How do you take great photos?


portrait the perfect moment

Great light, Composition and Moment Here’s my cheat sheet.

My formula for great photos is great: subject, light, composition and moment.
1-Find a great subject. That’s harder than you might think. There’s a term we professional photographers have, “subject failure”. You can’t say this to clients. Not all subjects are winners. Finding a great subject is half the battle.
2-You need light. Photographs are made out of light. Soft light, end of day light, light in the shade, golden light, muted light, the possibilities are endless. The safest and easiest rule is not to shoot someone in direct light in the middle of the day. Put them in the shade where you have low contrast that gives soft, gentle light.
3-Frame it well. You are God, the creator, and this creation falls on you. Why did you have that pole sticking out of her ear? What? You didn’t see it?! Slow down, look, think, take control, make it happen. Are you really in that much of a rush to take that picture? Usually not. You have a subject and you have a background. How do they look together?
4-The Moment: Clicking a photo is a commitment to a moment. You are saying, I want this point in time. You are getting married to that moment. This is unique to photography among all the visual mediums of art. We capture the light reflecting off of something; choosing a moment in the continuum of time when we push the button. There’s an art to timing. Awareness of what’s happening, as you frame a subject, picking that magic moment of perfection isn’t a haphazard thing that just happens by mistake. Kodak sold us on the idea of point and shoot. It’s easy; we do it all for you! It wasn’t true then and it’s not true now.
winged feathered man showing great light composition moment

Find a Great Subject

Shoot what you love. What fascinates you? It could be anything: children, your garden, nature, faces, places, rundown buildings….. What subject matter can you bring your passion and heart to? See what other photographers are doing with your subject. Are they doing something wonderful with color, or light, or an amazing composition? Not that you want to copy their work, but allow it to inspire you. You can take an element of how they shoot and use it in your work. So maybe they always shoot at Magic Hour when the light is very low contrast and the colors are subtle and vibrant. Or maybe there’s something about how they frame their subject that’s intriguing. It’s standing on the shoulders of those who came before us that allows us to create something better.
Vietnamese school girls in diffused light

You Need Light

Photography is a light-capturing medium. Cameras are light-capturing devices. Light can be a wonderful component of your photography. The study of light is a vast topic. Learning the five qualities of light is a great starting place. Learn how to see light, how it defines, shapes, and colors your subject. This can be a powerful tool to draw upon in the images you make. Not all photographers are into light. Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most important photographers in the history of photography, famously said, “I don’t care about light. I never think about it.” Perhaps that’s true, but if you look at his pictures, the light he uses doesn’t ruin his shots. So he knew very well what nice light was and his work shows that.
To illustrate, one of the biggest points is hard light verses soft light. Direct mid-day sunlight creates hard, dark shadows and harsh, shiny spots called specular highlights. It’s terrible for a face. To me it feels stark, cold and mean. Not bad perhaps, if you have a subject that you want to feel stark and contrasty. Surely, many photographers love the hard, high-contrast light, with it’s deep shadow and screaming highlights.
Here’s an assignment: Take someone out at 12-noon and shoot them in the direct sun, and then in the shade. I think you’ll see the difference. When you shoot inside, go to a window and use that soft diffused light to shoot portraits, or a still life. At the end of the day, the light is low to the horizon and often a warmer color. This can be very nice for a portrait. When you are shooting with available light, different times of day will give very different looks to your lighting.
magic hour portraiture

Frame It Well

How you frame your subject is a very important component of how you take great photos. Composition is an unavoidable part of photography. How you organize the content of your frame matter big time. What do you want in? What do you want out? It’s all about organizing “what” in your view finder. Are you paying attention? Once I took a shot of a bride with the men’s room sign behind her. Oops. Another time, I took a family portrait and somehow managed not to notice that I’d perfectly lined moose antlers behind Dad’s head! The kids thought it was pretty funny, however Dad didn’t laugh. So live and learn; I never made those mistakes twice. There’s a big dose of common sense to this. You have a subject and they are in an environment. Do they make sense together? Does the background add to your shot? Is the background interesting or beautiful? Does it have great colors or shapes? This is some of the logic of good composition.
street the moment

The Moment

Once you have found your great subject, put them in great light and framed them well, only now are you ready to take the picture. Timing is everything.
The Decisive Moment is a term associated with Henri Cartier-Bresson. He is an historic figure in photography and acknowledged for the birth of street photography. He brought to photography this concept of the perfect moment, when all the elements of your image align to perfection. Bresson’s work often has these uncanny, seemingly impossible moments that suggest a compelling story. You’ll see see great light, composition and moment in all of his pictures. He has great subjects; the light is soft, usually; his compositions are geometrically perfect and his moments are miraculous.
So when you have a living, moving subject, like people, timing is critical and you need to bring a focused awareness to your subject’s body language, facial expression and how they fit into the background. It’s a tall order. Take a lot of shots. Work it, baby. If you have a static subject, like a building or landscape, then you don’t have a moment so much. Your timing element is the time of day when the light is great on your subject. At times like this, you might have a fast-moving weather event that could give a timing component to your motionless subject.
The study of how to get great light, composition and the moment is endless, and central to how you take a great photo. I’ll be giving some easily digestible ideas on these topics throughout the site as time goes on. I’m also teaching an in-depth class on this through Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, or you can schedule directly with me. Contact me at
reflection boy store window