Posted by: kerryl29 | April 25, 2016

The Aesthetic Triad

Most of the photographic blog entries that I see that are ostensibly written as aids to help aspiring practitioners cover technical topics of one sort of the other.  The technical points (e.g. exposure, depth of field, etc.) are necessary and important and I’ve certainly been known to cover them from time to time myself, but photography—at least the way I think of it and try to practice it—is an artistic endeavor.  Technique is important, but it’s a means to an end.  Creativity is the itch most of us are trying to scratch, presumably, when we pull out our cameras.

So let’s talk about aesthetics a bit, and let’s do so in a way that’s as practical and applicable as possible.  (I could discuss the matter in ethereal terms, but that’s an approach that many—if not most—people find impenetrable.)

Nearly half of the time during my first trip to the Canadian Rockies (fall, 2014) was spent on a photo tour.  While this was a tour—with a particular emphasis on time in the field—and not a workshop, we did hold a few brief nighttime classroom sessions that were designed, more or less, as reminders of broad photographic principles.  I was quite pleased to see the discussion about image making center around three broad concepts that I’ve long preached as the key elements of successful photographs:  subject, light and composition.

Essentially, assuming good technique, when these three things come together in a single frame, a portfolio quality photograph ensues.  It’s not that you can’t have a “successful” shot without all three, but for something really and truly special, you need to check off all the items on the list.

Subject, of course, is the tangible object or objects that make up the elements present in the photograph.  What constitutes “interesting” subject matter can be quite subjective, of course.

Light is self-explanatory.  What isn’t quite as obvious, however, is that what constitutes good light can vary depending on the subject.  For instance, as I’ve said multiple times in this space in the past, the quality of light that is particularly flattering to a grand landscape scenic isn’t necessarily the light of choice for subjects such as waterfalls or a forest.

Composition is the most subjective element of all and the one upon which the photographer can exercise the broadest control.  The term refers to what is included in the frame and the perspective by which the subject is depicted.  This is entirely up to the photographer.

Let’s look at an example from that autumn 2014 Canadian Rockies trip, one in which I think the three broad concepts outlined above come together fairly well.

Sunrise, Medicine Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Sunrise, Medicine Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta


The subject here is pretty straight forward:  we have a lake, lined by deciduous and coniferous trees on the left.  It’s pretty clearly an autumn image, given the color of the foliage.  We have a nice sunrise sky, reflected in the lake, and a backdrop of mountain peaks.  There may be a few curmudgeons out there who would disagree, but I think it’s fair to say that most people would probably find this subject matter appealing.

The light is of the pre-sunrise variety.  The sky is lit up beautifully while everything else is softly (and evenly) lit. Harsh contrast is avoided (though it took some–ugh–technical and postprocessing skills to make it so; but that’s a topic for another day) .

The composition was carefully determined. There’s a rocky meadow, filled with tall grasses, surrounding the side of the lake from which the image was made, and it was consciously decided to include the meadow and its components as foreground elements.  The yellow aspens provide a clear sense of the season and complement the lake, rocks and mountains nicely.  The mountains, as background objects, are perhaps the ultimate example of stopping the eye from wandering off into oblivion.  The colorful sunrise sky (and its reflection in the lake) provides something of a “wow” element to an already compelling scene.

It’s a matter of opinion—it is art, after all—but I think all three of the aforementioned concepts come together quite nicely here.

Let’s take a look at one more image.

Bow River Outlet Stream Black & White, Banff National Park, Alberta

Bow River Outlet Stream Black & White, Banff National Park, Alberta


The subject matter is, at least superficially similar to the first image—though we have a foreground stream rather than a lake.

The light here is very different than in the first image, but the method of presentation is as well; this shot is depicted in black and white.  The light here is far more contrasty than in the first photograph, but that’s far more suitable given the choice of the much more contrast-tolerant black and white medium.

The composition is fairly dynamic—as revealed by the rushing outlet stream—which complements the boldness of the high contrast black and white treatment, particularly as it’s rendered in the sky.

Again, I think the three principles come together quite well in this shot.  It’s a very different combination than in the original image, but both photographs share a certain amount of success.  This illustrates the point that there are different ways to fit the three concepts together; there’s no single recipe to success.  (If there was, there would only be one kind of pleasing image, which is inherently absurd.)  The goal is to find different ways to make different subjects, qualities of light and compositions work together symbiotically.  That, in a nutshell, is the road map to successful image making.

Give it a try.  Consciously question yourself—what light flatters this subject?  How can I choose to frame this subject in this light to best express it?  What subjects work best in this light?  By asking—and answering—these questions and others like them to your satisfaction you can take your photography to the next level.



  1. Thanks for all the great information. I am heading up to Banff/Jasper in 2 weeks and am very excited. I will only have 1 week there but I hope to get some good photographs.

    • Have a great time in the Rockies! You’re going plenty early enough to beat the summer tourist season. Of course, you’ll also have to deal with the lingering effects of snow and ice which will certainly keep some trails and roads closed (e.g. the road to Moraine Lake will very likely still be closed, for instance). But you probably already know all this. 🙂

      • It’s kind of like where I live now. A lot of roads in the mountains won’t open til June. But I’m sure we’ll find plenty of beauty.

        • “I’m sure we’ll find plenty of beauty.”

          Absolutely no question about that; you’ll run out of time long before you ever run out of things to see and photograph.

  2. Thank you very much for this insight on how you create the wonderful images that you do!

    • My pleasure and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  3. It’s quite a relief to see someone talking the art side of things. Nice article, I’ve got a few new conceptual tools to play with consciously now.

    • Thanks. It’s always gratifying to learn that someone finds what I’ve written to be of some actionable value.

      • You’re welcome.

  4. Thank you for this. I still find it hard to critique my own work-tend to “fall in love ” with not very -good photos that I have taken.A good idea to switch from the initial emotion to a discerning eye.

    • Thanks, Jane.

      Nothing wrong with being discerning, of course, but I wouldn’t be too quick to toss something that spurs an emotional reaction.

  5. wow just wow!!!

  6. […] During the nearly 10 years that I’ve written this blog, when I’ve attended to matters pertaining to the art and craft of photography (as opposed to, say, relating my experiences on photo trips and that sort of thing), I’ve spent more time talking about the art of the endeavor than the craft.  It’s not that there haven’t been craft-related posts–there certainly have.  But I haven’t spent a great deal of time discussing technique.  That’s not to imply that the technical side of things isn’t important to successful photography; I simply prefer to talk about aesthetics. […]

  7. […] basic set of considerations for any landscape photography location applies to a beach setting.  Subject, light, composition…these are the things that make up photographic decisions for every scene.  But there are […]

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