Value Added
April 25th, 2016 by David LaBelle
The addition of a bird to a static photo of a bridge is just enough spice to give the image some life. Photo by David LaBelle

The addition of a bird to a static photo of a bridge is just enough spice to give the image some life.
Photo by David LaBelle

“And that’s not all,” the excited voice in the advertisement squawks. “Act today and you’ll also receive …”

Hoping to entice buyers by sweetening the deal, the seller “adds value” to the package.

Like the bonus of a comb or carrying case, small details in your photo compositions can be the difference between an average photograph and one that evokes an emotional response, inviting viewers to return again and again.

A dark figure walking in the background, a flag awakening in a breeze, an unexpected shaft of light breaking through a bank of dark clouds, or small gestures like the tilting of a head or positioning of a hand can transform an ordinary picture into something special.

The difference between a good picture and a great picture is often found in the smallest of details.

Like spices seasoning a meal, accents should not overpower your primary subject. They must quietly enhance the visual flavor and add to the overall content of your main photographic dish. Too much seasoning can overwhelm the flavor of a meal, and too much random, unrelated clutter can ruin a photograph.

“See all corners of the frame” is the advice many photography teachers tell students learning composition. Be deliberate. Position every element where you want it before you press the shutter. None of this “I’ll crop it later stuff,” they grouse.

Composition is the stage you build in your viewfinder while waiting for a performance to begin. It is a deliberate act.

Documentary photography is about capturing fleeting moments. A fraction of an inch or a half-second can be the difference between a compelling image and an anemic record of a person, place or event. As photojournalists, we live in those half seconds. It is within these fleeting fragments of time stories are told: a face contorts, a head tilts, a bee unexpectedly lands on a nose.

Anticipating, patiently waiting for and recognizing the supportive accents that enrich a composition, is one of the traits separating craftsmen from “button-pushers.”

Most of us experience happy accidents—those lucky, unplanned things that happen in our viewfinders and make our pictures better. But most seasoned photographers don’t count on luck. They believe good things come to those ready for the unexpected.

Some photographers—those left alone in the woods too long—become prone to humming or chanting like monks, praying for a rainbow to appear or a string of geese to move across the sky of their vacant compositions. I have acted similarly.

Others try to “will” a deer or red fox to step out of a dark forest into golden, late afternoon light so their hairy coats will catch the day’s last rays and add magic to their chosen scene. They hope for karma from the photo-gods.

While we often work hard to clean up backgrounds, positioning our cameras to block or remove distracting elements, the smallest of accents—such as a bird flying through the frame—gives life or adds value to our images.

When we relax, open ourselves to the unexpected and recognize the wonder before us, magic often happens.

Make sure you always have a few frames left on your card, and keep your camera turned on and mounted on your tripod until it is too dark to see.

The ordinary may become extraordinary right before your eyes if you make yourself and your camera available.


David LaBelledaveL_mug_2011 is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He grew up on a frog farm in rural California, roaming the creeks and hills with his coon dogs. Many of the lessons he learned during those magical boyhood years have been applied to photography and teaching the essence of this art form. For more information, visit