Monday, June 18, 2007

What Makes A Photograph Good?

Below are some characteristics common to many (but not all) good photographs. There are definitely great images which break one or even all of the rules, but you'd be well advised to consider these rules and ignore them only when you have a specific reason to do so.

1) the photographs are interesting - I don't mean the subject matter - there needs to be something in the print to catch your eye. You may photograph your lover, but for us to be interested in the photograph, there has to be something that we can see that is interesting - we can't see their personality - the interest has to come from the composition, the pose, their appearance. the print has to be interesting minus the feel of the wind, the warmth of the sun, the smell of the pines.

2) compositions are simple - any item in the picture has to reinforce the main theme, not stand on it's own as another interesting detail

3) a good photograph tends to have a sense of rightness to it - the various parts are arranged in a pattern which makes sense. It may not be harmony or balance since that's not necessarily what you aim for, but there has to be an organizing pattern to the arrangement.

4) It's uncommon for a great photograph to have harsh lighting. So unless you specifically want harsh lighting, you'd be well advised to avoid it. This doesn't necessarily mean you can't photograph at noon, you just need to plan.

5) Great colour photographs usually have a limited palette of colours which work together. When colours are similar, they have to be very similar, when not they need to be complementary - more or less opposite on the colour wheel.

6) Great photographs show the unusual or the unnoticed - either the subject is something most of us don't get to see (because of travel or not getting up early enough) or it's so ordinary that we tend to pay little attention until someone points out that the old warehouse has interesting shapes, patterns, shadows, etc.

7) The best photographs don't need big cameras and fine printing- I'm uncomfortable even writing that since I am a great believer in the highest quality printing standards, but there's some truth that the better the image, the less dependent it is on pristine quality. Yes, perhaps pepper # 30 benefited from being shot on 8X10 instead of 35 mm. with a fast film, but I'd bet it would still look great. I have never seen pepper # 30. Oh, I've seen many's the reproductions and certainly the better ones show you more of why it's a great photograph - but none look bad. I think we sometimes hide behind careful technique, using it as a substitute for making great images. I know for myself, when I was younger, I tried to solve my problems with going to 4X5 instead of learning to see better.

8) Great photographs often have a message - it may only be 'see how pretty this flower is' in which case the image better have shown the flower to advantage, revealing it's beauty. The message may be one of passing on a feeling - of tranquility or anger, disgust or excitement, joy or sadness.

9) A lot of really good images make you wonder - 'where is he going?', 'what's round that corner?'

10) And last and most importantly - the truly great photographs are mostly taken by people who take a lot of good photographs and who are ready for the rare great image, but greatness is also a matter of luck. There's a certain something in a truly great image which comes not from the photographer being clever. Sometimes photographers create magic.

Are you ready to create magic?

I will say again, all of the above 'rules' are open to deliberately breaking one or all of them (though it might be tough to create a great image that breaks every one), but for the most part, this is the way to bet.


julie o'donnell said...

As I read you comments on what makes a good photograph and I see your reference to the classic masters of photography like Weston and his peppers, I'm interested to hear if you regard many of the contemporary photographs to have these qualities? Reading the article, I find it very difficult to apply the criteria to anything that has that 'deadpan' style, or doesn't showcase a scene in terms of rendering the subject beautifully, more so just rendering an object for the sake of saying something about it, or the world around it. I don't ask because I think your thoughts are 'wrong' (bearing in mind that I don't think there's such a thing as wrong in this context), Im just interested in your take on them. I struggle with it because I generally do look for those aesthetics that you just described, and feel like I just don't get a lot of this modern stuff, and wondered if that's a commonly shared feeling...?

George Barr said...

Interesting point Julie. I guess we'd first have to come up with a list of modern 'masters' whose images we can check to see how they fit my ideas. Saldago, Burtynsky, Kenna, Witherill,Loranc are ones that quickly come to mind and I think that the images from these photographers - the really good ones - do follow my observations (I really hate to call them rules).

Julie, who do you suggest I look at .


Joseph said...

Since Julie didn't answer yet, here is my list. Excuse the length of it, and please ignore the irrelevant ones (in your opinion). This is just an arbitrary list of modern pro photographers. Do you think any of them have any good photographs? Could you please elaborate?

George Barr said...

