The ability to identify a great photograph is the first thing any aspiring photographer should acquire, and is more important than technical mastery of a camera. It is also an extremely useful skill for all those interested in photography, whether you take photos, enjoy looking at photos or are in the market to purchase photos. Once you become proficient at spotting great photography, and understanding the properties that have come together to make it so, you will start to see and appreciate photography in a whole new way. You will take better photos, and make better decisions when engaging a photographer and displaying photos in your home. In this article, I will break down the core components that make a great photo work, and hopefully assist you in seeing them more clearly in the photography around you.
The Technicals vs. the Content of a great photo
At a minimum, a technically good photo has accurate focus, proper exposure, appropriate lighting, and (for colour) correct white balance. To be very good, it will also combine these attributes to give structure and balance to the photo within an organised composition. Contrast this to a photo’s content, which if good will provide interest, some degree of narrative, and be aesthetically pleasing. A photo with very good content will also provoke an emotional response. However, to be a great photo, it must have both the technicals and the content!
A technically good photo is something that any professional or serious amateur photographer should get right every time. Perhaps surprisingly though, a photo with good content is easier to find in amateur photos. This might come as a surprise until you start to question whether photography is an art or a science. Confused? Well consider this, anyone can learn to play the piano with the right training. They can take the lessons, learn the technique, and put in the hours of practice, but unless you have the native talent you will never play great piano. What’s more, if you focus too much on your technical playing, you will lose touch with your emotional expression.
There are a great many amateur photographers out there with native talent, but they aren’t necessarily the ones who learnt the technical skills. This is a key concept to understand because to start seeing great photos, you need to stop assuming that just because they are professionally taken, they are good. Most studio photography is in fact not very good – all that fancy lighting and oversized SLR camera gear does not make a great photo.
Understanding a Technically good Photo
If we go back to its origins, photography was more a science than an art. It was a complex chemical and mechanical process that required considerable technical skill to master. This is no longer the case, however to achieve “good technicals” a photo still needs appropriate:
- Focus (the things of interest should be the ones that are sharp)
- Contrast (a range of dark blacks to bright whites)
- Exposure (the subject and any important details should have the correct level of brightness)
- Composition (the photo as a whole should be logically arranged and feel balanced)
Of course, all rules can be broken to achieve certain effects (motion blur does not have sharp focus, fog does not have strong contrast), but we need to understand the rule before we can choose to break it!
Most of us understand that a photo needs to be in focus. However unless the camera (or more specifically lens) has a shallow depth of field, there may not be much difference between the in-focus and out of focus parts of the shot. I shot the above photo with a very shallow depth of field lens (f/1.2), specifically so the composition would be about the woman and not the roses. A good photo will always have the correct focus on the subject (in the case of people, it should be on their eyes), and better photos will use the depth of field for creative effect.
The word contrast has many meanings, and this is also true in photography. Contrast is mostly understood to be about the brightness of blacks and whites. A photo with good contrast will have a full range of complete black to complete white, and use it to direct your eye.
Notice your eye is immediately drawn to the darker objects. That is not an accident, it’s a conscious decision by the photographer to use contrast to create anchor points for your eye. Contrast doesn’t just have to be about brightness though. It can also be about colour and texture:
Frequently it’s a combination of different contrasts.
Exposure is the overall brightness or darkness of a photo. Correct exposure will mean you can see detail in the main subject of the photo while getting the overall contrast balance right. A well-exposed photo will have whites that look bright white, and skin tones that look natural.
The photos above illustrate a common problem with modern automatic cameras and smartphones. The metering calculations within the camera have been tricked by a very bright background. We don’t see this because our eyes adjust both foreground and background exposures dynamically. Camera’s can’t do this in a single shot (unless you have an HDR feature), and in trying to correctly expose the bright area, they incorrectly underexpose the subject. More advanced cameras have an exposure compensation setting where you can manually compensate for this. The photo on the right has +2.5EV.
A good photo will always have a correctly exposed subject. Better photos will use the exposure to help isolate the subject and create mood and atmosphere.
You hear a lot about the importance of composition when learning photography, and for good reason. Composition is about both the technical aspects of your photo and its content. It’s where you use your technical skills to guide the eye around the photo to find its content, and it’s about the way you arrange everything to achieve the effect you set out to achieve. I could easily write another whole article about composition, but the key thing to understand is that a great photo will be “composed” in such a way that it is clear what the photograph is about, your eye knows where to go, it looks aesthetically pleasing, and it feels balanced. Consider a few examples.
Have a look at the three photos above. Break them down into technical qualities. Is the contrast right? What about the exposure? Is everything well arranged? Where is the focus? Can you identify the subject? Is the balance right? These are all questions that go through an experienced photographers head when composing a shot. But hang on, maybe we’re missing the point. Let’s step back and consider what the photo is about. Does it tell a story? Do you know what’s happening? Is it interesting? Can you tell what the subjects are? Are you left with questions? Do you feel anything?
