What Makes A Good Photograph?

What makes a good photo is one of the essential questions, when talking about photography. No matter the degree of proficiency in understanding and feeling the visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography, etc.), we all have an inner compass which indicates (on a subjective level, of course), what photos are good, less good and bad. If you are a true beginner, you must have an idea, at the first perception level, that a photo pleases you, or not. As an artist, or an art curator, you have more “tools” in understanding and assessing the value of a photo.

There are many elements involved in creating a great photograph. Let’s not forget the fact that this means going deep into the territory of subjectivity. However, there must be some criteria, some sort of a systematised scheme which the value of a photo is based upon. This is why, the morphology of creating good photos, in my view, has about six structural principles: subject, story-telling, composition, post-processing, motivation and audience. Let’s see about those constituents, one by one, below.

Subject: A photo should have an interesting subject. A subject can be defined as a person, a plant, an animal, or an object, or simply an element of the surrounding landscape. But your attention should be drawn to a subject, a concept – which is the pillar of your photograph. The relationship between the subject and the surrounding space in your photo (visible, or invisible), is what makes the photo telling a story, conveying the action which animates (or not) your subject.

Story-telling: This is one of the key elements in creating a great photograph. The subject has its place in the surrounding space (even if the space is visible within the recorded composition, or not) and an interesting photo is one which shows the interaction between the subject(s) and other elements and / or the closed space. A photograph is a static image, it’s just a frozen moment captured and extracted from the space and time continuum.

Unless there is a clear idea of movement and interaction for your subject, the task of telling a story with a static subject is not an easy one. This would make a good photo, if you succeed in creating a story. And there are two types of stories: open stories, when the composition allows the viewer to imagine continuity beyond the concepts shown in the image and closed stories, when static and boundary elements within the composition feel like closing the narrative, even before its beginning.

Composition: Following the rules of composition can be a safe bet: the straight horizontal horizon line, the rule of the thirds, the guiding lines, all the derivatives from Fibonacci golden spiral, the human subject facing the inner part of the frame and not outside, towards the closest border. However, we are not here to outline all the rules of composition in photography (if one can know all of them!); just to emphasise how important it is to know them and master their use while composing a photograph.

They also say it is valuable to break the rules, to experiment with a different approach while thinking outside the box. The rules are good, but they impose a limited creative space. Within this space, your freedom of movement could be constricted. From my limited experience in photography, I have discovered three valuable things in working with the composition:

  1. It is good to know the rules of composition and apply them;
  2. It is good and liberating to break the rules of composition, but…
  3. Great results can be achieved when breaking the rules, while you know them and used them well, not when you don’t know any rules (like a true beginner, for instance).

Processing & Aesthetics: Like in the analog era with film cameras, when different techniques of developing the film negatives achieved special results on the photo paper, today we have the post-processing softwares to refine, modify and give a final look to our digital files. For many of us, this is more than tweaking contrast, saturation, straightening the horizon line and cropping.

Some fine art photographers take a bunch of photos which are just individual elements – the base materials for fine art composition, when different elements are blended together and refined in complex, long-hours demanding processes in Photoshop, or other dedicated software platforms. No matter how many hours you spend in front of your PC, refining and modifying your JPEG, or RAW files, the final look is irrevocably influenced by this process. Some prefer the more purist approach with very few image teaks on their computer, or no changes at all.

For some types of photography, when you master all other elements of building a great photo, with a camera which already has the right colour profiles set in its menu, there is no need to alter your photos anymore. A great subject with a captivating story-telling element, framed in a beautiful composition, captured with a good camera + a great lens, with the desired image settings are all the necessary ingredients for a great photo, worth exhibiting and selling.

Motivation: It is true that all those principles of making a good photograph will apply when using any type of camera: a smartphone, a compact camera, a DSLR, or a mirrorless camera. All of them are tools for capturing images, fragments of reality, they way the artist sees it. I have used all of these tools mentioned before, but I find that there is one last aspect, which is very important for me and probably for many other photographers out there: you must love the photographic tool you use. You need to use a camera which offers:

  1. sufficient technical performance, in terms of image quality provided by its sensor, software and processor, enough FPS, satisfactory high ISO performance and whatever other specs you essentially need;
  2. high quality lenses (in terms of optics, light gathering capabilities, design and build materials);
  3. weather resistance – if needed;
  4. good ergonomics, according to your style and needs;
  5. high quality materials and great design.

Knowing my approach to photography is heavily under the signs of subjectivity and moods, this is why it is important for me to enjoy this process, to be comfortable with the photographic tool I use, to love my camera, which needs to fit my style and my needs. A DSLR discourages me with its design, size and weight and this is why a mirrorless camera, like Fujifilm, can be a very enjoyable tool, more compact, beautifully designed, crafted with pleasant, high quality materials. I have used the following Fujifilm models, in their chronological order: X-Pro1, X100S, X-T1, X-Pro2 and now the X-H1, a very underrated model I have talked about here. I feel I would never go back to a DSLR and you can find my reasons why on my personal blog, in one of my oldest articles.

Audience: All photographs should have a purpose; be it recording personal memories, documenting events, portraits, street photography, or a personal trip for a travel diary. Some are for your own use and archives, some are to be sold to your clients and some are to be displayed in exhibitions and in virtual / real art galleries. Some photographers already have the right audience in their mind when making the photos (it’s only natural, when you are a professional), but some amateur, passionate photographers can find their convenient audience afterwards. I don’t think that one approach is better than the other, in the way they could influence the value of a photograph.

As a conclusion, all those aspects above, subject, story-telling, composition, post-processing, motivation and audience are the keys in making good photographs. But beyond theory, what’s really important (and wonderful) is to go out and shoot, experiment; test some compositions following the rules of photography, then forget them for a while and create new rules. Make that photograph the true image of your vision, of your emotions! I think this is the most important element; to mirror your true feelings through images. Liberate yourself and feel the bliss of being the creator of your own universe, expressed through good photographs! You will find out more about freedom in photography in a future article, coming soon. Stay tuned!

Exclusive content, previously published in March 2020 on FUJI X PASSION – Inspirational Photography Magazine (Premium Area) – www.fujixpassion.com

© Sebastian Boatca 2020 / www.sebastianboatca.com

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