What Makes a Good Photograph

Is this a good photograph?  Some will say yes, and some will say no...  You get to decide that for yourself. 

I was contacted by Ethan who follows my blog and he had a question.  He wanted to know what makes a good photograph.  You would think that this question would be easy to answer.  After all, I have been a photographer in one form or another for almost 32 years; Twelve of those as a serious one.  To this day it is a difficult question to answer.  Why?  Because photography is art and art by its very nature is subjective.

The word Photography means Painting with Light.  What one chooses to “paint” is their choice.  How an individual decides what is pleasing to them is completely up to them. Is there absolute truth? Yes, but not in art.  For example: I am not a fan of Picasso but does that make him a poor artist?  I say yes but so many more treat him as a master.  Who is right?  Well, I say both.  Art is defined as: the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.  This definition suggests that the individual interpreting the art already has an idea of what beautiful or appealing is at least to them. 

All right…  The above statements are my get out of jail free cards should I get some scathing e-mails for the following statements.  I am going to provide you with several things that I look for in my definition of a good quality image.

  1. Focus:  If the main subject is out of focus (if it’s people then I look to the eyes) then the photo is a bust.  If it is even just a little soft I will delete the image.  Unless it is a “family” photo but that is another topic for another day.
  2. Exposure:  Is it exposed properly?  This is the hardest one to define.  Not many times but once in a while I like the popular style of blown out skies with lens flare.  However, most of the time I would rather see priority given to the highlights.  If people are in the photograph then for me to enjoy the photo priority must be given to the skin tone.  If that pushes a nice sky to being blown out then throw a light on them, or move them around or go ahead and blow it out if you don’t have another option…  
  3. Exposure control:  This is often something that is done in post.  Images that have been effectively dodged and burned usually end up on my like list.
  4. Depth of field:  This depends on the type of photograph.  If it has a person in it then I would much rather see a shallow depth of field than a deep one.  Careful with the eyes though, they have to be in focus!  For landscapes I would say your minimum f-stop should be 11 with preference given to 16 so that the entire image can be taken in.
  5. Composition:  I like compositions that avoid the dead center of the frame.  Sure, at times it is appropriate but I think you will find that most of the time it isn’t.
  6. Distractions:  I cannot stand images where there are small items randomly sticking around the boarders.  Sometimes it is a stray leaf or a stick.  Sometimes a foot or a hand is cut off where it shouldn’t be.  These items are distractions.  Now, some images use items sticking in to “frame” the subject.  That’s fine so long as it is an enhancement and not a distraction or forgotten item.
  7. Color:  I like saturated colors most of the time.  However, if it is overdone then I will likely turn my nose up.  What is overdone?  You guessed it…  It’s subjective.  Personally, I try to stay a little closer to reality than not but I have been known to go further.  Concerning black and white images I prefer to see all the tones and a little added contrast. 
  8. Subject!!!!:  Is there a subject and does it make sense where it is at in the frame?  This is one of those key items.  If a photograph is taken and no clear subject is defined then it is…well, chaos and I like to look at photography as making order out of chaos.  Perhaps you are different.

What makes a good photograph?  The short answer is that it depends.  

What does it depend on?  It depends on your definition of art.   

Photography has been around since Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first photograph in 1826 entitled "Window at Le Gras".  Take the time to research the rich history of Photography and that will help you determine what a good photograph really is.  In order to get you started I have listed below links to photographers that I follow or admire.  Do they always produce works I like?  No, but more often than not you can bet their work is of great quality.  At least, from my point of view.  ;-)

www.billfortney.com

www.johnshawphoto.com

www.moosepeterson.com

www.artwolfe.com

www.ricksammon.com

www.seimstudios.com

www.scottbourne.com

www.scottkelby.com

www.clydebutcher.com

www.kimeldridgephoto.com (pssst...  this is my wife!) 

www.anseladams.com