These three photos are ideal to lead into our next discussion. So far we’ve been talking about the technical aspects of a photo, something that a good photographer should get right every time, unless they’ve consciously decided to break some rules to achieve an effect. When used effectively they can create a striking photo that looks great and may have aesthetic appeal. Stop for a moment and look again at these three photos. Try to rank them in order of worst to best. Ask yourself what differentiates them. Hopefully you can see which photos are technically good, and can determine which has the greater interest. Now let’s talk about content.
Seeing the Content of a Photo
To be a great photo, technical accuracy is not enough. The photographer needs to combine all their skills to capture a moment in time and tell a story, or reveal something about the subject that isn’t always apparent. A photographer will need a vast arsenal of techniques to achieve this, especially when shooting in the field where they have limited control of either the lighting or the subjects. For the purposes of identifying the content of a great photo, consider the following four concepts:
Elements – what are the key elements in the photo? (e.g. a child, a dog, a mountain, the sun)
Narrative – how do the elements interact to tell the story? (e.g. the child is patting the dog)
Emotional Response – how does the photo make you feel?
Beauty – does it look appealing? Is it beautiful?
Engagement – Is it interesting? Do you go back later for another look?
A great photo will have clearly identifiable elements. These are the subjects within the composition that the photographer has consciously chosen to showcase. Great photos rarely have only one element as there is usually not enough going on to create sufficient interest. Even the simplest subjects can be composed to emphasise individual elements (e.g. a face may be composed to emphasise eyes). Only the important elements should be emphasised, and the photographer should have consciously worked to de-emphasise those elements that are not intended to be part of the composition. For example, a portrait is often shot against a plain backdrop so that anything in the background is not visually included in the composition.
Here is a shot with a lot of photographic strategies going on. Our brains are designed to see faces and eyes more strongly than most patterns, so the key elements most people will find are the girl and the dog. But, the strong colour in the floral headbands strongly draw the eye, so they become additional elements. And then there is the strong contrast formed by the black and white clothes, adding the outfit as another element.
To be a good shot, the key elements should be obvious. A great photo will introduce additional elements and start to hint at narrative.
A narrative is more something you might expect to find in a book than in a photo, but it is perhaps the single greatest component of a photo’s content for making it great. A photo needs to tell a story, or reveal something of interest about the subject, and to do this it must show the way elements within the photo interact. In the birthday photo we see burning candles on a cake, they cast a glow on the birthday girl’s face, and there is smoke suggesting some candles have just been blown out. The onlookers seem to be joining in, some with face painting. There are party hats. This photo has a very clear narrative, and you could quickly (drawing partly on your own experiences) work out what is going on.
The response to a photo can be very personal or more universal. If you are the parents of the birthday girl above, you are likely to have a strong emotional response because she is your daughter, and this is a special day. However, a great photo will have broader appeal, and draw on universal emotions. We all have birthday parties, and many of us have children, and we all were children once, so the photo above will have fairly broad appeal. Most photos involving children will draw on strong emotions, and this is why photography of children is so popular. Great photos don’t always need to show positive themes though. Many of the great photojournalists portray quite harrowing scenes, and it is the strong emotional reaction they create that provides the potential for a photo to be great, especially if it makes us pause and reflect.
A photo doesn’t have to be beautiful to be great, but beauty in itself can create a great photo even in the absence of narrative content. Take the following photo:
This is a shot of Whale Rock over Tidal River at Wilson’s Promontory. This is a beautiful spot in a beautiful place, and people come from all over the world to photograph it. So, shouldn’t it be easy to take a beautiful photo? In my experience, the answer is actually no. I’ve taken hundreds of shots of this place, but it is this one photo that I keep coming back to again and again. It doesn’t have a narrative, but it does have beauty. It also invokes feelings of calm and tranquillity, perhaps part of its allure for me.
As I’ve just mentioned, I frequently come back to view this photo of Whale Rock. It is this timeless quality that is what I mean by a photograph’s ability to engage. If you want to come back to a photo again and again to study it, or to let it take you back to the emotional place it invokes, then there’s a fair chance it has a high degree of engagement. The more universal this engagement, the greater the photo.
The Whale Rock photo has good technical qualities as well. The focus is razor sharp from corner to corner, it is rich with texture, and has great contrast, not just in brightness but also in colour (notice the grey of the rock in contrast to its surrounds). There is simplicity in the colour, and a calm space in the water that balances the chaos of the tea trees in the background. Whale Rock doesn’t always look like this. Sometimes there is blazing sun and blue sky, sometimes the tide is out and sand replaces the water in front of the rocks eliminating the reflections. Perhaps that is what differentiates this photo of Whale Rock from the others – a certain quality of light combined with just the right framing and exposure.
There is an important point to great photography here. Great photos are not easily created, but need to be seen and captured as they happen. For this reason, I usually encourage my clients to choose photography on location, and not in the studio. That way I can provide “reportage” on what I see, without the risk of trying to recreate it in the studio and coming up with something cheesy.
So in conclusion, how do you know if a photo is great? You can think about all the technical and content aspects of the photo – see how many boxes get ticked, and think about what bugs you. Ultimately, though think about your emotional response and level of engagement – chances are that if you have these, all the other aspects have come together anyway.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave me a comment below.