What Makes a Great Photo?

eric kim street photography hanoi ricoh gr ii-0003646
Hanoi, 2017

Dear friend,

A simple question — what makes a great photo?

For me, it is three things:

  1. Composition
  2. Emotion
  3. Soul

1. Composition

eric kim street photography hanoi ricoh gr ii-0003646
Hanoi, 2017

To have a good composition is to make clear what you’re trying to photograph. To make it clear and apparent to the viewer what the main subject of your frame is.

Even with the blur applied, you can still see the separation of the man’s head from the background

A good composition is often simple, and clear. To make a simple composition is actually a lot more complicated than it seems. Because you need to cut away the superfluous. You need to cut away the fat.

When I’m making photos, I try to make my photos as simple as possible. I’m always focusing on the edges of my frame, making sure there is no clutter on the edges.

0-hanoi lake eric kim street photography contact sheet

One good technique you can start off with today is learning “Figure to Ground” — a technique where you separate your subject (figure) from the background (ground).

To learn more, check out my photography composition articles >

2. Emotion

Laughing Ladies / NYC + Hanoi

A photograph without emotion is dead.

I don’t care how good the composition is — if it doesn’t have soul, it won’t resonate and stick with me.

To capture emotion in your photos, you want to have hand-gestures, body language, eye contact, ambiance (in terms of the light in your photograph), and the aesthetics (how you post-process your photos).

One way to capture more emotion in your photos is this: photograph laughter, like how I got my grandma to laugh:

Learn more: How to photograph emotions >

3. Soul

eric cindy wedding
The first time Cindy tried on her wedding dress / Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject

The last and most difficult thing to photograph is soul.

You need to insert your soul into your photos. Rather than thinking about ‘depth of field’ in photography, think of ‘depth of soul.’

To put your soul into your photos, make sure you are the only one who could have photographed that scene.

If you take a photo of the Taj Mahal — millions of tourists can photograph it. But can you photograph death of your loved ones? Can you make personal photos of your loved ones? Can you photograph self-portraits of yourself?

For me, the most soulful photos I have shot are of Cindy– the love of my life in ‘The Cindy Project.’ I photograph each day as if it will be my last with her. I photograph her as if I will die tonight, or if she will die tomorrow. I want this to be my legacy — to show that photographing your loved ones is the most important thing, in order to never waste a single second with them.

That means you can also be a good photographer regardless of your life situation, even if you are traveling with your family — document your precious time with your loved ones, rather than just traveling to make good photos of strangers.

Learn more: Soul Photography >


eric kim photography hanoi-0007194
Hanoi, 2017 #cindyproject

The last takeaway point: learn how to make photos, not to just take photos.

To make a photograph is creative. It is open. Collaborative, and involves your loved ones.

To take a photograph is forceful, aggressive, and feels like stealing.

Make photos; don’t take photos.



Learn more: Photography 101 >