A long time ago, I wrote about the characteristics that really great images tend to have in common, the idea being that knowing what works, you could make images using those characteristics.
As a refresher and based on some recent talks I gave, below are some of those characteristics
1) simple structure to the image
2) limited colour palette (ie. not too many colours)
3) bold graphic design
4) repetition - in shapes, angles, lines, shadows etc.
5) easy to relate to
6) good use of dark and light areas
7) uncluttered background
8) trigger a reaction in the viewer - it could be nostalgia, shock, empathy, even disgust
9) provide more than the experience of being there
10) tell a story
this is an incomplete list, but is enough to be going on with.
So, given the list above, what does it actually mean when photographing?
1) was simple design - this might mean cropping your image or even better moving in closer in the first place, or possibly using a longer lens to eliminate extraneous elements. That said, keep in mind #4 which is repitition. It is common to have to crop to eliminate bad elements but in so doing we sacrifice some of the repetitive elements that make the image good. At this point you have to see if there is a way other than cropping/framing to downplay the distracting elements while keeping the repetitive elements that strengthen the image. This could happen through darkening the distracting element - or reducing the contrast in that area of the image, perhaps desaturating colour in that area or even altering colour to blend better. Sometimes elements are distracting because of strong light and with a softer light source, the distraction melts - if it can do so without spoiling the repetitive elements, then changing the lighting or coming back under different conditions or even simply waiting for a cloud or sunset may be all that's needed. Remember that there's nothing wrong with simply planning to revisit this on the way back when you anticipate the lighting will be better.
2) limited colours. If you find a composition that is wonderful in every way exc. the colour palette, you can always go to black and white, but sometimes I will use the "selective colour" adjustment layer in Photoshop to change particular colours to better balance with the rest of the image.
3) bold graphic design - obviously this is largely a matter of choosing what to photograph, but keep in mind that you can sometimes dramatically increase contrast - especially in black and white. Also though, you can do some selective lightening and darkening and even dodging in Photoshop to emphasize that bold design. This takes practice to not look fake but you can take a perfectly flat gray subject and through image editing, create highlights and shadows that were never there in the first place, with a result that looks totally natural. An orange amongst some pinky reds looks quite odd. subtracting a bit of yellow from the orange will nicely help it blend in.
4) repitition - you can make repitition more obvious via careful editing, bringing out the repetitive shapes through lightening and increasing contrast, suppressing all else with darkening and reducing contrast.
5) easy to relate to - not much you can do in the editing to help here, but certainly a lot can be done in selecting what you photograph and from which position. You have to ask yourself what is it about the subject which you yourself relate to. Then ask yourself if you have done a good job in selecting the camera position to show that in the photograph. If you're photographing a tractor because it reminds you of times on the farm as a kid, then you need to photograph it in a way that best evokes that memory.
6) good use of light and dark areas. The late Fred Picker used to say that instead of struggling to rescue highlights and shadows from oblivion, you ought to be pushing the light and dark areas the way they want to go. of course this requires careful exposure and suitable lighting but his point is that if you take something that is dark gray and "burn" it down, you can create luminous rich shadows reaching into true black but with lots of slightly lighter tones. Likewise highlights.
7) many are the photographs you can't take because the backdround is just too cluttered. Amongst the worst is bright sky coming through dark trees. We tend to discount these bright areas as we look at the scene, yet when seen in a print, they are horribly distracting. If really small, you could consider cloning out the bright spots coming through the trees (or equivalent). I often find with forest, it's necessary to find high ground so I don't look up and through the trees. In other situations the distracting background can be played down through image editing but you do yourself a huge favour by offering yourself the cleanest simplest background possible in the first place, through careful camera positioning and sometimes simply walking way from an "almost good enough" situation.
8) triggering a reaction in the viewer - this one is tricky and comes back to why did you feel this image should be taken. If you want a mood to be transmitted, then you need to use appropriate image editing to communicate that mood - if you want peaceful, then harsh lighting and high contrast editing are not likely to help you. If you want sadness, then bright won't cut it. It necessary for your image to have a message, but if there is one, then you need to do everything possible to reinforce it. Remember though that the message you get from a scene isn't necessarily the message a viewer will take away from the image and that's just fine. There are examples of famous photographers interpreting one of their images in print, only to reinterpret it many years later in an entirely different way, and for neither to have anything to do with how you the viewer interpret their images, because you aren't them, you don't have the same life experiences, crises, crashes, triumphs and tragedies.
9) provide more than the experience of being there. This is a fundamental problem for a lot of hobby photographers who think only to reproduce the experience as capably as possible. Real photographic art is so much more than a competent "wish you were here" type image. You need to honestly ask yourself whether in fact the image you propose to take is simply the best imitation possible of being there, or in fact does something that being there doesn't do.
The extra can come from how the image is framed, from the arrangement of the various parts of the subject because of careful search of the scene to find the best viewpoint, it can come from detailing a small perhaps normally overlooked part of the scene or it might be that after careful analysis of the situation, you are able to produce an image which focuses exclusively on what made the scene great, eliminating everything surplus to getting that message across. Photographs can show connections which might not be obvious standing at the scene, something that might require the use of a wide angle lens to show that connection (say from near to far). Through the use of long lenses or moving in close, you can provide a different viewpoint than the usual or expected.
10) tell a story - the story might be "this is how it's made" or that's where it goes" or "here's what Fred is like" or "A goes to B goes to C..." or here's small town life, or on the farm, or raising a child.
We often discount our own lives as being so prosaic that why would anyone want to photograph it. We go out of our way to photograph small town America but don't take pictures of our town, our street. Interestingly the few photographers who do photograph what is normal to them are often "discovered" years later because they now have an important body of work telling a story about life. It is not easy to see worthwhile images in the scenes we take in every day but it can be challenging and rewarding and just plain useful. We happily photograph a garage from the 40's but won't take a photograph of the new gas bar down the street. We might not make beautiful images of the gas bar, but it could be challenging to make the best possible image of it, at the ideal time of day and with the best possible lighting and carefully composed. I've been thinking for a while that it might be a worthwhile project to photograph my neighbours doing what they like to do - whether it's work with clay, potter with cars, play with model trains. I actually got a call from a fellow physician the other day who wants to do a project on doctors and their extracurricular activities, the idea being to produce a show of these images to be mounted at the local hospital. Can you think of something equivalent in your line of work?