HOW TO... What makes a photo great: 6 qualities all good images share

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If you’ve ever asked for feedback on your images, whether it’s on a photo-sharing website or simply entering a photo competition, you’ll understand that evaluating an image is very subjective.

Along with the constant flux of popular trends, each viewer will bring their own expectations, tastes and prejudices to your image.

It’s also worth noting how much cameras have moved on, too. Cameras these days can produce incredible sharpness, and most images are viewed at 100%.

All of which begs the question: is there really such a thing as the perfect photo?

I’m reminded of a humorous story from a few years ago when someone uploaded a Cartier-Bresson image to a Flickr discussion group, and the image was slated for being unsharp, poorly exposed, even badly composed!

While this, at the time, gave us all a fine opportunity to laugh at others’ pomposity, what’s interesting to me is how it shows that no one is infallible. There is no ‘perfect’ image.

On the other hand, there are a number of qualities that great images then to share…

01 Timelessness

Great images transcend time and space. A great image makes you appreciate its impact regardless of where and when and how it was taken.

Now, that’s not to say that these wheres and whens aren’t important questions, as photojournalism relies on these. But an image from the Iraq War doesn’t need to have location identifiers to communicate the horrors of war.

02 It doesn’t need explanation

An image that needs you to explain what it’s trying to achieve is simply not strong enough.

Good photography often has multiple layers and depth to it, when an image is strong the viewers will understand this. If you have to explain your composition to the viewer, your composition hasn’t worked.

Remember: a caption should enhance the viewer’s appreciation of an image, not prop it up.

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03 Tell a story

Good photography doesn’t have to be social commentary, but the fact is that most great images tell some kind of story, whether it’s a bird delivering food to its babies in the nest or even a group portrait at a wedding.

There is often a narrative sequence in good images that viewers will understand and make them feel more connected to the image.

I think Martin Parr’s images are actually a great example. His humorous street portraits aren’t making any grand social statements but they give us a glimpse into popular culture at that time, as well as into people’s relationships.

Likewise, landscape photography can tell a story. It might show how mankind has changed the environment, or it might tell the story of a particular tree as it changes through the seasons.

A sign of a good photographer is one who uses images to tell stories, rather than capturing a series of isolated images.04 The form suits the content

04 The form suits the content

What do we mean here, you might be asking? All this means is that the way you frame your subject, how you expose it, even what you decided to make sharp vs out of focus… these things should suit your subject.

If you take our panned shot of a race car here as an example, you’ll notice it has more impact than the shot below, which was taken at a faster shutter speed.

Fast shutter speed

The sense of motion in the panned shot better evokes the essence of what a race car is and does and helps put us in that moment.

05 Be judicious about what you allow in the frame

You’ve probably often heard photographers talk about how it’s equally important what you exclude from the frame as what you include.

Professional photographers take this to heart and vigorously scan the edges of their frame before taking a picture to ensure there are no unwanted elements and distractions that could spoil the composition.

When it comes to composition, the simpler the better.

Just taking this moment and observing the corners of your frame can be the biggest improvement you make to your photography, and all it takes is getting yourself into the routine of doing it.

06 They convey emotion

Another hallmark of a great image is that it provokes an emotional response in the viewer. It doesn’t matter what that emotion is. It might be anger, sympathy, even lust! But an image that makes you feel something has succeeded.

That’s not to dismissing scientific images. Not every great image has all six of these hallmarks. But they often do. Even Lennard Nilsson’s famous images of a human embryo elicit feelings of awe and wonder.

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