« A Punch Is Just a Punch | Main | An Embarrassment of Riches »

February 21, 2011


You've posed an interesting question, Gordon. I am an amateur, and I photograph primarily to please myself, and my criteria for a good photograph are simple: an interesting subject matter that is well composed, reasonably sharp, and generally well exposed. Easier said than done, of course. A lot of subjects that I think are interesting can be, well, somewhat mundane to my wife (or kids, for that matter). But to answer your question, I never really know whether I've taken a good photograph, as in good by commonplace "democratic" standards of photo evaluation. If I look at a photograph that I've taken for the umpteenth time and like it a lot, then I guess I have taken a "good" photograph, on my own terms. Whether it is gallery good is a different matter.

What's to ponder. Many people's idea of photographs are pretty pictures, many others aren't. I think the real issue is for people in the former category, and why the only acceptable images are pretty ones.

Life has both its share of roses and thorns, and photographs that reflect life, are the same.

In the years to come, these images will serve as a visual diary of your son's younger years. Do you think he wants to see endless smiling pictures of himself during his younger years, or rather images that may give him an insight into what he was actually like as a person?

As for what makes a good picture, I don't know. We only know what we like, and my gauge for tripping the shutter is when I see something that stirs me in some fashion, consciously or unconsciously.

I'm not even going to get into that argument. It is so subjective that it defies rational definition. I lean towards the inclusive where I find even macros (what should be the perfect scientific photocopy of the world) can be art.

But its curious that you should run into that argument with your wife, 'cause this past Saturday I had the exact same argument with my wife over this shot: http://photography.badlightgoodlight.com/p512444577/e1e92f45d

I think its great, she isn't keen on it.

A fair, and perhaps mostly rhetorical, question.

I'm not sure I'm into "art", but "artistic/photographic merits" are what I seek in a photo, right enough. Put another way, I frequently don't give a hoot about subject-matter, more about the frame, more about the message, a bit about people's gut reaction.

So, some technicalities are fine: exposure, focus. A choice of narrow DoF has been made, which works well to separate subject from background. That's the basics sorted. The placement looks a bit wacky to me - it's off-centre which is not always required in a portrait, yet the centre of his face is also off the nearest third - the third goes through a goggled eye. That seems wacky to me, although it does help separate the background objects too. The messages of `ugly expression' and (secondarily) `wrapped up warm' are clear, but without some further means of context, that's as far as the shot goes. Look back on it in 20 years' time and see if you can geotag it by memory.

Great picture! It captures so much life and expression. You and your wife probably already have many, many conventional pictures of your son smiling or sleeping. One like this is very special.

Your question is extremely hard to answer because it depends on what yardsticks you use. Is it fine art? I think it might be. Is is good for commercial work? Yes.

Most of all it is so full of life. To me that is one of the best criteria of goodness.

You might as well asked: "Is it art?"

Good luck to that.

Hard to say, but I know one when I see one. And I have no problem with a neophyte snapping a good picture - I know that when I was in that stage of the photographic journey, a randomly good shot was what kept me going...kinda like the occasional good golf shot. You say, "Hey, I can do it, too!"

I do give points for technical competency, but it's only part of it. A lot of the time, simply having a camera at the ready ensures you get a good shot, even if the technical aspects were secondary.

And I don't place a lot of value into what other people consider art. People told me Henry James was a good writer once. Henry James is personally responsible for my Geography degree.

Great question!

I've learned that "art" is about an interaction of the viewer and the art. It's the experience that seem to trigger certain emotions or moods.

This is very subjective and often more about the viewer than the art itself.

"Good pictures" are often the ones that invite the viewer to recall a past experience in a new or meaningful way.

For me art is the beauty I see when looking at my world.

One thing I have noticed is that I seem to hold different criteria for what is "good" in my work versus what is "good" in others' work.

