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  • Writer's pictureVlad Kolesnikov

What makes a good photograph?

This is a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately, a topic that I am sure even you yourself have wondered at one point or another. I wanted to at least attempt to address the question – What makes a good photograph? There are several different routes one can take when attempting to answer this. Is it the technical execution? Is it the ability to capture a moment? Or is it the deliberate juxtaposition of visual elements to make a statement? Or something in between?

I think that despite there being no concrete answer, it would be beneficial to examine some of the most iconic photographers, and some photos that have stood the test of time within the photographic community. Obviously this does not mean that a photo has to conform to these standards, but it gives a solid jumping off point… Lets start with the fact that all good photos are well executed from a technical perspective, with a strong emphasis on composition, and contrast, and they suggest something beyond themselves, meaning they tell a story. Below are some examples...

Although there are many different criteria to evaluate photographs, I believe that every great photo must have 2 things, INITIAL IMPACT and HOLDING POWER. It makes the viewer stop and examine the photo in greater detail. And within those details they will find even more meaning and more details. And in order to achieve that, a photograph must have these things.

  1. A Clear Subject

  2. A Sense of Timing

  3. Strong Composition

  4. Lighting/Exposure

Let me begin by saying that every photograph MUST have some sort of Subject in the picture; it can be something CONCRETE, like a tree, or ABSTRACT, like an idea, a moment or a concept. However, the more obvious and isolated the subject, or the focal point of the image, the greater the IMPACT will be. If the subject of the scene is very small or difficult to identify, people will quickly loose interest in the photograph.

How to isolate the subject

  • Depth of field

  • Minimal Background

  • Lighting – subject/background contrast

  • Emphasize the visual traits that reveal what is interesting about the subject

  • Compose the image in a way that isolates the subject

The subject of the image is then further emphasized by the Composition of the image. The composition is the placement of elements in such a way that creates a visual rhythm for the viewer’s eyes to follow. The composition should help identify the subject by using leading lines and negative space to create spatial relationships between the various elements of the image. This is also an opportunity to develop a narrative by zooming in on certain elements or by introducing elements that are only partially in frame, suggesting that there is more to the scene than what is revealed. Or one can use non-standard angles to create a sense of novelty for the viewer.

Composition can be manipulated by

  • Angle

  • Distance

  • Focal Length

  • Leading Lines

  • Geometry Explicit or Implicit (explicit – a rectangular door frame; implicit – three people looking at each other)

The process by which a light capturing device, be it film or digital sensor, is exposed to light for a period of time to create an image is called Exposure. The lightness (or darkness) of an image is then determined by a combination of 3 things:

1. Camera Shutter speed,

2. Lens aperture (F-stop, Depth of Field)

3. Sensor/film ISO.

An image can be exposed for a longer period of time to create motion blur and convey dynamics, or the aperture can be adjusted to either isolate the subject, destroying the background into bokeh, or to producing extreme depth of detail within the image. Although the ISO in and of itself has little impact on the image, it does create grain at higher levels, and allows for the manipulation the first two elements to create these effects in a variety of lighting situations.

The ideal image exposure lies in a place where the image has a full range of light from true black to true white, although this can be altered to suite the mood of the image.

Finally, the most important aspect of a photo is Timing.

The famous Photographer Harry Benson once said, “A good photograph is one that cannot be repeated.”

Having really good timing means having sensitivity to rare and unique moments, and the presence to act correctly at the right place at the right time. A good sense of timing can in some cases justify poor execution, and poor timing could potentially kill an otherwise perfectly executed image.

A moment captured is brief, ephemeral, fleeting, unique, and yet immortalized forever on film.

Although this applies more to documentative photos, this still holds true in all forms of photography. Within Landscape, it is about capturing the time of day with the best light, or capturing a unique detail in a scene. In a portrait it is about capturing the moment of the subjects expression, and even within still life, it is about capturing the moment when the light hits the subject in just the right way.

So how are all these elements combined to create the best image? This is probably even more subjective than the original question, because everyone thinks differently and values different things differently. But I’m going to attempt to break it down in the most objective, abstract, yet economical and concrete way possible, because I’m that type of person…

The capacity to store images is finite. The amount of time to capture images is finite. So all photography in a person’s life has those two limitations. There are only so many different scenes or moments that can be captured. And afterward, there is only so much storage capacity to store those images. So the images captured need to have great value to supersede the value of newer images. The value of a photo (as with all art) is determined by its viewership. And in order for a photo to resonate with its viewer it must have a lasting impact on the human psyche in either a visual or affective manner. The technical components of a photo are responsible for initial impact and the visual aesthetic, but the holding power comes from a deeper more implicit place.

In order for a photo to have holding power, it has to touch on the emotions, stir the affect and provoke thought.

The statement can be simple or complex; it can invoke an intricate narrative in the mind of the viewer through subtle suggestion, or it can be as simple as a universally recognized concept, love, emptiness, or solitude. All the greatest photos ever made have an emotion tied to the statement. Emotions polarize people and elevate the emotional response, and thus amplify the significance of the photo.

Beyond these criteria the only advice I can offer on making a good photo is that it has personal meaning because when the photographer is truly engaged with the subject, it shows in the final product. Many people aspire to be like the next Ansel Adams or the next Gary Winogrand or Avedon or Steve Mccurry, but when the subject matter doesn't resonate with the photographer, it is unlikely it will resonate with the viewer.

Once we start looking at photography through an emotional framework, we can begin to deviate from the technical aspects and even begin to bend them to our advantage, to achieve an even stronger impact and holding power.

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