What makes a great photo? Is it a photo that personally means something to you? One that wins photographic contest? Is it on the cover of a magazine? Or hanging in a museum gallery? What if it was never seen, hidden in a moldy basement, can it still be great then?
When you look at an image, you consciously and subconsciously evaluate the image in many different ways. I tend to break down a photo’s merits by levels, from the most important to me, to the least. As with all things art-related, this is a personal subjective opinion, not meant to be taken extremely literally or rigidly, and is not always linear. Sometimes a work of photographic art can stand just because it has amazing color or tonality. However, I find this framework useful because there are times when you look at a photograph you just took, and you find yourself questioning why. Hopefully this will help. So from greatest consideration to lesser consideration, here are the levels of photographic excellence:
Not all photographs have a story, but many great ones do. I don’t really think of a story line when I look at an Ansel Adams landscape, although that is not to say it does not have one (everything can tell a story if you think about it hard enough). But when a photograph has a strong story to tell, it will stand above every other consideration of the photograph. Yes, composition, emotion, lighting, perspective, etc… still matter, but in the presence of a powerful story all these attributes of a photograph are subverted to tell the story. At the end of the day, if your photograph tells a story, then while various other elements (such as the mood lighting or unique perspective) may enhance the story , the story stands alone and will sell your photograph.
This category of excellence underlies all photography but is especially important to the artistic merit of a photography – the type of merit that gets a photography on the walls of your regional art museum. When you look at a photograph that has stood the test of time, that will be remembered across generations, it is not the excellent composition, beautiful printing, or stunning color that matter – all that is just craftsmanship. It is the ability of the photograph to say or show something that the world has never seen before in quite that way. When someone sees such a photograph for the first time, he is looking at something that will alter his perception of the world, think of things in a completely different light than he is used to, shock his sensibilities, question reality, see beneath the surface, find new meaning in old things, and/or all of the above.
Ability to Evoke an Emotional Response
In today’s world, we are inundated with photographic (and video-graphic) imagery on a constant basis, so much that we spend little time looking on any particular photograph and have a hard time remembering even the most technically well-crafted photograph moments after seeing them. One way that photographs can stick in our mind and overcome our inherited visual ennui is to provoke a strong emotional response. To provoke an emotional response, a photograph has to be relate-able, and also authentic. Photographs can remind us of ourselves, our memories, or our hopes and fears for tomorrow. A photograph that does not provoke any emotional response has little chance of being remembered.
This is where we start the transition from the high-level artistic merits of an image into the technical side of photography. The first three levels above speak to the very heart of an image and can allow a photograph to break any or all the technical rules and still be considered excellent – if your photograph tells a story, changes a viewer’s perception of the world, or evokes an emotional response, then it doesn’t really matter at all how it did it. However, from here on, we start to transition to the technical side of photography, i.e. elements that can make an image great, but do not guarantee greatness on their own, but when used effectively can achieve greatness, often by accomplishing one of the three levels of excellence above.
Composition is the technical heart of an image – it is the way your eye sees the world, and how you choose to present that view to others in the form of a photograph. There are literally dozens of composition “rules” such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, perspective, the golden ratio, the odd-number rule, etc… However, one should bear in mind that the purpose of defining these rules are an attempt to elucidate and enumerate the qualities that make a great photograph retroactively, rather than a rigid framework upon which to create photographs of merit. For example, the odd-number rules states that photographs with an odd-number of repetitive subjects is more interesting that one with an even-number of the same subjects. Why should this be the case? I doubt anyone knows for sure although some may try to find an explanation. What we do know is that more often than not, we find that a photograph with three birds in a row more interesting than a photograph with two or four birds in a row. On their own, composition rules have little meaning – why even take photographs of birds for instance, let along three birds? What if two birds in that particular image convey exactly what you want it to, and three would have been too many? For this reason, at best composition rules are guidelines. But while rules of composition are nothing more than general and fuzzy guidelines, composition itself is vitally important to almost every image because it is composition that determines how every element in an image is presented to the viewer – i.e. it is visual organization in a visual medium. Without careful composition, a image is disorganized and falls apart, even images that are meant to convey disorganization must be composed in a way to convey that disorganization.
Although portrait photographers consider posing an art unto itself, posing the human body is simply another form of composition, except that it is the human body that you are organizing in the photograph.
Tonal Quality (Light)
Photography is literally drawing with light. Therefore, light is absolutely vital to photography in that there can be no photography without it. A photograph can stand or fall based on its tonal qualities. Our eyes are drawn naturally to areas of highest contrast in an image (and not, as is the common wisdom, to areas of greatest brightness). In fact, without contrast, our eyes are quite poor at determining the value of any particular tone in an image, not least because ambient illumination plays a factor in our perception of local brightness values in an image. Areas of high contrast stand out in an image, whereas areas of lower contrast blend in.
Finally, color can play an important role in photography, primarily by conveying emotion and adding contrast. All colors have a particular emotional response based on our social memory of events or objects that are associated with that color. Red and orange hues are associated with warmth but also danger. Blue hues are associated with coldness. Yellow hues are cheerful, grey hues are subdued. A successful image uses color or the lack of color to its advantage. Not every image needs to be in color, and often a black and white image will convey the intent of the photographer better than an image in color. However, since we do see the world in color, a color photograph will always seem more natural to the human eye than a black and white one. Additionally, complementary colors can be used to create harmony in an image, and non-complementary colors can be used to create vibrancy and/or contrast in an image. Remember that when using colors to make sure that the colors in your palette convey the desired emotional response and to consider removing all color (by turning the photograph to black and white) if they detract from the photograph’s message.