What Makes a Good Photograph?

Last weekend I went on a book design course at the World Photo London, festival. The course was led my Stuart Smith of Smith design, who make around 30 photo books every year. The number one consideration of the workshop was editing, and Stuart recommends that you get someone else to edit your work. Photographers have so many other associations to their images, i.e. the experience they had when taking the photo. The important information is what can be taken from the image itself – everything else is supplementary. It helps to trust someone else who has a more neutral response to your images.

This has led me to think about what makes a good photograph and also to revaluate my own work. A lot of the photographs that I thought were going to be in my book project are now out. Some photographs that I thought were maybes are now definitely in. I have gained a new way of looking at my work and I now know that I need to strive even harder to make more interesting photographs.

What makes a good photograph? I saw a quote recently by Magnum photographer Constantine Manos “Taking good pictures is easy. Making very good pictures is difficult. Making great pictures is almost immposible.” Great photos are easy to spot. We know them when we see them, but hard to pin down and define what exactly makes them great. For me a great photo has all the elements of a good photo (composition, good light, aesthetics, expression, capturing a moment, telling a story) but then something else. That something else is hard to define and is varies depending on what you are looking for. It could be mistery, subtlty, a feeling of uneasyness or wonderment. It has to be something that sustains your interest, forces you to want to know more, and makes you keep looking – rather than flicking onto the next one. There has to be an element that causes you to remember that photo and will make you go back and look at it again and again. Something that the photographer brings to the image that is greater than the sum of all of its parts, and gives more than a depiction of a scene, or what one might have seen with the naked eye.

In this digital age where “everyone is now a photographer” (Martin Parr), is it becoming more and more difficult to take a great picture? I don’t think so. There are more good pictures, and a great deal more bad pictures, but the great ones still stand out. I am setting my own goals higher and will be striving to take better pictures.

Thanks to Ruby for giving such an open expression to my camera and helping me to get a bit closer to where i want my pictures to be.

4 comments
  1. Anne-Marie said:

    Is that Ruby? Brilliant pic Kirsty, I really like it.

  2. Thanks for you reflections Kirsty – maybe there is too much emphasis placed on what makes a ‘great photograph’ or even a ‘good photograph’. These things will always be contested and more often than not the ones that win photography awards don’t seem that special or original to me. And someone could randomly produce an iconic image by being in the right place at the right time, but the rest of their work might be pants. Perhaps we should talk about what makes a great series of images, or a compelling photographic project – that leads you back into the debate about the value of an photographer/artist working with an editor/publisher or curator. I’m not saying that there aren’t photographers/artists who have a good editorial eye and can self-publish interesting work, but in my experience the most exceptional photography projects (whether in published or exhibition form) come out of a creative collaboration rather than one person trying to control all stages of the production process.

  3. I enjoy your thoughtful posts. I once read a review of the work of Walker Evans that said he inspired people by taking photos that made photography look easy, but then when you run out to try to take photos like his, you realize how brilliant he was. It can be hard to define what makes a powerful, compelling photograph. It obviously has a lot to do with the eye of the artist, but it must also have something to do with what specifically resonates with the viewer. And artists of any genre typically struggle to find the balance of what best expresses their own vision while resonating with the biggest audience. Best wishes to you for your project!

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