subject, not under their nose or chin.

So when out photographing, consider the light. If you need to, learn how to use flash to ‘fill’ in the shadows. Wedding photographers in particular, are generally very skilled at flash portraiture as weddings are often in the warmer months and the happy couple plan for a glorious day, so the wedding photographer uses flash to counter the effects of the harsh summer sun in the middle of the day. Light is the key!


Composition is very subjective, but at the same time there are some good guidelines that you can follow. Probably the most famous guideline in photography is the Rule of Thirds. Even though it is called a rule, remember that it is more a guideline than a rule. However, by grasping the rule of thirds and applying it to your photos, you can quickly and easily produce a photo that is composed to be visually pleasing.

The Rule of thirds works by creating imaginary lines across your photo (some cameras have a built in rule of thirds guide that is visible through the viewfinder, if you have this as a feature on your camera, turn it on and use it).

The basic premise is that you place important elements where the lines meet, or on the lines to create a visually dynamic photo. The rule of thirds is not a photography development, in fact, it was used extensively by the Masters.. of Art. Your Leonardo’s, Van Gogh’s and Raphael’s used the rule of thirds extensively in their Art.

There is a working example of the rule of thirds here :

Depending on your chosen genre, there are other guidelines that can come into effect that can guide you on your learning path to better photos. You do not have to spend weeks understanding the mathematics and science behind why these work, however knowing them and being able to apply them when you are taking photos can help you on your photographic path.

Here is an example of another guideline, this time being used on bird photography:

If you are really interested in the mathematics and science behind composition guidelines have a look at this link, it shows you the varying rules and how they apply : along with this site that links to various discussions on composition rules and guidelines :

[top]Camera Settings

Your camera settings are important, other areas of the New to Photography learning centre guides delve into each setting and what it does as an individual component of your camera. Learning them all separately initially, then starting to combine the adjustments for different camera features is how you become creative.


Emotion is the best aspect of a photo that cannot be set with a dial, or a time of day. Emotion is powerful and capturing a photo that garners a strong emotive response from the viewer is something that we all strive to do. You also have to consider that the emotional connection is personal. The emotional responses can be wildly different. Consider a model shoot, where the model is lying partial unclad on a bed with clothes torn. For some this is a ‘sexy’ pose, but for someone who had experience of a violent rape, the same photo could invoke a wholly differing set of emotions. Same can be said of a beautiful beach sunrise. A couple who got engaged on that very beach would have a strong emotional connection with your photo and it would be pleasant emotions. Whereas a family who had a child drown at the same beach, would view your photo with sadness and maybe some anger.

Capturing emotion is a wonderful goal, but remember that your viewer may have a whole set of emotions that are completely different to what you expected


Combined with the technical skills from the New to Photography learning guides, this thread is to cover those aspects that you cannot just dial up a setting for in your camera. Your photography will improve if you put all the differing components together. Good camera technique, an understanding of how your camera works and how each setting adjusts the end result of your photo, along with an understanding of how to focus on your subject, what light to shoot under and how to compose your shot, will all come together to allow you to create a work of art when you press the shutter button.

It takes time to understand them all and even more time to be able to put them in to practice all in one go. If it was easy, everyone would be a Master of Photography. Hard work lies ahead, but with assistance from Ausphotography, you can improve and become a very proficient photographer.
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