They say that good design is invisible, and that design really only becomes apparent when it’s done poorly. And while I wholeheartedly agree with this, I’m pretty sure that any designer would agree that there is something to be said for truly compelling design—design that simply captures you and leaves you trying to determine what about its design is making your mind spin. What is the je ne sais quoi that drives it? Good design might be invisible, but great design speaks volumes.
I think about this especially when it comes to photography. A good photo will feel balanced and pleasing to the eye. A great and compelling one has this plus something extra. So. Without further ado, here are a few key characteristics that I think can push a photo from pleasant to compelling.
I don’t just mean that the subject is looking at the camera here. I’m talking about those photos where the eyes are in perfect focus, and the subject of the photo is almost gazing out of the confines of the photo and into your soul. Think of National Geographic’s “Afghan Girl” photo here. If you want to make a portrait-style photo particularly attention grabbing, make sure that the subject is looking directly into the camera and that eyes are in perfect focus as you snap your shot.
When trying to capture a moment, it’s easy to jump to the traditional ways you’re used to seeing that moment captured. We’ve all seen a million photos of the President giving a speech, for example, taken from somewhere in front of the podium and shot straight on. A more compelling shot will capture this moment from a unique perspective. The photo might be taken from below, just in front of the podium, giving the President a more dominating aura. Or it might focus on a glass sitting next to the microphone, which happens to showcase a perfect reflection of the President speaking. Fight the common-sense approach to capturing moments and instead look to shoot from a unique perspective—be it by using a reflection, a different angle, a different focal length, an unusual object as your frame, etc.
If you find yourself in a scene that showcases interesting lighting, take advantage of it. Maybe the light coming in through the blinds creates “light lines” on your portrait subject’s face. Perhaps the sunlight coming down through the leaves of a tree creates a “spotlight” on your subject. Or maybe your light is passing through a translucent object, creating a “spectrum” of light. Look for opportunities to take advantage of unique lighting, or create those opportunities by playing around with your flash.
Attention to detail
A compelling photo could also draw focus onto an interesting detail that most would overlook. It might, for example, capture the dust that springs from an old book’s pages upon snapping the book shut. Or it might focus in on the reflection of the sunset in a person’s sunglasses. The more you practice photography, the more you’ll develop that “photographer’s eye” that takes notice of those small details.
The right moment
And finally, some of the best photos are simply taken at the perfect moment. Just as an eagle is catching a fish at the surface of the water. Right when a home run baseball is approaching the camera. Or just as a cat happens to be swatting at the camera lens. Just remember here that many of the best, most compelling pictures aren’t planned. So rather than debating whether or not a shot is going to be “artsy” enough, just go ahead and take a shot.