Good photographs.
April 7, 2008 3:14 PM   Subscribe

What makes a great photograph?

I checked out some books on design and photography from the library. I'm learning some new things, but I find a lot of the information quite vague and theoretical.

An example... from the book, The Creative Photographer, the author defines a good photograph as "Great pictures make a person or event live in front of us and offer an intense experience to the viewer. Great pictures speak for themselves. They are loaded with emotion and a sense of history. They jolt us at once and each time we look at them. They have the ability to connect with new audience."

It definately makes sense, but when I'm out shooting the advice doesn't help me much.

I guess it's all subjective. I like photos that feature contradictions, color contrasts, juxtapositions, humor, deviance, silhouettes, reflections, and pareidolias. And of course the fundamentals such as balance, rhythm, etc.

When I take pictures, I look for the above elements. I hope I am taking the right approach.

What are some specific elements that you like to see in photographs? Examples?
posted by sixcolors to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

More abstractly, a good photograph captures what your mind saw, and allows someone else to relive your experience by looking at the picture. How do you apply that to your shooting? Simplify, so the image only contains things that you want. One easy way: before pressing the shutter button, look at the image, not through the camera; pay particular attention to the edges and corners and get rid of distracting elements.

And take lots of pictures. Practice practice practice.
posted by phliar at 3:28 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have nothing technical to point out, but I did look at photographs differently after reading the essay "Understanding a Photograph" by John Berger (here in pdf). He discussed how it isn't about photographing a or b, but choosing to photograph at a moment as opposed to b moment. There's also great stuff in the essay about the poles of absence and presence in a photograph...I'd check it out.
posted by meerkatty at 3:30 PM on April 7, 2008 [9 favorites]

Andy Warhol said the definition of a good photograph is one that is in focus, and of someone famous.

There are as many definitions of good photography as there are photographers. But there are commonly accepted rules that can be used to help you create consistently pleasing photographs. But on the other side of the coin, all rules are made to be broken. Get yourself some books, read photographer's blogs with sample photos, Google photographic terms (composition, exposure, etc.); learn what diferent shutter speeds and f-stops do. Figure out which photos you like.

Shoot, shoot, shoot. Then shoot some more. If you really like something, don't worry if the rules say it's "wrong." After a while, you'll realize that you are shooting without consciously thinking about the rules. Like riding a bike, it will become second nature. You'll be able to visualize how you want the finished image to look, and you'll know how to expose and compose in order to achieve that image. But it won't happen overnight.

If you can look for a good weekend seminar in your area, or even travel to one, it will give you a big advantage.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 3:54 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

This may be kind of old school, like from the Renaissance, but it works for me. Pick ten photos that you think are the top ten ever (photos that you really like and would like to be in the same field with). Learn how they were made technically and artistically. Learn a bit about the photographers. Give yourself a superquick education that way, and emulate those photos and use those techniques.

Eventually you'll understand why those artists did what they did and you'll find a style that serves you well that will totally belong to you.

This isn't an exact answer to your question but I think it will be helpful to better understand things that already exist that you can learn from.

Good luck and hopefully you'll be able to post a follow up with some of your pics. I'd really like to see them.
posted by snsranch at 4:49 PM on April 7, 2008

I like symmetries that break (such as a river with reflection visible, but its bends and banks affect how much reflection there is), I like well-controlled color palettes, and I like it when the visual field is divided unequally but in balance (more space over here, but more activity over here, or mutatis mutandis color, texture, etc.). I also like composition that departs from object-and-background structure: The foreground fills the whole frame, or runs off it even.

But that's just me.
posted by eritain at 4:58 PM on April 7, 2008

Try either of Scott Kelby's books, book one or book two. Instead of tons of theory, these books show give practical tips based on what you see in the photograph supplied. I have also heard great things about Joe McNally's book.
posted by Silvertree at 5:04 PM on April 7, 2008

Exactly, most of the "great" photographs are notable because the photographer was in the right place at the right time and had the technical chops to frame the subject, adjust for lighting, and hold his/her hand steady enough to get the shot.

I think this is answer is a cop out unless we are limiting the scope to photojournalism or something. What about all the photographers who are working in a studio where they control every facet of the lighting, composition, subject matter, etc.? It's not like you can just happen to walk onto a set and be in the right place at the right time when every detail is deliberately planned.
posted by bradbane at 5:47 PM on April 7, 2008

(forgive me for using for all the links below, but its the first and easiest page of examples I could think of)

In my opinion:
Great photographs are simple. (meaning = the photo isnt overloaded with to many components. A picture of 1 person sitting in an empty stadium is much more visually striking than a picture of every seat filled.)

Great photos are visually striking (or unusual). (meaning = a picture of 1 person standing in an empty field is kinda boring. a picture of 1 person in an empty field, levitating 1 foot off the ground is striking.)

