Blog / What makes a great image?

Peter Cairns
Wednesday, March 22, 2017


It’s a tricky question and one that I’ve been pondering for many years. It was only recently however, when I was asked by a tour guest, that I tried to articulate a meaningful answer.

Style: one of three words that I think has a bearing on this conundrum. Anyone that knows me would contest that I’m barely qualified to even discuss the subject so what is style? Who invented it and how do we create it?



Red-throated diver at dawn, Assynt, Scotland.


We all want to get our images noticed by others, be it publishers, camera club judges or simply family and friends. Trouble is we’re all image drunk. What knocked our socks off just a decade ago is all a bit matter-of-fact today. We need to develop our style and to do that, thinking has to be fresh, boundaries have to be pushed and rules challenged. So what is style? To be honest I haven’t got a clue and I’m groping around in the photographic quagmire of uncertainty just as much as the next man. What I do know about style however, is that you know it when you see it.

The second word I’ve been mulling around in the wee small hours is Instinct. We all have it to some degree and the great nature photographers have it in spades. They know instinctively where to position themselves, what viewpoint to adopt, how to use light and how to optimise composition. They know how to interpret their subject. So where do you get this instinct from? It’s not something that can be taught easily or quickly; it evolves and develops after hours, days, months and years spent in the field watching and waiting; investing in the knowledge bank that will ultimately repay with instinctively stylish images. Photographic instinct is hard earned, however it is defined.



Capercaillie in blizzard, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.


Style and Instinct then, are prerequisites in today’s competitive world. They are intertwined, inextricable. But I don’t think they’re enough. The number of perfectly executed, compositionally exquisite and beautifully lit wildlife and landscape images that set my pulse racing these days, is regrettably very low (and I’m including my own images in this rather depressing analysis). Again, it comes down to over-exposure; we simply see too many great pictures. So what’s the magic ingredient? What’s the key to the ‘wow’ response we all seek from our audience? How do we engineer that sharp intake of breath?

Impact. That’s the only word I can come up with; it’s the third in my trilogy and the most significant. In order for our images to have an impact, they must contain impact. Images that hit you like a sledgehammer, that burn into your mind and stay with you, invariably have bags of impact. Whenever I go out these days, I mutter that word to myself over and over again.

OK so what is impact? At the risk of fudging yet another question, I guess it’s a bit like style: hard to define but obvious when you see it. In truth, impact is subjective because it needs to touch the individual viewer on an emotional level. More often than not however, impact relies on something a bit different, an extra ingredient. That ingredient can be intense eye contact, action, humour or behaviour; it can be exciting light or an unusual viewpoint or it can be ‘bad weather.’

I’ve got to concede that all of this sounds a bit daunting if what you want to do is get out there and enjoy your photography and of course, we all want to do that. But let’s be honest here, we’re all show offs. Yes we enjoy close encounters with other species, yes we enjoy breathing in wild landscapes, but it’s so much more satisfying when other people respond positively to our images. So it makes complete sense for all of us – professional or recreational – to strive for the very best images we can produce, to strive for style and essentially, to strive for impact. Impact is what turns a good image into a great image.



 Pine marten in pine woodland, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

















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