I have no intentions of piling through that many links but I thought I'd have a look at the first few.
I don't especially like his photographs but have to admire the tremendous effort he puts in to make them. Even though they are radically different from my own interests there are some things I can comment on. He has a superb skill with colour - almost all the images work with a limited unified palette which is very important (part of keeping things simple). Likewise his compositions though detailed are very clean most of them - the figures aren't crowded. Compositionally they are good too. The fact that some of them are bizarre doesn't enter into the equation - so yes, I think my observations about great photographs still holds here.

Very strongly composed, using diagonal lines to indicate speed and movement, lines pointing to the subject (a car), quite clean designs, great tonalities, even though these are presumably ads, they fulfill my points.

Note the use of selective focus to force you to look at the important parts of the image - often with darkened edges to keep your eye from wandering too much. Careful use of colour - a young woman who's eye colour matches the background very nicely - good compositions, very simple images.

So it looks like a small sample of modern photographers working mostly as commercial photographers still largely follow the points I made.

julie o'donnell said...

That's quite a list indeed, and although I only looked at the photographers George picked out, I think there's a definitely rather more commercial style to them. What I'm interested in more is the less commercial ones. Maybe not considered as 'masters' of our time, but certainly being touted in the arty circles...

A few I've seen recently:

Rinko Kawauchi, very big in Japan apparently.

Laura Letinsky, who is in all sorts of big galleries including the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Casino Luxembourg; The Nederlands Foto Institute; the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago.

Denis Darzacq, who is obviously shooting an unusual subject - but is using that deadpan approach as well.

There's also people like Jeff Wall, who I fail to see the merit in beyond the extreme scale of both the setup and the physical prints of his images.

These are the kinds of photographers that seem to speak to other people so directly, and yet, I feel like I'm missing something. But, we could get into all sorts of confusion about the difference between liking and appreciating, and whether the amount of work someone has put into creating an image should be taken into account beyond that visual impact of the image itself.

On the other hand, I do find Michael Kenna's photographs to be absolutely beautiful and yet I think there's more going on there than just pure visual appeal. Burtynsky, I have to look at more and in print rather than on the web, to see how I really feel about it - and the others, well, let's just say now I have some investigation to be getting on with...!

joost burger said...

That list sounds a bit 'normative' to me..

Could you give an example of a photograph made by a famous photographer who doesn't meet your criteria?

andrew said...

George, with all the writing you post, plus photography, plus a job, you must be twins.
Two comments:
One, simpleness. Your own photographs of the month are not simple. I like them in part for their complexity. Yes, everything is unified, but the images are complex. Complexity,as you have shown us, is not to be avoided, but managed, organized, even simplified.
Two, a limited pallette. This ignores the use of color in contemporary painting, where a composition can involve many hues. Makes for arresting photos, too.
Today's blog on the Luminous Landscape references an essay about photography as a "framing art." I recommend it to anyone following this discussion. And don't gorget to look at "Tanks and Barracks." This interesting image in neither simple, nor do its hues comprise a limited pallette.
Thanks, George, for the thoughtful discussion. "Talking" to people around the world and sharing work via the internest brings to mind the Emersonian Oversoul.

George Barr said...

O.K. Julie, putting me on the spot here. Dennis Darzacq images tend to be clean, simple, strongly designed. He uses limited palette, ideas that are offbeat enough to make you pay attention.

Laura Letinsky - sooner or later the powers that be will discover the emperor has no clothes. How someone can come up with an idea then simply take random snapshots of them and get them in museums is beyond me but I'd be really surprised if anyone knows her name 20 years from now. I can come up with a great idea for a novel but that doesn't make me a great writer - why should photography be any different?

Rinko Kawowchi - his images don't do a lot for me but that said he uses several of the ideas I espoused in my article - limited colour palette, simple compositions, repeating patterns.

George Barr said...

Andrew makes the point that my rockwall image (currently one of the image of the month pictures)on my website is complex and he's right. Neither does this image have a centre of interest. The arrangement of the parts doesn't form any obvious formula. Colour palette is fairly limited - the blue of the wet rock and the orange of the rust and the lichen, on a grey background - orange and blue are almost complementary (direct opposite is yellow and blue, but hey...),they go together.
So it's an image that breaks lots of my own 'rules' of good images.

Abstract images, whether photographic or paintings, tend to break rules yet can still be appreciated by a fairly wide audience.

Rules are made to be broken sometimes successfully, other times not.

julie o'donnell said...

Thanks for the response, George. Just read your most recent post and it ties in very much with the sort of conclusions I'm finding myself coming to regarding judgement/taste these days - it's very interesting to hear someone else's take on it, too.

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