Great photos capture emotion. (or a sense of humanity that transcends the non-living elements of the photo)

Great photos naturally and easily draw your eye to the subject. (as opposed to this photo that causes my eye to continually wander, searching for an "anchor point" that I'll never find)

I'm sure there are a ton more but thats just off the top of my head. (yes, I realize these photos arent prize winning, and they are only my opinion)
posted by jmnugent at 6:06 PM on April 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

The great French photographer Robert Doisneau was asked this question and could only say,
"If I knew how to take a good photograph, I’d do it every time."

But his photos are always worth a look and a study. Here is a gallery:
posted by bbranden1 at 6:15 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was on a trip with a friend who got frustrated because my photos were good and his were crap. He asked me why this was.

I pointed out something that is so obvious that people forget it. A photo is nothing but a rectangular image framed a certain way. Nothing else gets in there. You have to put in what you intend to put in, leave out what you intend to leave out, and remember that nothing else - not the smell of flowers or the chirping of birds, or your sadness or your happiness at that particular moment, or any other things in the vicinity, will be taken away in that frame.
posted by zadcat at 6:17 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

PS: Take a look at, a site that takes photo submissions from site visitors (both amateur and pro) and discusses them in depth, giving Photoshop tutorials along the way to demonstrate the ways photos can be improved.
posted by bbranden1 at 6:27 PM on April 7, 2008

I think a good photograph is taken by a good photographer.

When you get too technical about what makes a photograph good, you lose that sense of emotion that the author is talking about.

Shoot what inspires you. Shoot things that interest you. Take as many pictures as you can at different angles, with different compostions. When you get home and sort through them, you'll be able to sort the okay ones from the great ones yourself.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 7:01 PM on April 7, 2008

What makes a great photograph? Light.

Aside from that, well, it really depends on who you ask. Ansel Adams and Man Ray would give very different answers, as would David Hockney and Joel Peter Witkin.

For me, the point at which a photograph is really evaluated is the moment at which it is shown or seen by someone other than the photographer. I take all sorts of snapshots as visual notes, but without considering them in an aesthetic sense, I can't say that they're "good photographs," even if they fulfill their role ("Oh, yeah, I need to buy butter.")

From that, a photograph should justify being shown—there should be some answer to "Why are you showing me this?" even if the answer is muddled. But that desire and intention to communicate should exist. I think this is true of pretty much every communicative endeavor, the ability to supersede "So what?"

So, it should be communicating something. At that point, there are two different variables that go into whether it's good or not: the quality of the ideas being communicated and the technical skill in communicating them. Some great ideas or feelings or images can surmount bad or accidental presentation. And some photographs are technically brilliant enough to be compelling, even when the image itself is pretty trite. That's the "How'd they do that?" response, at least for me.

Ultimately, the photographs I think are the best are ones in which the technical aspect works in concert with the message, where form and function are inseparable.

So, to crib from journalism, the best photos to my eye are the ones that have the best answers for what, how and why (where, when and who tend to get collapsed under "what").

Is that helpful advice? I think really, the best and only advice is to take as many photos as you can, ruthlessly edit, and go see (in person) as many other photographers' work as possible, keeping in mind the same questions that you'd ask of yourself.
posted by klangklangston at 7:13 PM on April 7, 2008

Hundreds of different aspects can make a great photo, but one of the most overlooked in my opinion is that people love to see something which they don't usually see in everyday life. If you can photograph something unusual or rare, people will want to see it. This can be as simple as unusually stunning colours in a sky, or a stunning piece of photojournalism. Or a macro shot of something which cannot usually be seen.
Composition, timing, technique, etc. can be very secondary if the subject is unusual enough. My advice to amateur photographers is to seek the unusual! It's all about finding the places where the photos almost take themselves.
posted by BobsterLobster at 9:59 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think a good photograph is taken by a good photographer.

I don't agree. Great photography is done by risk and adventure.
Those who do it by design are less the artist and more the architect.
Design is bricks and mortar. Risk is life. Life is unpredictable, as all art should be.

Some of the greatest photographs known to man are the ones taken by the common man - "Joe Blow" - he points his camera at some thing that...... makes him feel something... Something that makes him feel it in his soul. It's the 1950's. He looks , he clicks that Brownie. A thought. "That's cool". The photo may be blurry. It may be out of focus. He get the roll back from the drugstore. Most of the shots are of friends and family. It was a holiday. The liquor was flowing. There's one photo that shows his aunt reacting to a joke. In one hand, her glass of wine is spilling onto the rug. The other hand .... well, she's trying to fend off Uncle Charlie. . In the background there's a young couple kissing awkwardly. It's a scene. It's a moment. It's human. It's life.

It's also one of the best photos you've ever seen.

Most people (in that time) would never put that in a photo album. They'd look at that pic... maybe chuckle... and throw it away. It's not a "great" photo. It a novelty. Not worthy of inclusion in an album of fond memories.

