4 Elements of a Great Photo

Photography is different depending on your niche. However, there are 4 basic elements of a great photo that should lead you in the right direction. 

After a few weeks of wanting nothing to do with my camera, I took it out to the park down the road and started practicing again. I learned two things:

  1. I need to get a 50 mm lens (edit: I got a 50 mm lens and it is glorious), and 
  2. I need to read more.

I started the second one while I save up for the new lens. (I need the lower f-stop, especially since I take most of my photos indoors.)

One thing I read this week really stuck out to me, though.

I mentioned in my Blogging Design Tips post that design and photography are the two areas where bloggers should throw out their, “Don’t compare yourself to others” mantra. Absolutely compare your photography to others.

For about two years, I had this idea that I should only compare my photography to my previous photography. That, as long as I was better than I was yesterday, I was doing just fine.

In some ways, that’s true. If you’re constantly improving, no matter how little, it’s a win. But I wasn’t improving very quickly. Because I wasn’t paying attention to what made a magazine-worthy photo.

And then I read How I Made 40k in My First Year of Blogging (affiliate). I saw her photos and how hard she had to work to get accepted to sites like Foodgawker and Tastespotting. If her beginner photos weren’t good enough, mine weren’t either. 

So I went to those sites and took a good hard look at the photos that were getting accepted. My photography really took off after that. A great example is the photo for my sriracha meatballs. I went from this:


to this:


The second photo isn’t perfect, but I’m sure each of you can look at them both and know immediately that it’s better than the first one. Can you also explain why? What makes the second photo so much better?

This is why I compare myself to others. I find a photo I love and I say, “What did they do that I’m not doing? How can I take a similar photo?” Doing this has caused my photography to improve much faster than comparing myself to myself. I started doing this in December, so it’s only been about 6 months. Massive improvement in 6 months or small improvements over two years–which would you rather have?

Anyway, in doing these comparisons, here’s what I’ve discovered makes for a great photo.

4 Basic Elements of a Great Photo --- Photography is different depending on your niche, but there are 4 basic elements of a great photo that should lead you in the right direction. || diybudgetgirl.com #photography #photos #camera #tips #tricks

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4 Elements of a Great Photo

1. Lighting

Few things are more annoying in photography than not being able to see what’s in the photo. (On that subject, make sure your photos are big enough. Notice throughout this post how my “after” photos are MUCH larger than my “before” photos.) The best way to do this is by adding natural light to the room or building a lightbox. The first thing to look for before you start shooting is what kind of lighting you’re working with. Some lights just won’t work with certain objects.

The first thing to look for before shooting is what kind of lighting you're working with. Click To Tweet

For those of you who work outside the home and have trouble taking advantage of the best light, my advice is that you take your photos on your day off. That way, you can take advantage of natural light. 

That said, some people go a little overboard with the lighting. I’ve done it. Shining too much light on an object will wash it out, cast weird shadows, remove necessary shadows, etc. So don’t take photos of objects in direct sunlight unless you know what you’re doing. Overcast days are best for things like food or DIY projects because it doesn’t create weird shadows like full-on sunlight can. And if your lighting is artificial, remember to filter it (with a white sheet or a white umbrella or something). Moving it farther away from the object will also help.

After figuring out the lighting situation, it’s time to adjust the camera. Most cameras–even point and shoots–let you adjust the brightness by changing the ISO. Though on a DSLR, it’s better to lower the shutter speed and f-stop if your lighting will allow it. A high ISO can ruin the quality of the photo.

If your light is a little one-sided (if you’re shooting beside a window, for instance), a cheap piece of foam board does a good job at balancing the light to the other side of the object. Just set it up on the dark-side of whatever you’re photographing and it will instantly improve your photos.

2. Clarity

As I said above, readers want to see what’s in the photo. Which means blurry photos are not worth putting up on your blog. There are many ways you can fix them, but mostly you just need to find a way to stabilize your camera.

4 Basic Elements of a Great Photo --- Photography is different depending on your niche, but there are 4 basic elements of a great photo that should lead you in the right direction. || diybudgetgirl.com #photography #photos #camera #tips #tricks

The best way is to just buy a tripod. Amazon’s bestselling tripod is the Amazon Basics Lightweight Tripod. I use the Sunpak 6200, which is fine. For point and shoots, there’s the Sunpak tripod or you can get small stabilizers like the JOBY GorillaPod Micro (another bestseller). Those are great for getting eye-level photos. 

If you take photos on your phone, there are also tripod adapter mounts.

If you don’t want to buy a tripod, many household objects are good for stabilizing cameras. Some photographers set their cameras in a wine glass (depending on the angle they want to shoot at and the size of the camera). I’ve been known to balance my camera on the back of a chair when my tripod just wasn’t doing it for me (while hanging the lanyard from my neck, of course…I wouldn’t want to drop it). Get creative, experiment, and see what you come up with.

One more thing I’ve done to make my pictures more clear is setting my camera on a 2-second timer. Even with a tripod, the camera still wobbles from the pressure of my finger pressing the shutter button. Without the timer, the pictures can come out a little shaky. Adding the timer gives the camera time to stabilize itself before the shutter goes off.

And if you need to get photos of yourself but can’t afford to run back and forth to the camera, the Amazon Basics Wireless Remote is excellent. There is one for Canon and one for Nikon, so make sure you select the correct one. (Also, it only works for DSLR. Sorry, guys.) 

