The Trifecta: Three Ingredients of a Beautiful Photograph
It is a very special and rare moment for me when I discover a photographer whose work I haven’t previously seen and which includes what I call “The Trifecta” – the three ingredients which I consider to combine to form stunning photography. I had one of those moments yesterday when I happened to see a National Geographic article about the Kermode bear (or “Spirit Bear,” as some of the indigenous people in Canada call it). The article featured photography by the Canadian nature and wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen. After seeing the images there, I found Paul’s website and, put very simply, sat in pure awe for the next 20 minutes staring at the images he has created.
I’ve spent enough time studying, appreciating and shooting photography that I can tell pretty quickly when someone’s got The Trifecta. And pretty much instantly, I could see that Paul has it. Below are a few of Paul’s photographs. While the photographs are so powerful that they elicit an immediate visceral response, try to appreciate them for a few extra moments; consider how all three elements of The Trifecta are present in each image.
So what is The Trifecta? Here goes – the three things that contribute to truly stunning photography:
#1: Interesting Subject
It goes without saying (so much so that it’s sometimes forgotten!) that when the subject of a photograph is interesting, it is a lot more likely that the photograph itself is going to be appealing. A photograph doesn’t HAVE to have an interesting subject to be appealing (a photographer who excels in one or both of the other parts of The Trifecta can make a great photograph of even a boring, unremarkable and commonplace subject), but it sure helps. A good subject is the most obvious and, frankly, the easiest part of The Trifecta.
It is pretty obvious why the subjects of Paul’s images are fascinating to anyone who doesn’t live above the Arctic Circle (and probably even to a lot of people who do!). He goes to the ends of the Earth (literally) to find them.
#2: Technical Skill
Many modern cameras have been designed to require a lot less technical know-how in order to use them to make a workable photograph (i.e., the “program” and “auto” modes on many cameras). But unless you get lucky, that know-how is still needed in order to make a truly great photo with the appearance the photographer envisions: does the photographer think a slight bit of motion blur is going to enhance the look of the photo? Would the photo be more striking if only a small, specific part of the subject was in focus? Does one area of a photo need more or less light than it’s getting in order to show it properly? If so, how are these things going to be accomplished? These are considerations under the best of circumstances. In a challenging environment, under challenging lighting conditions, etc., the need for technical skill goes up astronomically.
It’s easy to take a picture of a polar bear in daylight through the fence at a zoo; when you’re in the Arctic wilderness submerged under water that’s only a few degrees above freezing and there’s nothing between you and the bear but a few feet of that water, things get a bit more complex. For example: how does the fact that the photographer is underwater affect the shutter speed needed to achieve the swimming motion visible here in the bear’s feet?
#3: Creative/Artistic Vision
Ansel Adams famously said that he didn’t simply see a pretty scene and capture it; instead he imagined in his mind an image of how he wanted a scene to look, then used all of the tools at his disposal (the technical skill) to make that image in his mind appear on paper in the photograph. This creative or artistic vision is the most important ingredient in The Trifecta, and also the hardest to come by. Creative vision is how the photographer chooses to present the image through artistic choices like composition, shape, motion, contrast, texture, color, light, darkness, depth of field and many other variables to visually convey the emotions and the visceral, gut-reaction feel desired. It is how a talented photographer can take even a bland, unremarkable everyday subject and make a striking and visually interesting image of it, or an ugly scene and find the beauty in it.
The photo above is a perfect example of how a talented photographer can convey emotion. Looking at that image, your first reaction would be one of fright, feeling like you’re about to become dinner to a ruthless and terrifying predator. And in fact, those were the emotions Paul was feeling when he shot that image. As he describes in this video, when Paul got in the water with the seal he was intimidated by its size. But soon, he saw that the seal wasn’t threatening, but was actually trying to care for him, bringing him food and trying to feed him, the way a concerned mother would care for its young. And this friendlier, nurturing feel is evident in another photo Paul made soon after:
It is rare indeed to see a photographer with a ready command of all three parts of The Trifecta. Too often, photographers lean on an interesting subject as a crutch to disguise weak technical skill or creative vision (this kind of failing can be seen frequently when imagery of exotic people or places is shown without artistry or any emotion conveyed with the image… this crutch is sometimes used so extensively that, in the wedding industry for example, some individuals will take on a client only if that client’s wedding takes place in a beautiful location and involves only beautiful people). Photographers must avoid the temptation to take this easy way out, and consumers should take the time to appreciate not only the subject matter of photographs, but also how they are presented, and how much of the photographer’s emotions they can feel in the image.
Because as Paul Nicklen and many other masterful photographers have shown, while one strength or another can make a good image, it takes The Trifecta to make a truly great one.
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