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Scott Robert Lim on The 4 Elements of A Phenomenal Photograph

by Sarah Bradley
featured, photo & video

What makes a photograph stand out? What makes the human eye linger?

At a time when people snap digital pictures of everything from dinner plates to new haircuts, how do we create photographs that transcend the noise? What are the components of an image that transfixes us and makes it worth hanging on the wall?

We turned to a pro for his answers. Here’s internationally-acclaimed photographer Scott Robert Lim’s take on the fundamental aspects of every inspiring photograph: subject, light, environment, and composition.

1. Subject

There are infinite options for selecting a subject to capture on film, which, thanks to the tyranny of choice, can make a photographer’s job quite the endeavor. According to Scott, getting the subject right comes down to two things: beauty and emotion.

Beauty can be difficult to create — it often already exists in the subject and simply needs to be unveiled and captured at the right moment. Scott’s advice here is straightforward: “When beauty strikes a subject, just get out of the way and take a picture!”

Read Scott Robert Lim on The 4 Elements of A Phenomenal Photograph

photo: Scott Robert Lim

The second piece, emotion, is subjective to the photographer’s creative posing ability. Working with your subject to instill a variety of emotions within fixed poses provides a wide array of material to play with during a shoot. To inspire the right mood on set, Scott suggests telling a story and using energy words or phrases to connect with the subject.

For example, in the photo above, Scott creates an effective backdrop of a story: a taxi driver watches as a couple kisses goodbye outside his car door. We understand and recognize the scenario and can fill in the details with our imagination: the couple lingers with the taxi door ajar, the woman about to climb in — perhaps the couple just met and are in the midst of gauging the other’s interest, wondering whether they will see each other again. We also get a sense of the driver’s contentment and nostalgia; he glances over his shoulder at the couple, grinning, and we can almost feel an approving wink coming — perhaps he is remembering his own days of young love.

In terms of evoking emotion more directly, Scott encourages photographers to guide their subjects using precise descriptions of the emotions they want the image to embody. For example, in glamour shots, the directions “hug me,” “ravage me,” and “look at me” create very different tones without substantially altering the pose or even the composition of the shot..


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With one last note on infusing emotion in photography, Scott reminds us that the subject will mirror and reflect the photographer’s energy. A dull photographer will inspire dull, emotionless photos. For this, Scott implores photographers to be visibly vulnerable to an array of feelings, thereby embodying the spirit they want to capture and helping their subject trust them.

2. Light

As every photographer knows, lighting is paramount for an image; it sets the mood and magnifies drama and tension. So what is Scott’s formula for a powerful and artful photograph? Good light + beauty = impact.

Read Scott Robert Lim on The 4 Elements of A Phenomenal Photograph

photo: Scott Robert Lim

In creating this “good light,” Scott emphasizes three primary light sources: the main off-camera light, a separation or rim light, and background lighting. As to the specifics of this arrangement, Scott keeps us in suspense and skillfully explains the mystery of his trade, “I teach deadly lighting techniques: a system that enables the photographer to find or create light that will add drama to any image.”

3. Environment

Location, location, location!

Whether shooting in a decrepit abandoned prison, atop The Great Wall of China, or in a green sea off a lush island coast, Scott highlights the importance of building a portfolio within the frame of captivating locations.

photo: Scott Robert Lim

photo: Scott Robert Lim

The environment conveys its own mood. The atmospheric qualities of the air, the coolness or warmth of color, the visceral properties of texture, the relative size and shape of things on site — all of these elements set the emotional and physical backdrop for viewers and provide the context for the visual story. The harmony or tension between a subject and its surroundings can provide a uniquely provocative scene. Find the distinct qualities of your location and bring them to life in the rest of the composition — be it silhouetting a bridal portrait with a backlit lake scene or using a sharp, rustic edge of a cliff to frame a fashion editorial

4. Composition

Composition — defined simply as what you choose to put in the photo and how you arrange it — suggests an idea, a timeline, and a sentiment. The success of a photograph is won or lost on its composition; all the other elements complement it.

photo: Scott Robert Lim

photo: Scott Robert Lim

In order to create dynamic and engaging composition, Scott suggests frequently shifting the focal point within the frame. For example, when shooting newlywed couples, focus on one personality at a time — highlight the bride’s reaction to a nuzzle from her groom or her flash of attitude as she stands in the doorway with her husband-to-be. By constantly re-working the composition, you are able to better pinpoint and capture the flashes of drama, candid emotion, and play up the relationship of the subject to its surroundings.

photo: Scott Robert Lim

photo: Scott Robert Lim

One of the most important factors in securing quality composition is capturing a wide swath of shots — while making sure to limit yourself to one idea per frame. For this, Scott suggests sticking to a single concept, but playing with the composition in every aspect: capturing portrait and landscape shots, tight and wide angles, differing heights, individual and group shots, shooting detail as well as scenes, color and black/white, a diversity of emotions, a mix in depth-of-field and various lighting conditions.

While photographers work to strengthen each of these fundamental elements, Scott points out that achieving three out of four is a major accomplishment and can still produce “a killer image.” Rather than attempt to make each of your photographs hit all four marks, focus your energy on studying and delivering astonishing quality with one fundamental at a time; your images will come out more and more stunning after each wrap.

When working hard to capture amazing images — which can be attained with strength of your subject, light, setting, and/or composition — it’s worth it to slow down and focus on the fundamentals. It’s quality over quantity: a thousand photographs are worth a few phenomenal ones.


Conquer lighting, posing, composition, and post-processing. Learn more.


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Sarah Bradley

Sarah is a San Francisco-based freelance writer, music enthusiast, and lover of the outdoors.