What Makes Beautiful Photography? Behind the Images that have Stood the Test of Time

From the photos that required several steps and chemical baths to the instant images from pocketable iphones and Android smartphones to powerful hdr cameras, the process behind the photograph has changed. But while the process has changed, the factors that make beautiful photography have not. The photos we find in museums and splayed across glossy pages in National Geographic by travel photographers capturing the likes of India, Iceland, France or China have several qualities in common. Several of these images are from the historical archives and still others capture the mundane — farmland in Indonesia or springtime in a flower field somewhere in the United States. Often grainy, sometimes blurred, and usually in black and white, these images are never lacking in beauty.

Some of these historic photos have survived on historic value, but many mix that moment in history with qualities photographers still explore today. The Rule of Thirds. Light. Timing. Emotion. Here are the principles of beautiful photography that have stood the test of time and made these images outstanding.

Emphasize the Eyes: Migrant Mother

Beautiful Photography Emphasize Eyes

Migrant Mother by Dorthea Lange, Library of Congress

An iconic image of The Great Depression, Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother shows what portrait photographers today know remains a priority: the eyes. Even without reading that the woman in the photo had seven children who survived by gleaning frozen vegetables from the field and eating small birds, one look at the image and the viewer can feel the worry in her eyes. Along with the prominence of her eyes, the photo embodies other important qualities, including the placement of her hands and the two children mirroring each side of her.

The image is far from the only historic photo that illustrates the importance of the eyes in beautiful pictures — Steve McCurry’s Afgan Girl is another.

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Timing: Muhammad Ali Vs. Sonny Liston

Neil Leifer’s image of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston as Ali became the heavyweight boxing champion in 1965 is an iconic sports image. And as every sports photographer knows, timing is essential. The image isn’t a perfectly timed punch, but a perfectly timed moment of victory for Ali as Liston is splayed out on the ring floor. Besides that perfect moment and angle (notice all the other photographers in the opposite corner of the ring) the image also uses strong composition and lighting.

Emotion makes a photograph: VJ Day Kiss at Times Square

Beautiful Photography with Emotion

VJ Day Kiss at Times Square by Lt. Victor Jorgensen, US archives

Today’s photographers using modern equipment could pick apart the art direction of the infamous image of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square the day Japan surrendered after World War II. The subject is a bit soft. The crop just below the knees is awkward. There’s a random arm at the edge of the photograph. There’s no beautiful sunset creating a golden hour glow.. And yet, the image is not only a beautiful picture but one of the most requested photos from the National Archives. So why is the image so beautiful? Emotion. Few images capture the joy at the end of the war more than Lt. Victor Jorgensen’s image. If an image can capture authentic emotion, that image can be beautiful.

Leading Lines: The Tetons and the Snake River

Beautiful Photography in Nature

The Tetons and Snake River by Ansel Adams, National Archives

There are several qualities that put this image of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons among the list of beautiful photography — after all, it is an Ansel Adams. But besides the setting sun making for outstanding light and exposure, the way the Snake River leads the eye to the mountains is now a staple for landscape photography. The winding line of the river draws the eye through the image and combined with the light, creates an image that’s far from a boring snapshot.

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The use of lines is hardly exclusive to landscapes or the time period, as evidenced by Richard Drew’s Falling Man, a horrifying image depicting a man that had leaped from the falling World Trade Center with nothing but the lines of the building behind him.

The Rule of Thirds: The Flag Raising at Iwo Jima

Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 Iwo Jima flag raising in Japan is an iconic image of the war that illustrates one of the first rules new photographers still learn today: The Rule of Thirds. The image meets one of the intersecting lines on the grid created by the rule in two places, at the flag and at the first solider. Countless historical images and current images use the Rule of Thirds as a guideline, while others use the guide to break the rules knowing exactly how the composition will influence the image. Interestingly enough, Rosenthal spotted the Pulitzer-winning moment without enough time to bring his eye to the viewfinder.

Color: Earthrise

Beautiful Photography of Earth

Earthrise by William Anders with NASA

While many historic images were captured at a time when color images weren’t yet possible, the astronaut that first shot the iconic 1968 image of the earth while orbiting the moon actually first shot in black and white. As the first astronaut hurriedly tried to swap out the film for color, another had color film in a Hasselblad ready. Color makes the image stunning on first glance and draws the eye to the only color in the image, that blue planet we call home.

Creativity: Untitled Film Still #21

Accomplished photographer Cindy Sherman challenged the idea of a photograph as documentation and instead treated an image as performance art. Her self-portraits were unusual at the time and propelled the fine art photography category forward. Her image she called the Untitled Film Still #21 is beautiful yes, but also highly creative. Part of the reason it’s so creative? It’s not a still from a film, but an imaginary scene she created that’s right on the mark.

The list of beautiful photography could easily continue into novel-length territory — but all the images have some things in common. They capture a personality through just the eyes. They capture (or evoke) emotion. They use leading lines, the Rule of Thirds and other framing techniques to create a compositionally strong image. Beautiful photography has the right timing, the perfect color and many are bursting with creativity. And besides teaching history, these images can also teach us about amazing art.

What’s your favorite beautiful picture that has stood the test of time?

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Hillary Grigonis FOLLOW >

Hillary K. Grigonis is a web content writer and lifestyle photographer from Michigan. After working as a photojournalist for several years, she made the leap and started her own business and now enjoys sharing tips and tricks with emerging photographers.