Man in silhouette. Street photograph at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, 2017 / ERIC KIM
Man in silhouette. Street photograph at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, 2017 / ERIC KIM

What is a photograph vs picture vs image? How can I learn to make more interesting, dynamic, and compelling photographs?”

1. Photograph vs picture vs image

Leading lines. Three Men
A picture of a photograph.

A photograph is made by a camera.

A picture can be made with a camera, a paintbrush, a crayon, pen, or any other illustrative tool (digital or analogue).

An image is a mental picture you get in your mind.

Above: Photograph / Below: Picture
Above: Photograph / Below: Picture

You must first of all know how to differentiate between all these things.

As a photographer, you don’t only make photographs — you do more than that. You also make pictures (all photographs are pictures), and you also make images (your photographs will create your viewer to create an image in their head).

Ultimately as a photographer, you are an image-maker.

2. What makes a compelling image?

Red: A bold color for photography
Red: A bold color for photography

A compelling image strikes you in the heart. A compelling image has a dynamic compositionleading lines, curves, bold colors (study color theory).

Furthermore, your photograph needs emotion. It needs soul. Your photos need to show your personal perspective of the world.

Ask yourself the question:

Why am I the only person in the world who can make this image?

For myself– good images are opinionated. Which means, your photos must show your opinion of the world.

Do you see the world as a beautiful, uplifting, and positive place? Or do you see the world in a more gloomy, and pessimistic way?

Effects to provoke in your photographs: Joy, Beauty, Calm, Vibrancy
Effects to provoke in your photographs: Joy, Beauty, Calm, Vibrancy

Personally, I think a great photographer is a life-affirmer. A life-affirmer is someone who says:

The world is beautiful, and my camera proves it.

Use your images to inspire, motivate, and uplift the hearts and souls of your viewer.

3. Composition

Deconstructed Tokyo silhouette picture.
Minimalist composition

How to make stronger compositions in your photography.

a. Negative space

Negative space. Marseille, 2015 #cindyproject
Negative space. Marseille, 2015 #cindyproject

Create negative space for your subject– give your subject in your photograph some negative space to ‘breathe.’

Cindy walking at beach. Fort Bragg, 2015 #cindyproject
Cindy walking at beach. Fort Bragg, 2015 #cindyproject

By making your subject intentionally small and giving them negative space to move, you allow your viewer to engage their eyes. Any picture that encourages your viewer to look more is a good thing.

Man walking on track. Sapa, Vietnam 2017
Man walking on track. Sapa, Vietnam 2017

b. Figure-to-ground

Silhouette of woman behind door. Hanoi, 2017
Silhouette of woman behind door. Hanoi, 2017

A basic compositional technique is ‘figure to ground‘ — to create separation between your subject and the background. You want a dark subject against a bright background, or a bright subject against a dark background.

Gaussian blur effect. The woman in the black silhouette pops out from the background.
Gaussian blur effect. The woman in the black silhouette pops out from the background.

For example, if we apply the ‘Gaussian Blur’ filter in Photoshop, you can still see the silhouette of the woman pop out of the frame.

Composition of the silhouette of the woman outlined in red.
Composition of the silhouette of the woman outlined in red.

If we make an abstract image, this is what we see in terms of the composition:

Abstract of the 'figure to ground' relationship of the picture.
Abstract of the ‘figure to ground’ relationship of the picture.

Pro-Tip: When you’re starting off in photography — to improve your composition, only shoot high-contrast black and white JPEG. This will allow you to visualize the world in terms of relationships between shadows and light. This will force you to simplify your scenes.

c. Diagonal lines

eric kim dark skies over tokyo street photography black and white monochrome
Silhouette of man against diagonal background. Tokyo, 2011 // ERIC KIM

In the modern world, we have many diagonal lines from architecture and buildings.

Abstract image, outlining the man (yellow), the background (blue) and the leading line (red)
Abstract image, outlining the man (yellow), the background (blue) and the leading line (red)

To make stronger compositions, integrate diagonals into your pictures.

Woman with umbrella. Seoul, 2011 // ERIC KIM
Woman with umbrella. Seoul, 2011 // ERIC KIM

Pro-tip: Find an interesting background or scene with lots of leading lines and diagonals, and then wait for your subject to enter your frame (the fishing technique).

Woman in yellow, background in blue.
Woman in yellow, background in blue.
Woman in yellow, background in blue, and leading lines outlined in red.
Woman in yellow, background in blue, and leading lines outlined in red.

4. Color theory

Color wheel theory: Dynamic tension between opposing colors.
Color wheel theory: Dynamic tension between opposing colors. Image from CREATIVE EVERY DAY

To make stronger photographs, integrate color-theory into your photos.

Opponent based color theory. Opposing colors become more intense when placed next to one another.
Opponent based color theory. Opposing colors become more intense when placed next to one another.

The best way to study color is to study abstract painters, like Piet Mondrian.

PIET MONDRIAN x ERIC KIM
Piet Mondrian x Eric Kim
PIET MONDRIAN x ERIC KIM
Eric Kim photography Bauhaus Piet Mondrian
Walking lady Bauhaus by ANNETTE KIM
PIET MONDRIAN x ERIC KIM
PIET MONDRIAN x ERIC KIM
PIET MONDRIAN x ERIC KIM
PIET MONDRIAN x ERIC KIM
A red “cloud” against a mostly “cool” colored background. Piet Mondrian.
Piet Mondrian red lighthouse by ERIC KIM

The benefit of studying color painting– painters have more control over their pictures (when compared to us photographers).

