What makes a ‘good photograph’?
In this post, I will be talking about what a ‘good photograph’ is and this is solely my own personal opinion. A ‘good photograph’ will vary from person to person as does the taste of food or the preference of a certain color. So, when you read this, this is how I feel about my own personal photography or how I may critique others.
What makes a ‘good photograph’? Composition? Lighting? Color or black and white? Subject? Or does it lie in the post-processing of an image?
I believe a good photo is made from all of the above. The first thing that is important about creating a good photograph is light. Without light, there is no photograph. Second, comes composition. If you have an interesting subject, but a poor composition, the final image will not be very good. Next, is the color or lack thereof. When shooting in color, you have the choice to leave the image as a color image or to manipulate it and make it black and white. Sometimes this is good; sometimes it ruins it. Then comes the post-processing and lastly, the subject, although sometimes the subject falls into the category of color or light and sometimes color falls under post-processing therefore muddling up the last attributes that create a good photograph, in my opinion.
Light. That is all photography is about. Light flows from the world through the aperture of the camera and exposes onto the film or digital sensor creating an image. (If you do not know much about the basics of photography, you may want to click here.) You may have an amazing subject with a brilliant composition, but if there is a lack of interesting light, the photograph lacks luster and cannot reach the final quality that a photographer might look for in their work. Creating the right kind of lighting can turn a boring photo into something glorious. Take for example, a landscape – one with rolling hills and wildflowers – during midday with a bright, blue, cloud less sky and you photograph it. It may look pretty and aesthetically pleasing, but what would happen if you photographed the same landscape with more dramatic light, say near sunset/sunrise or just before a storm? Having more interesting light will make a more interesting photograph. Taking a photo of the rolling hills during a sunset would create a more intriguing sky and dramatic hills, the same would go for a stormy sky. Now, this may not be what you are looking for and that is fine. I believe you could still make a ‘good photograph’ without the interesting light, but it might just be your normal calendar picture or it might not be as ‘good’ as it could be.
Once you have the light you want, then you can focus on composition. You can have good lighting and still create a sub-optimal photo, there is not just one thing that makes a ‘good’ photo. When composing an image, it is important to be very aware of the sides of your frame. (By frame, I’m talking about what you see in the viewfinder or on the screen.) If you are aware of everything that is going on in the frame, you can better frame a shot and ultimately get a better photograph in the end. It is also a good idea to keep in mind the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds splits up your image into nine equal parts and the most interesting part of your image should be on or around the lines or intersections of the grid. By following the rule of thirds, you are more likely to create an image that is more aesthetically pleasing and therefore creating a good composition.
Let’s say that you are getting your portrait done and they center you in the frame of the camera and have you looking forward at the camera. The end result is going to look like a mug shot. Who wants to pay for that? Now, how about they put you just off to the side about where the rule of thirds grid would lie and you are posed in a flattering way. That end result will be so much better and worth paying for. Now, not every ‘good’ photo follows the rule of thirds due to a large subject, symmetry, etc., but most photographs do. All you have do is search for anything in an image search and nine times out of ten, the photo will follow the rule of thirds.
On a side note, there is also the use of cropping in post-production. I rarely crop anything and people ask me ‘why?’ I, then, tell them that the only reason I would crop was because I rushed myself and/or became careless when I was snapping shots. If ever I do resort to cropping, staying in the same ratio or creating a square are the only ways I will crop, with a few exceptions. The reason I am opposed to it is because of the very first photography class that I took, my photography professor was against cropping. Why? Because one should be learning how to make a good photograph in camera, in the field and not rely on cropping to make a good image. If one starts to rely on cropping, then your framing starts to get sloppy and soon you have to crop everything and waste time by doing so. Cropping everything also creates odd sizes which make them difficult to easily frame because nothing is the same size. So, that is how I feel about cropping and how it relates to composition.
Good lighting and sticking close to the rule of thirds are the base to a good photograph. What comes next can be created in camera or through post-processing – color. With a film camera it is generally easy to choose whether or not something will be in color or black and white due to the film you put in the camera; although you can always make color film black and white through post-processing by either scanning the film and converting it to black and white in a photo editing program or simply developing a color negative onto black and white paper in a black and white darkroom. (Yes, there are two different kinds of darkrooms – color or black and white – because they both use different papers, chemicals and processes.) When using a digital camera, deciding on the use of color or not is usually done in post-production, though some digital cameras are able to shoot in black and white.
So, which is better? Color or black and white? Neither is better or worse, though some people may say otherwise. I believe the color of the image depends solely on the image itself and the feeling that the photographer wants to portray. Some images thrive in the monotone world of black and white while others pop vibrant hues off the page in color. If an image tends to be more about texture than how the color affects the final print, black and white might be the way to go. The same might go for an emotionally charged photo; making it black and white would keep distractions to a minimum and let the viewer focus on the emotional quality. Then again, this is not always true, for example, above is Steve McCurry’s image that most of us have seen in National Geographic or some other source. It is full of emotion and yet remains in color. The intense color of the young woman’s eyes are vibrant and pull you in, if they were shades of grey I don’t think the feeling would be quite the same.
Now you would think subject would be next in the list of priorities, but your subject does not matter. Why? Because even if your subject is a piece of garbage, you can make a good photo with the right lighting, composition, use of color or black and white and post-processing. The only way subject does not come last is if your subject just happens to be light, such as with the use of lightpainting (above) or any other photo where light makes the image what it is, then of course the subject will come first.
What really comes next is post-production. In theory, if you have done everything right with light and composition, there should be a minimal amount of post-processing. Personally, I dislike post-processing and editing. Sure, it is great to go back through the photos you took on your shoot and choose your favorites, but that is not the part I’m talking about. I’m talking about opening up a photo in a photo editor (I mostly shoot digital that is why I say that, if it came to being a darkroom, that is different and whole other story), I use Adobe Photoshop CS5, and going through the process of making the image presentable to the public. When I photograph, I shoot in RAW which makes everything in post so much easier and in a way, faster. I open up a RAW image and I can adjust the image however I like. I can change the exposure, the whites and the blacks, contrast, noise, color adjustment, etc., etc. Those listed are generally all I use when post-processing my images. Sometimes, I change stuff once I am out of the RAW window of Photoshop, such as color or lightening or darkening a certain area and adding an edge burn. But that is it. Just a couple simple steps to a finished product. If it takes much more than that, I did something wrong when taking the photo and I will try again next time. I love the photos I open up in RAW and all I have to do is up the contrast and add an edge burn. That means I made a good photo.
What does a ‘good photograph’ mean to you?