The Holy Trinity of Photography - Digital Image Group
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Camera and Photography

The Holy Trinity of Photography

Last week, my wife had me take the Myers-Briggs personality test, and it turns out I am somewhere between an ENFP and an ENFJ. This apparently means that I am creative and love people, which might explain why I love social media. I’m also one of those rare creatives who love specificity and analyzing why things work. (Also good for social media.) At university, I was however constantly asking the kinds of questions that annoyed creative teachers, questions like: Why does this story work? or What makes this image good? And more often than not, the answer was some form of: Whatever feels right.

What. The. Crap. was usually my response.

After much soul searching (reading lots of books) and challenging my creative perceptions (being shot down by editors) I picked up the career-changing book “The Moment It Clicks” by Joe McNally.

In it, he tells how an editor, in the beginning of his career, told him to pursue the holy trinity of photography – three elements that when applied to his work would take his work from mediocre-at-best to beautiful and ultimately sellable. I have since applied this to my own work and taught it for years to students, some of whom have gone onto successful careers of their own.

*Note: This assumes that you have a basic understanding of how to capture a sharp and properly exposed image. If you don’t have a grasp on those two fundamentals, you will have to master those before anyone is going to buy your work.

[ 4 minute read ]


If you capture one of these elements, your image will be good, two of these elements, your image will be great, all three of these elements and somebody somewhere will probably buy your image. If you can capture all three in your work consecutively, then you have a career.


Beautiful light can turn a mundane fence into art, a mountain into a vista or a photo of your child into a portrait that everyone will be falling over themselves to get a copy of. Quality light is so often what sets the amateurs apart from the serious shooters. This could be as simple as sunset light or indirect light coming through a window.

Example: You are asked to take a photo of your niece for her graduation. Snapping a pic at noon, under bright sunlight, will produce the kind of crap that is easily forgotten. You decide to meet her in the evening and begin taking photos as the evening light becomes golden.

Already, you see that the images are turning out nice.


Vivid color draws our eye. It makes images POP off the page or screen. Great color is often an indicator of a quality image. This can be the bright colors of a flower or the rich tones of leaves after rainfall. It could even be the rich monochromatic hues of an amazing black and white.

Example: You knew you wanted to shoot color so you asked your niece to wear a beautiful green dress to offset her red hair. You also tweak the saturation up just a touch in post-production. With great light and strong color your photos are turning out beautifully.

You could stop at beautiful – most people do. But you’re not most people. You want a magazine cover. So you look for the elusive third part of the trinity.


Emotion is the trump card. Emotion is difficult to capture because you have to anticipate it. So often, emotion is gone before you can snap the shutter, but when you capture real emotion, it turns your images into something that viewers respond to on a deeper level – an emotional level.

Example: The light is good and the colors are great, but you haven’t captured the shot that just wows either of you, so you start asking her about school and boyfriends and anything you can to get her to stop focusing on your camera; stop focusing on posing and trying to model. Then she remembers something that happened last summer, and she laughs. Click. “Wait,” she says. “I wasn’t ready!” Click click. She laughs again. Click click click.

You both look at the photos and see the shot where the beautiful light, strong color and authentic laugh work together for the shot that makes you both smile and know:

That’s the shot.


What happens when you are photographing something that doesn’t have any emotion, like a fish or a car?

In those circumstances you want to look for peak action. The moment the fish darts past a predator or the racecar clips the bumper of the car in front of it on the track. That peak action will also create an emotional response in the viewer. Why do you think National Geographic keeps showing documentaries of animals eating each other? It’s all action baby.

Don’t agree? Email me with your questions or comments.