What makes a photo iconic? What makes it a good story? After reading, Becoming a Better Photographer, I had a pretty good idea. To tell a story, you need to capture the moment. The mood. The essence of what is happening. The photo should create small narratives within the viewer’s mind and elicit a thousand little questions. (Who is this migrant mother? What era is she from? Why is this leopard seal bringing the photographer penguins? Where were these photos taken? How did the photographer capture this moment)? A great photo will not only create these narratives, it will draw the viewer in through the use of one or more of photography’s main ‘rules.’

According to the famous photographer, Ansel Adams:

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

Ansel Adams

Touché, Ansel Adams. Yet, there are a kind of ‘soft rules’ or guidelines for the aspiring photographer. These soft rules include:

1) Being selective with shots
2) Creating dynamic contrast
3) Changing up your perspective
4) Creating depth of field
5) Giving your photo balance
6) Capturing a moment
7) Giving thought to lighting
8) Paying attention to the foreground/background

These concepts help tell the story. They create points of interest and lead the viewer’s eye around on the photo. A photo that takes these concepts into consideration will be more dynamic and potentially iconic. Here are a few examples from the 80’s that illustrate these guidelines-to-follow:


This scene from These Pictures Of American Malls In The 1980s Are Actually Incredible is a good example of pre-composing a shot in your mind and being selective with picture taking. Malls are busy- the photographer could have randomly taken a bunch of photos of people walking by, but he waited to get the right shot. This scene is well balanced; on the left side there is a person on the top of the stairs, a person on the middle landing, a person on the landing below that one, a person at the bottom, and a couple of people on the far right below him. Orbs dangling from rods demarcate a grid. On the right side, a group of people balance out the left side. A wire overhang on the right balances out the rods on the left and create a contrast because of the variance in size and change in line direction.


Here, the photographer has captured David Lee Roth (from 1980s Music and Pop Culture Photography) taking a drink on the shallow edge of a wall of speakers. The speakers create a visually appealing pattern of black and off-white circles. Yet the pattern would be pretty dull to look at if there wasn’t a person in the foreground to break our gaze from the pattern. Roth disrupts it; he creates contrast with the middle ground (and also tension with the shallow depth of field. We almost expect him to fall off in a drunken stupor)!


This scene exemplifies perspective. Here, Joe Strummer smokes a cigarette on top of a car. But he isn’t just sitting nonchalantly on the hood, he’s laying down on it and taking a drag from an unconventional angle. The photographer took full advantage of this unusual angle by crouching down on the ground to get a better vantage point. We can tell that the camera is pointing up- giving us a ‘worm’s eye’ view of Joe. This unique perspective has taken a mundane action and turned it into something dynamic.


In this photo from Top 12 Street Photographers Who Captured the Grit of New York in the 70s and 80s, there is an incredible depth of field. Perspective lines and a pitch black background gives the viewer a sense of great depth. (How far back does that alley-way go)? The depth creates tension and a sense of uneasiness which is amplified by the expressions and gestures of our foreground figures.


This picture just screams rule-of-thirds. It isn’t too hard to see the grid in this photo from an 80’s mall. A grey and red pole demarcates the first third from the other two thirds. A woman in black demarcates the last third. Madonna albums attract our gaze on the left side, while the woman in black steals our attention on the right. The woman creates a point of contrast and balance from the red and light grey scene, as well as the rectangular pattern of albums. What if the woman were not there? The photo would feel uncomfortably off-balanced.


Now this is a moment. Freddie Mercury is singing his heart out on stage. The crowd goes wild. Freddie is dancing and moving around a lot. The energy is electric. How could anyone have anticipated what the singer would do? Yet, the photographer was able to capture the precise moment when Freddie would arch himself backwards in a moment of pure joy. The spotlight hits him just right. The contrast between this singular rock star and his adoring 70,000 fans gives us an indescribable rock and roll feeling. This photo is nothing short of iconic.


This photo from These Photographers Captured the Rebellious Youth of the ’80s is the perfect example of a creative use of lighting. The back lighting turns our subject into a silhouette. Trails of smoke from a cigarette can be seen in the light. The harsh contrast between dark and light creates a feeling of tension and edginess, which perfectly encapsulates the rebelliousness of our mystery figure.


This photo makes great use of near and far elements. The photographer could have chosen to only take a picture of the figure with a closed window, but it would have felt flat. Or he could have only photographed the landscape, but the photo would have been pretty dull. Here though, the figure lays halfway out the window, drawing our eye from him to what lays beyond.

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