Why Some Photos Work, And Some Don’t

by | Oct 13, 2023 | Impressive Places, Pic of the Month, Stories & Expeditions, Tips & Tricks | 1 comment

How good are you at composing photos? Can you make any subject look attractive? Are you able to make attractive photos in unattractive locations? Composition isn’t the only element of a good photo, but it certainly does play a significant role in the attractiveness of a photo!

Today, I thought it would be fun to open a random folder of photos on my computer, take a look at which ones I thought were good, ok, and bad, and then analyze the influence that composition might have had on my choice of which ones I liked!

So, let me open a folder of photos that I took from the side of the road while traveling through Tucson, Arizona, last year. My brother and I were driving along Interstate 19 through the city at golden hour. I really wanted to stop and take pictures since I could tell it was shaping up to be a really nice sunset! At Exit 92, still in the outskirts of the city, I saw my opportunity. We pulled off, I jumped out, grabbed my camera, and ran out to a long pedestrian bridge that just happened to be there. The sunset indeed was epic! But the location wasn’t ideal. Was I still able to get some good photos?

Here’s a snippet of all 61 photos I took:


The first thing I turned my lens to was a hillside of cactus across the highway to the east. I was hoping to compose a scene with the last rays of golden light on it.


But I was too late. The light was gone. If those were the only two photos I took that day, I’d choose to process the one on the left. There’s more to work with. There’s more texture in the sky. And compositionally, I wouldn’t be limited to a 50/50 split. Notice how bottom-heavy the second photo is? It’s because there’s an imbalance of elements. The empty space in the sky doesn’t balance out the busy space of the hillside. Now take a look at the first photo, processed a bit:

220720_James Staddon_9667 Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 200 mm, 1.0 sec at f - 16, ISO 50

Though all edits are personal choices the artist makes, I do feel this photo actually works now. It’s properly balanced. Because there were not as many visual elements in the sky, I included more of it. And then I cropped out a lot of the heavy hillside. Of course, there are plenty of other factors that we could consider, but to put things simply, I do think it’s a more attractive photo because it’s more balanced. And this is why I dedicated an entire Section to “achieving a sense of balance” in the Mastering Composition course! (Be sure to check out the sale I’m running on it that ends tomorrow!).

I then pointed my lens out toward the sunset!

The following two are my initial compositions. Which on do you like better?


I can definitely see the first one working, especially seeing it as a thumbnail. But, personally, I like the second one better. Again, I have not edited these photos and there are so many different factors involved. But, perhaps the first one almost feels “normal”? Epic sunset, yes! But that’s it. My interest isn’t held very long. And I think it’s because it’s a static composition. The second one, on the other hand, provides room for the eye to move around and explore. The sun is down, close to the horizon, but not so close that it feels like it’s going to fall right out of the bottom of the photo. It’s also shifted over the the left. But not so much that it makes the picture feel left-heavy. As the main subject and brightest part of the photo, it carries a lot of visual weight, but there’s enough space on the right and top sides of the photos to balance it out. There are other compositional aspects that make this photo attractive (like counterpoint), but the fact that there is pleasing spacing makes for an attractive composition. That’s why I dedicate Section 4 of the Mastering Composition course to the topic of spacing! Yeah, another shameless plug, but I just wanted to make sure you went and took a look at the sale before it ends tomorrow. Smile

I took a lot of photos facing west as the sun went down, but there were at least two different compositions where I tried to include the foreground. The sky was beautiful, but after the sun went down, I figured I would try including more than just a silhouette for the foreground.


The raw photo on the left was my first attempt. The photo on the right was my third and final attempt. Standing on a bridge, there wasn’t really much of anything that would work as a stunning foreground. But tell me, which one do you like better? Do you feel the same way as I, that the foreground in the second shot actually feels like it’s an intentional part of the composition? Which photo makes you feel more like you could actually be out there, standing in the desert? Which one exhibits a greater sense of depth? For me, it’s the one on the right. I would flag that one to edit before I flagged the one on the left. Not because of any change in the lighting or location, but because of a change in my position and choice of focal length. Composition. I’d say I was applying the composition tools of forced perspective or diminishing scale. Learn more about those in Section 3, Create the Impression of Depth!

The sun may have gone down, but the clouds were still making their way across the stage. Looking back east again, I noticed the hill on the other side of the highway again. The Interstate was just right there so I tried to find a composition that would crop most of it out. These are the 5 photos I took in that direction:


You can tell I’ve already edited the 4th one, the one on the bottom left. And I think I liked that one most because it not only had the nicest spacing on the right and left side of the hill, it also had another attractive element. Notice how in the five different photos, you can see the clouds move ever so lightly to the right? They aren’t “lined up” with the mountain at first, but then in the last two photos, it’s almost like the clouds are in the inverted shape of the hill. It’s quite abstract, but it looks like it was arranged on purpose. And this time I don’t think it had so much to do with me moving my vantage point, but the clouds moving through the sky. Pretty neat, isn’t it! It doesn’t relate perfectly, but I think this idea of finding and emphasizing shapes would be the kind of composition tips I’d talk about in Section 1 of the course, Help the Subject Stand Out.

As I found out in this blog post a few weeks ago, the following photo wouldn’t make a good calendar photo, but I figured I might as well make it this month’s desktop wallpaper. Smile

220720_James Staddon_9701 Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 34 mm, 3.2 sec at f - 16, ISO 50

Reflections In The Sky
Exit 92, Interstate 19, Tucson, Arizona
Download as a free desktop background in the next Latest from Lenspiration update (subscribe)

Now that things were getting dark, I intended to walk back to the car. But the clouds and colors just didn’t go away!

220720_James Staddon_9703 Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 24 mm, 3.2 sec at f - 16, ISO 50

After shooting the above shot (which by the way is a raw photo, completely unedited!), I figured I’d try to see if I could make the pedestrian bridge work in a photo. Here’s another shot.

220720_James Staddon_9705 Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 16 mm, 2.0 sec at f - 11, ISO 100

What attracted me to it was that the parallel lines. They direct the eye. But where? To the streetlights and a building. Which is fine. But it’s not ideal. This would have been a great opportunity for me to go to the car and ask my brother if he would pose for me at the end of the bridge! But I didn’t feel like running all the way back down there. Instead, I looked the other direction.

220720_James Staddon_9708 Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 16 mm, 0.8 sec at f - 11, ISO 100

There was nothing epic down that way either. But hey! What if I backed up a bit and included a steetlight? Make it the main subject.

220720_James Staddon_9717 Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 16 mm, 3.2 sec at f - 16, ISO 100

Now I have a subject for my leading lines to be “pointing” to! I am using composition intentionally to create a more attractive photo. Composition isn’t that hard. You just have to learn about it! And if you want to learn about the way I think to make better looking photos, feel free to check out that sale I’m running on the Mastering Composition course. Smile

As you sort through your photos, do you ever wonder why some photos work, and some photos don’t? Perhaps it’s because of some composition principle. Balance, spacing, depth. Eye movement, intentional order, subject placement. There’s a lot to learn about photography composition! Master it.

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1 Comment

  1. Brieanna

    Ooooo, these are wonderful tips! Thanks so much, Teacher James!!!


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