My heros are the one who put it in that album. They saved it . They realized that it's something. Something unusual. Something different. Something good.

It tickles a part of you.. that you know.. in your heart.. That most people won't "get it". But you put it in that photo album anyway.

It's us. Then. It make us who we are now.
You look at the photo and realize that perfection is a dream
But the moments of imperfection are magic on the film.

Those people who saved those "less than perfect images". The vernacular photographs.
Did they know they were taking a great photo?
But I think the best ones where when they got the roll of film back
And were surprised by the magic of the moment.

It makes me happy to know that there were people who had the courage to save the "mistake" or "weird" photographs. Sometimes those are the greatest photos....
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 12:04 AM on April 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Edouard Boubat is my favourite photographer. When I stop and think why it is I love his photographs it is because they are simple, beautifully composed and they feature people. All sorts of people. Populate your photos with human life and the rest will eventually follow.
posted by fire&wings at 4:30 AM on April 8, 2008

I asked a similar question once before. I have since read every book recommended in that thread, and it has helped me immensely to decide how to set up a shot and to 'see' the photograph before I take it.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:02 AM on April 8, 2008

A. D. Coleman1, a photography critic for the Village Voice for decades upon decades, divides photography into two forms: directorial and what could be described as documentary or straight photography. There is a spectrum of creative control, on one end imagine a commercial photographer choosing his background, his model, the model's pose, the placement of lights, the frame of the photograph, his depth of field, his focus, and his exposure -- on the other end imagine throwing a camera into the air and setting the shutter to the timer. Here's a vague definition for you that I'll clarify: to make a great photograph you have to have enough control at the time when it counts.

The problem with photography, and what makes it so incredibly hard to make good photographs, is that with either of the above methods could end up with a great photograph.

John Szarowski, one of my favorite essayists/historians on photography said much the same thing in his introduction to William Eggleston's Guide:
Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one's cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite. The world now contains more photographs than bricks, and they are, astonishingly, all different. Even the most servile of photographers has not yet managed to duplicate exactly an earlier work by a great and revered master.

The reader can demonstrate the point by clicking off a roll with the family Instamatic or Leica without moving from his chair: point the machine at random this way and that, quickly and without thought. When the film is developed every frame will define a subject different from any defined before. To make matters worse, some of the pictures are likely to be marginally interesting. Even the automatic cameras that record the comings and goings in banks describe facts and relationships that surprise mere eye-witnesses.

It is not easy for the photographer to compete with the clever originality of mindless, mechanized cameras, but the photographer can add intelligence. By means of photography one can in a minute reject as unsatisfactory ninety-nine configurations of facts and elect as right the hundredth.
That is what a photographer does, more than anything else: choose a view of one moment out of an infinite selection.

Mastering technique gives you more opportunities to create great images, but if you look through the portraits of even a photographer like Ansel Adams you'll find his technique worthless. But forty skilled photographers could have driven by Hernandez, New Mexico without being able to create Adam's classic image (which he made without having time to meter). This in our spectrum of creative control, this falls towards the documentary end. There are still a million creative choices: framing, exposure, focus, film, development, etc. He was using an old 8 x 10 camera with a decent lens, but not the best most whiz-bang equipment. But he found that locale as it was and he did his damnedest to translate that into the final image.

There's an image by Andreas Smetana analyzed by The F-stop magazine that is an incredibly example of directorial photography and the other end of our spectrum. In it a group of ten people all desperately, defiantly, cling onto an unstoppable rugby player who is still charging forward. The image was compiled in photoshop from several images that were all shot in a studio situation. This kind of image requires hours of work, a staff, and thousands of dollars. It was probably made using some of the best equipment available. Here a the photographer had an abstract concept and did his damnedest to translate that into the final image.

So here we have two arguably great photographs made decades apart with entirely different means, methods, and intentions. There are two critical similarities, though: both photographers used their cameras as best they could to produce their final image and both made the image at the right time. Adams found his, while Smetana made his. That is the spectrum available to us as photographers. Adams had infinite control of his camera with extremely limited control of his scene: but enough control when he found his scene to make a great image. Smetana did it the harder way: with infinite control of the scene and his camera. And he made one hell of an image, but not one that will ever be praised or regarded as highly as much of Adams' work. But to just plainly make an image as great as Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico from scratch would be incredibly hard and nigh impossible.

Having enough control at the time when it counts is what leads to making great images. Having enough control and creating or finding times when that control counts are the two pursuits of every photographer; thankfully, these two pursuits have one simple solution: have your camera with you always so you can take as many pictures as possible. You'll learn what works and doesn't work, and more importantly when the time that counts pops up in front of you you'll be there to catch it. Reading theory and manuals helps as does looking at the work of other photographers, but nothing will help as much as using your camera and continually trying new things.

1A. D. Coleman "The Directorial Mode: Notes Towards a Definition" from Light Readings
posted by ztdavis at 6:36 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

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