I struggled to answer when a friend asked me how to take better photographs. She was a beginner, and I didn’t think inundating her with concepts like ‘the decisive moment’ would help.
I thought about it and realised that a simple way to improve your photography is to look for three things: an interesting subject, an interesting background, and interesting light.
Interesting is subjective, but you know it when you see it. Good photographs usually have two of these elements, but great photographs have all three.
Here’s an example from my article ‘In Search of Old Japan,’ photographed among the cedar trees of Nagano.
In the first photo, I have an interesting background, but neither the subjects nor the light provoke much interest. In the second photo, I have a more interesting subject in the little boy playing a samurai. The light isn’t bad but the background is bland. In the third photo, the background, light, and subject finally line up to make an interesting photo.
Here’s one more, captured in the town of Tsumago. I passed by this scene in the afternoon, and knew it would make an interesting background. But the light was flat so I decided to revisit later in the evening. The light was more interesting at sunset, but it’s just light and background. I was missing an interesting subject. I tried to stand in as the subject, but something was missing.
By chance, an old woman with a bright red umbrella walked by. Ah, a dash of colour was what the shot needed! Now it has an interesting background, interesting light, and an interesting subject.
The elements that make an interesting photo can be broken down further. For example, you can consider interesting foregrounds as well as backgrounds. Get too complicated, however, and the usefulness of the model breaks down.
Like the rule of thirds, I use these three elements as a thinking model to have in my toolkit. What’s useful is not the truth of the model, but how it can help you take more interesting photographs. When a shot isn’t working, I can ask myself which element is missing — is it an interesting subject, an interesting background, or interesting light? And then go hunting for it.