3. Color

This is a huge pet peeve of mine. Photos that haven’t been balanced correctly on the camera or in editing either come out yellow or blue. Neither of those is good.

The easiest way to see if your color balance is right is to include something white in your photos (for my food photos, I like to use paper doilies). If the white in your photo looks true-to-life, then there’s a good chance your balance is correct.

Check your color balance the easy way by including something white in your photos. Click To Tweet

If it doesn’t, there are ways to fix it in editing. Though it’s best if you fix it when you take the photo…especially if your weird color balance is due to lighting. Sometimes editing a photo for color balance backfires if you have to edit it too much.

Since I’ve already written about how to change color balance in my post A Beginner’s Guide to Editing Photos, I’ll spare you here.

4. Staging/Composition

Learning how to stage photos properly is incredibly challenging…and from what I can see, it stays challenging. But it is one of THE BEST things I have done for photos. For instance, look at these chocolate covered cherry shortbread cookies:


Foodgawker has rejected A LOT of my photos because they looked like that. And their biggest problem: composition (though brightness is also an issue with that photo). They wanted more interesting, well-staged photos. So I gave it to them.


Obviously that second photo has a lot of issues (like the fact that I over-compressed it and it wound up blurry). But this was also the first photo that Foodgawker ever approved for me. (Tastespotting rejected it for the blurriness.) By the way, if you want to see the photos Foodgawker has approved for me, you can view my gallery.

The reason I love this photo, though, is because of the way it’s staged. I took this around Christmas and, since cookies are often given away as gifts for Christmas, I wanted this photo to have a “gifted” feel to it. So I grabbed some red and silver ornaments from the tree and scattered them behind the cookies (to create a nice background and to add depth to the photo). For the rest, I laid down some brown packing paper (which I had to tape down, because it kept wanting to pop up), a paper doily, and I tied some baker’s twine around the stacked cookies. For the background, I used a piece of black foam board that I made look like a black board by rubbing it with chalk and then rubbing the markings with a towel.

It was a lot of effort. I probably spent an hour setting this up. But the photo came out so nicely. Totally worth it.

Another example is the photo for my date night jar. Here’s the original:


And the new photo:


It’s still not the best photo (and it was rejected from Craftgawker for lighting issues–I forgot to set up the white board to reflect the light). And it came out a little blurry. But the staging is what we’re looking at here.

Staging this photo took forever. I spent an entire afternoon taking the new photos for that post. I got a bunch of little heart-shaped brads (I can no longer find the exact ones I bought) and I set them all out individually so they would face the right direction and so I didn’t have too many of one color all together.

For the rest of the stage, I set out a piece of wood that I got at Home Depot for less than $1, painted, and distressed with sand paper. I used my chalkboard background again (I need new backgrounds, actually…). I slapped a chalkboard heart onto the mason jar that I had to keep pressing to the glass between photos, because it didn’t want to stick. And then I tied baker’s twine around the jar. For the lid of the jar, I cut out a piece of scrapbook paper to give it a pop of color.

See what a huge difference it makes? One more. These pictures of my easy chocolate pudding were taken the same day with the same camera, so they’re the same size, same lighting, etc. The only difference is the way I staged them.


Amazing, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure the photo on the right is the best I’ve ever taken. That’s the power of staging.


There are a lot of things that make for a great photo and much of it is going to depend on the type of photography you do. Mine is generally small stuff–food, small crafts. So these work for me. Interior design photos, travel photos, and the like all have different rules to follow. But these ones are pretty basic and should lead you in the right direction.

What do you think makes a great photo and what are you doing to improve your own photos?

P.S. If you want to know what kind of camera I use, check out my FAQs

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    • Chelsey says:

      Haha! I have the same problem with…myself, actually. 😛 My husband is patient, but if I’m too hungry, I just give up.

      Thanks, Carlee!

  1. Nina Lewis says:

    Am visiting from a link party (can’t remember which one exactly because I visited about 4 within a few minutes of each other… sigh…). This is a FABULOUS post! I’m trying to improve my photography skills and this is so helpful. I especially liked your thoughts about comparing yourself to others for the purpose of improving your skills. Thanks for such a great post. You’ve inspired me!
    Nina Lewis recently posted…Grandma Ideas Link Party 15My Profile

  2. Tiffany says:

    Hi, Chelsey ~ I’m visiting from the Pinworthy Projects Link Party. Great tips! I especially loved the before and after photos! I could really see the differences, and that’s huge for my learning curve. I live in Colorado, and I usually have great natural lighting because the sun shines so often. But we’ve had a couple of weeks of rain and overcast skies, and my photos are suffering because of it. It has proved to me that I need to invest in some equipment. I also need to block out more time for taking my photos. Thanks for the great tips! Hope you have an enjoyable weekend!
    Tiffany recently posted…Why Our Mornings Stink {and How I’m Planning to Change That}My Profile

    • Chelsey says:

      Overcast skies are actually PERFECT for photos, because sunlight can actually wash out the object you’re photographing and give it weird shadows and stuff. As long as it’s not too dark (think storms that make it look like nighttime), I would take advantage of that and just lower your shutter speed a little (if you’re using a DSLR).

  3. Clarissa says:

    Thank you for this!! Nothing has changed my blog photos more than using natural light (and you’re right, I’ve totally shifted my schedule to blogging only on my days off so I can take advantage of the daylight) – I will definitely be paying more attention to my composition and layout as well!


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