What Makes a Good Photo?

Is there a special technique I can learn?

Article August 2009: What makes a good photo? 

The Story Behind the Photo

Many times it can be the story behind the photo that makes it work. Until you know that full story, the image can be just...meh! Was the guy above angry at people photographing him or was he simply having fun dancing at a wedding? Hint: The latter...

In February last year I was looking around an entire gallery of competition winners. One thing that struck me was the fact that I struggled to find an image that hadn’t been heavily Photoshopped. Don’t get me wrong, there were some amazing images there and quite deservedly so. However, it got me thinking about what makes an image good!

I change my mind from one day to the next as to what makes a photo really good. One day I get annoyed at those heavily manipulated images that seem to be all the rage with many photographers these days. The next day I am loving them, processing and creating them myself!

For example, the following image from a recent wedding I shot was a set up from the start. From an idea I had when we drove past the scene on the way to a beach shoot. We stopped here on the way back to the hotel and I set up this shot. It meant stopping the traffic for 5 minutes and the result is exactly as I imagined it:

Couple on Colourful Wedding Day

Au Naturel

At another wedding during another semi-posed session, things broke down during the set up. I carried on shooting regardless. The result was me getting one of my favourite shots from that entire wedding day. This is 100% natural and has simply been converted to black and white (below).

What Makes a Good Wedding Photo

It is slightly blurred, a little grainy and overexposed. However, during the rest of the day and night I didn’t manage to get a more natural shot of the bride and her mother together. To be honest, I don’t think I could have done if I had the whole of the next day and night too!

It shows the bride in a completely natural state when deep inside the nerves are wreaking havoc. For this one moment it is all forgotten. The nerves disappear and she is genuinely being herself. For me, that makes a photo good. The "naturalness" and emotional aspects of a very simple image. I am having this printed and framed for my office.

A week or so later during a camping holiday with my family, we had an evening of exceptional light. I dragged my kids into a nearby field for some semi-posed stock shots (below left). Within minutes, things broke down (as they generally do with children). I quickly snapped this photo before my kids jumped all over me (below right).

What Makes a Good Photo Kids
What Makes a Good Photo Kids

Again, one is slightly blurred and grainy. I have just converted to black and white and added a vignette. Once again, natural wins the day for me and this will become another print on my office wall.

What makes a good photo? Choices

I sometimes feel proud to take a preconceived idea from its inception through to completion regardless of the fact that it is set up and manipulated in post processing. On the other hand, I simply love those fleeting moments that are caught without trying. The ones that you didn’t expect to get but did because you were on the ball with your finger on the pulse (or shutter) at all times.

After all, I could set up a shot with models, lighting, correct camera settings and composition that anyone could come along and shoot with any camera and get a great image. Is that photography or have I just set up a nice scene which can be photographed?

Then there are the people that:

  • Wade out into deep water
  • Hang from rock faces
  • Put themselves in danger for that one incredible image

The people that get up at "silly o clock" and drive for miles just to get the perfect light at the right time of year. The people that go the extra mile and do whatever it takes in the vain hope they may shoot a winner! Is that photography?

So what makes a good image and who is the judge of that?

Well, anything can make an image good and anyone can be the judge of that! You see, it is still and always will be down to personal preference. Beauty, or the appreciation of art in any form, is in the eye of the beholder. That is certainly the case with photography:

  • Does it really matter how the image was taken?
  • What makes a photographer good?

What about this famous image I came across once again during my research. It was taken in Vietnam by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams?

Famous Vietnam Execution Photo by Eddie Adams Before

I have seen this image over and over ever since I got into photography many moons ago and have often studied it for ages over the years. What was going through the mind of the executioner or the "VC"?

Why did this happen? What is the story?

Adams said that he simply thought Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan was going to threaten the VC but as he raised his gun, Eddie kept shooting regardless and this image actually shows the point where the bullet is entering the VC's head! On the pulse or what and once again, an amazing, thought provoking shot taken almost "by accident".

The reason for me showing this is that the moment was also captured by TV film crews who showed the clip on the evening news. Strangely, the photo has received more coverage over the years than the actual video clip ever will.

Famous Vietnam Execution Photo by Eddie Adams After


Some of the answers are possibly in this video which is definitely worth a look: http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0410/faas.html

The point of this article is to try and get you to really study photography at another level. Look at a photo and ask yourself "Is it the photo or the subject that makes it good"? Has the photographer:

  • Made the effort
  • Had some good fortune or actually set up the shot to make it good?
  • Been at the right place at the right time?
  • Always been alert?

Is it the beautiful model with perfect skin, perfect make up, nonchalant smile and eyes that touch the soul that makes the shot. Or is it the lighting and composition? Would the same shot be as good with a "normal" looking person? Could anyone have taken it?

I wonder if it is life (people or animals), that makes a photograph a good photo by bringing emotions into it? Without people present, photography takes on a slightly different angle. Sure, we can see beauty and destruction in what mother nature has created and torn apart. We can even see the horrors and fruits of man’s intervention, but people add a whole new dimension.

What makes a photo great then?

I would say that it is an image that shows something extraordinary. Something that makes us stop and think, become nostalgic or emotional. Something that not many people could take or set up.

There is an overwhelming amount of tutorials and "how to’s" online these days. Couple that with the fact that just about everyone has a camera with them most of the time and millions if not billions of images are shared online every day, I am fast becoming numb to good photography.

Sure, purpose made, set up and heavily processed images still rock my boat sometimes as an art form. However, it is still the natural, hard to get, spur of the moment, thought provoking and phenomenal images that really stop me in my tracks. Whether they were taken with a Nikon D4s or a camera phone!

Remember to leave comments and suggestions throughout please. I will answer where I can.

- Nick Stubbs

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