What makes a compelling photo for you?

  • Is it the color?
  • Is it the interplay of light and shadow?
  • Is it the subject?
  • Is it the composition?
  • Is it because it tells you a story?

Please answer this question for yourself in the comments below.

When I was asked this question, this is what I answered:

“When my eyes first behold a photo and I audibly “gasp”, it is a compelling photo! That gasp most often is because of the interplay of light and shadows! If its not that, then its the mystery caught in the photo (which often relates back to the light/shadows).”

As you know from last week’s post about The Inspiration Behind My Blog, I am very inspired by David duChemin!  And in my newsletter last week one of the Resource Links was a series of videos from David about The Compelling Frame.  One of the big takeaways for me from this second video was the suggestion to start really studying the photos of some great photographers to see what makes them so compelling…asking myself questions such as:

  • what am I thinking and feeling?
  • what kind of contrast do I see in the photo?
  • what kind of repeated elements are there?
  • what does it make me feel?
  • how did the photographer create such depth and energy?
  • what decisions did they make with their exposure that led to such strong shadows?

So I chose Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Ansel Adams (Feb. 20 1902 — Apr. 22, 1984), American photographer and environmentalist, was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Charles Hitchcock Adams, a businessman, and Olive Bray. The grandson of a wealthy timber baron, Adams grew up in a house set amid the sand dunes of the Golden Gate.  He is best known for his black-and-white photographs of the American West, especially in Yosemite National Park and other National Parks.  Of course, he was not a product of the digital age but of the “darkroom age” and he created some phenomenal images.  Here are some of my favs and why I think they are compelling.

Does this first image of the Snake River area in Wyoming not make you GASP?  The very ruggedness and texture of those mountains is breathtaking, but then add to it the amazing tonal range of blacks and whites, the play of the light and shadows and the way Ansel framed the elements in the photo and you have one COMPELLING photo!

Ansel’s perfect capture of the mountain reflection, in the second photo, is the first thing that catches my eye and makes me GASP!  Being a born and bred mountain girl from Colorado and now living in the Appalacian mountains, I have a great appreciation for anything high and mighty like this.  And again, the contrasts of the blacks and whites just makes it stand out all the more.  Don’t you think that if he had moved the frame of the elements to the left or right it would not have been such a strong photo?  He has a way with framing the elements he sees and this makes all the difference in the choices you make as a photographer.

All I can say is WOW!! In the third photo, the clouds are absolutely magnificent.  Remember this was in the era of darkroom processing and to have captured the light as he did and processed it this way is nothing short of remarkable to me.  This just solidifies my feelings about the importance of capturing your photo in camera and not relying on the digital processing afterwards.


The photo of the tree, which I believe was taken somewhere in Yosemite National Park, is a very iconic Ansel Adams image.  For me, its another GASP photo for many reasons!  The bend in the tree dictates where the tree should be in the frame so you almost feel the movement of the tree branches from left to right.  And the way he “framed” the mountain under the branch of the tree is just perfect.  Again, if he had changed how/where he captured the elements in the frame, it would not be nearly as compelling.  Of course, the wonderful shadows of the tree on the rocks and ground underneath is beautiful.

One of my favorite things to capture are flowers!  Contrast is the first thing that grabs me in this Ansel Adams photo and makes me want to GASP!  The perfect exposure to show the extreme contrasts is what makes this photo.  The added texture of the ground is very interesting too.

Edward Henry Weston (March 24, 1886 – January 1, 1958) was a 20th-century American photographer. He has been called one of the most innovative and influential American photographers and one of the masters of 20th century photography.  Over the course of his 40-year career Weston photographed an increasingly expansive set of subjects, including landscapes, still lifes, nudes, portraits, genre scenes and even whimsical parodies. It is said that he developed a quintessentially American, and specially Californian, approach to modern photography because of his focus on the people and places of the American West.  His highly-detailed photographs steer away from the trending Pictorialism, making him a forefather of modern photography.  He often took photos of objects out of their usual context to impersonate other representations.

Weston had a way with capturing still life photos of unique items.  Here is a simple shell, but what makes it a WOW photo is the beautiful spiral in the shell.  Often geometric patterns can be a strong element in a photo and you almost feel like you could walk down this spiral shell as if it was a spiral staircase!  The wonderful light behind the spiral just seems to highlight that spiral all the more and you even see that light being reflected on down into the spiral…just amazing!!

One of Weston’s favorite models was Tina Modotti, with whom Weston and his son, Chandler, went to Mexico.  This photo is Tina sitting on a step…a simple photo but stunning none the less!  The fact that Tina is looking off to the side, out of the photo, tends to bring some mystery into the photo along with the dark doorway (I wonder what is through there…).  The play of light and shadows on the wall and sidewalk is soft and mottled.  The tree to the left frames our subject, Tina.  Weston really had to think about the light and how to capture it as well as think through his “why” of the photo to really engage the viewer!

The third photo above is another shell, not a spiral, but another very interestingly shaped shell!  There is great texture and lines inside the shell and great contrast of shadows and highlights.  There is a spiral as well, not as strong as in the first photo but significant.  You can almost feel the movement of the shell with the lines.  WOW!!

Although the photo above by Weston has as its subject, peppers, you almost think it could be nude bodies…arms and legs.  I’m not trying to get creepy here but Weston did photograph many nude subjects.  The highlights and shadows add so much texture and depth to the subjects and the light shining off them is perfect too!  The dark texture makes a great background and contrast.

So what do you think this final Weston photo is?  I had to look at it very carefully to finally figure out it was a cabbage leaf!  The deep textures of the veins in this leaf make it oh so interesting…much more so than if it were a smooth surface.  The shadows and lights are so magnified.  You can tell the light source is coming from the top right and is probably artificial.  Would you ever think to photograph a cabbage leaf?  Maybe we as photographers should expand our horizons and begin to see possibilities in everything around us!

I have been working with my friend Dan to help him see better and compose his photos better.  He also wanted top learn some editing processes, both basic and more advanced.  He asked me to go through his recent photos from a trip to Croatia and Venice. As I was scrolling through them, I opened this photo of the inside of a church and audibly gasped!  I think the thing I liked most about it was the geometric shapes in the floor and the great tonal contrasts.  He shot the photo in Black & White and he really made a great choice there because it highlighted those shapes.  His composition of a straight on perspective was the right one, I think, to give it some great symmetry.  He ended up doing some basic edits which just made the blacks and whites pop a little bit more and I think he has a real winner here!  Way. To. Go. Daniel.

If you are interested in some one-on-one time with me either in person or by way of the “magic of online technology”, please check out this page on my website and click on One-On-One Coaching.  Then contact me by email, phone, or text. I would love to work with you to create more compelling photos and learn how to edit if that is what you want to learn.

So, that is my first installment of researching photos of great photographers to find out what makes their photos so compelling.

I learned a lot and I hope you did too!  Let me know what your thoughts are on these photos and if you think they are compelling as well and why, in the comments below.  Would you like to see more of this type of post?

Grandma and baby looking out a window

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