As a practical tip, when you’re shooting photos in color — LOOK FOR VIBRANT COLORS.

Blue. Man at beach. Marseille, 2014
Forks with red napkin, on red table. Berlin, 2017
Forks with red napkin, on red table. Berlin, 2017
Green wall with white stripe. Berlin, 2017
Green wall with white stripe. Berlin, 2017
GOODYEAR logo in blue against Yellow Background. Berlin, 2017
GOODYEAR logo in blue against Yellow Background. Berlin, 2017
Purple colors with silhouette of Cindy. Berlin, 2017
Purple colors with silhouette of Cindy. Berlin, 2017

The mistake we make as photographers is that we go out and take a bunch of pictures, and don’t even think about color.

The more you think about color while you’re out shooting pictures, you will build your ‘visual acuity’ and start to SEE colors more vividly.

Cindy with hat against pink background.
Cindy with hat against pink background.

Also as a tip — use Photoshop, or the iPad + ProCreate app to analyze your pictures after you shoot them, to see the colors better:

Cindy in pink, abstracted. Made with iPad and Procreate app.
Cindy in pink, abstracted. Made with iPad and Procreate app.

Some examples of color photographs of mine that I abstracted, to better understand the colors I was shooting:

Cindy in blue Yukata. Uji, Kyoto 2017
Cindy in blue Yukata. Uji, Kyoto 2017. Low Perspective.
Sketch of Cindy in Yukata.
Sketch of Cindy in Yukata.

Cindy in blue jumper

CUBIST CINDY BY ERIC KIM

High Perspective picture. Tokyo, 2017
High Perspective picture. Tokyo, 2017

Urban landscape. Bangkok, 2017
Urban landscape. Bangkok, 2017

Abstract color picture. Bangkok Eric Kim.

Tokyo suit heart background
Low angle suit. Kyoto, 2017

Tokyo suit abstract Eric Kim

Umbrella and diagonal lines. Tokyo.

Eric kim umbrella abstract.

5. How do I know what my best pictures are?

LAUGHING LADY by Eric Kim Contact Sheets from MASTERS
LAUGHING LADY by Eric Kim Contact Sheets from book: LEARN FROM THE MASTERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY

The art of choosing your best pictures (image-selection) is the most difficult thing in photography.

Laughing lady eric kim. NYC, 2015
Laughing lady. NYC, 2015

Practical suggestions to know how to choose your best picture:

  1. Wait at least a week before choosing your pictures: This will help you forget the memory of shooting the picture– therefore it will allow you to be more ‘objective’ when judging your pictures.
  2. Look at your photos as small thumbnails: By judging your pictures as small thumbnails, you can better determine whether your pictures ‘pop out’ at you– and you can also judge your compositions better as small thumbnails. Therefore, don’t look at all your pictures full-resolution or full-screen. By judging your pictures as small thumbnails, you will save time, and better see what your best pictures are. As a tip, If your pictures work as small thumbnails, they are good pictures.
  3. Follow your gut: Do your pictures punch you in the gut, or do they give you a luke-warm “meh” response? Only choose your pictures that really excite you, and pictures you are really enthusiastic about.

Here are some of my ‘contact sheets‘, for you to better understand how I choose my favorite pictures.

You can also see the benefit of shooting many pictures– the more pictures you shoot, the more likely you are to get a good one.

As a practical tip:

When in doubt, shoot 25% more pictures than you think you should.

By pushing yourself to shoot more, you are more likely to evoke an interesting reaction in your subject, or help your subject relax. Also, in photography, we often give up too easily. Push yourself past your comfort zone, to make truly great pictures:

Contact sheet. Tokyo eye, 2016.
Contact sheet. Tokyo eye, 2016.

Contact sheet. Girl laughing with blue sunglasss. Kyoto, 2017.

Contact sheet. Cindy mask. Nyc, 2015
Contact sheet. Cindy mask. Nyc, 2015

Contact sheet of Cindy in mirror in our hotel room. Saigon, 2017.
Contact sheet of Cindy in mirror in our hotel room. Saigon, 2017.
Contact sheet Istanbul
Contact sheet. Istanbul, 2015.
Contact sheet Downtown LA. Fingers.
Contact sheet.

Girl pinnochio nose-contact copy
Contact sheet: Pinnochio nose / Downtown La, 2015

eric kim contact sheet new orleans street photography portrait orange

marseille-contact-sheet copy
Marseille contact sheet.
downtown la eye contact sheet
I kept clicking until he looked at me.

tucson-contact-jpeg red lady hair
People think this picture is a candid photo. It is not.

Conclusion: ‘Good’ pictures is a matter of taste

Whatever pictures you deem as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ will be a matter of your personal taste.

There is no objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ pictures out there. What matters is whether you think the picture is good or not.

Up. Melbourne, 2016
Up. Melbourne, 2016

If the picture hits you in the gut, and reverberates in your heart, and embeds itself into your mind’s eye– it is a good photograph.