Let me use sharpness as an example. I seldom enjoy any of my shots where I don't see something in-focus and that should be reasonably sharp. The sharper the better (generally). Often, however, I find myself really moved by a photo I am viewing (whether in a gallery or on Flickr) where there's strong motion blur or where nothing is in focus. I have seen an out-of-focus shot having more power from contrast and a certain mood that results from the details I cannot see (sometimes the mood is mysterious, sometimes melancholy, etc) because of the lack of focus. Yet I never strive to create such a shot, and if I make one with that kind of potential I usually don't see the potential when reviewing my images.

That's just an example, but it makes the point pretty well. And it leaves me with my own question for myself: Why? What makes the image I am appreciating yet would have never made a "good" image, and what keeps me from trying to create images drawn from similar techniques?

I can't remember the exact quote and I'm too lazy to try to find it, but Frank Gohlke once said something to the effect that he knew a particular picture was good because he couldn't stop going back to look at it. That would be my answer to your first question. You can't stop looking.

I'm not sure if your son's expression makes the picture above more interesting. It certainly is surprising. I can see what's funny about it and I can see why your wife doesn't like it. I guess I'm leaning more in her direction. The picture feels a little unfair. But if 20 years from now you and your kid still laugh about it, then I was wrong.

Raising the issue of art is a bit of a red herring (IMO, obviously). If you want to make art, you need to look at what art photographers are doing and read up on what art critics have to say and mold your photography accordingly. There may not be any hard and fast answers, but it's not totally subjective either. If you don't want to make art, you don't have to worry about that. There will still be a lot of interesting challenges in photography.

"What makes the image I am appreciating yet would have never made a "good" image, and what keeps me from trying to create images drawn from similar techniques?"

That's an excellent question, Christian. I suppose it's the same reason we like certain clothing or hairstyles but would feel uncomfortable wearing them ourselves because doing so would give a false impression of who we really are.

A "good" photograph is one that talks to me, and/or one that recreates for me the emotion that made me shoot it in the first place.
This doesn't apply to shooting for clients where their preferences have priority. But it's the primary criterion for my own work.

More to the point of this question, I find a "good" photograph as conventionally understood, to be boring. The perfectly balanced composition, the all smiling subject, the neon sign against the expected dusk sky etc. It's a problem because I (we?) tend to aim for those qualities, even subconsciously. I think good photographs must subvert expectations.

Another kind of "good" photograph that isn't is the type that imitates a well known photographer's style. You know, when you admire Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams and you think your pictures are good because they look just like theirs. They aren't and they don't!

Be yourself and make up your mind, then: is this picture good for you? The catch (for me) is that the answer sometimes can take years. A picture that seems ordinary now, can be pronounced "good" much later on. What changed is not the picture, but me the "assessor". Tough game....


Thank you for your response. You've obviously put a lot of thought into this question and I like your answers.

Easy question..... Put any form of emotion into the shot and you`ve cracked it.

It really is as simple as that.

Advertisers knew that a long time ago.

All the technical aspects just heighten or announce the emotion more strongly.

A good wine, a good meal, a good movie or a good book--different people will have a different set of criteria to describe what they think is "good". In spite of the differences, and even if they do not use these precise descriptions, I'd bet that each person will find something that they think to be good as engaging, memorable or worth going back to.
I think that the more one knows about a particular genre of work, the more discriminatory one becomes, and the more precisely one can describe what "good" is, or why something is good. The neophyte however, with his or her gut reaction, is still responding to the basic "pull" of the work, and this reaction is certainly valid.
As far as your picture is concerned, a viewer doesn't have to know your son to be engaged by the photo--and I'll bet you will remember the circumstances of that shot long after you have forgotten those of a more traditional photo. It's good!

Some very good answers, and lots to think about!

For me, I would say that a good photograph is one that reconnects me, emotionally, to why I took the picture.

I would extend that to be that if a picture elicts a viewer response that is the same as mine, emotionally, then it is art.

For me a good photograph is like good haiku: simple, to the point and as often as not smacks you between the eyes with the unexpected power of its simplicity.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Tip Jar

Thank you!

Tip Jar