What makes a good picture ?

D3SshooterD3Sshooter Registered Users Posts: 1,187 Major grins
edited July 25, 2015 in Finishing School
We tend to judge Images of other photographers in a split second. However estimating the quality and value of our own picture is far more difficult and complex.
Fortunately, you can judge the quality of your work as long as you are able to be critical.

How to recognize a good photo?

Over time the initial enthusiasm of a new image is replaced by doubt and mind bottling questions. “ Is this a good photo? , What will other people really think? Should I present it to someone, or should I get more out of it with editing? Maybe I need to use another shot?
The point is that one should question himself.
Maybe you wonder if there’s a method to measure a picture against.
Of course you could place a picture on an E-Forum, or a photography club; asking for feedback.
Often pictures are dumped in cyberspace, followed with an avoidable disappointment.

Teach yourself first to “ see images “ well before showing them to an audience.
The question is then; how do I become a better photographer and what makes my picture interesting to others.

The “thrill of shooting” is the first obstacle when assessing own images. The feeling of that decisive moment , when pressing the shutter is in most cases far more exciting than the final result . Months later, when the excitement and recording context has evaporated, the picture has lost its appeal.
The opposite situation can also occur. A previously ignored picture suddenly becomes very special and you wonder why you have not spotted that picture in the first place.
Even your heart you can get in the way. Especially when you have a special bond with the subject or topic. Babies are a typical example, no matter how bad the picture is. For the dad or mom the picture of their baby is always the best.
Pictures have several aspects that you do not see right away. Hence it is good practice to let your images ripe equally, Judge later
I think that there are basically two main pillars of picture assessment; What do you want to portray, and How?
A good picture must have thought of both, and both should be well developed.
Lets assume that one masters the “How” skills and technical principles, able to control sharpness, contrast, exposure ,color and composition skills such as the rule of thirds.
What you have photographed is as important and assuming that your image is technically good enough, it will make the difference between a boring and interesting picture.

Criticism to the rescue:

Shooting in your spare time is in the first place something that you should be happy about. That happiness can be amplified when a picture becomes interesting for others, nothing beats the feeling of been a creator. A little knowledge about what makes pictures interesting will leverage your work. Of course, the latter is different for everyone.
No, there is no instrument or checklist for the quality of a photograph. Yet models have been developed by art and art historians. Which are basically meant for art criticism. The good thing is that we as photographers can take advantage of it and learn .
The disadvantage of these models is that they are perhaps immature. Photography is still too young for a well-developed theory of aesthetics in an image.
Art historians are late in turning their attention to the evolution of photography as an artistic form. However, we can ask the question “ Does photography create substantially different aesthetic expectations than other and older art forms? “ .
I don’t think so, the needs are strikingly common to all visual presentations.
Therefore, the most important factors in determining the success of a picture is essentially the same as that of drawings and paintings.
At the end, it is the human will that fixes the eye .

So what makes a great picture different? The Six Continua, some call it "criteria of excellence" or even “The six scales”.

"Criteria of excellence"

These scales run from lowest quality (low) to maximum quality (high).
Corresponding numbers do not exist. After all, these continua are definitions based on quality factors defining a photographic image.
The six scales are: (1) from superficial to deep, (2) from optical to tangible, (3) pattern to idea, (4), from part to a whole, (5) to remarkably universal and (6) of registration to original.
The first two place the emphasis on the technical quality of an image.
From scale three onwards the creativity is at play. If you score high on one of these scales, then you can already conclude that you made an interesting picture.
The more scales you control, the better. Performs your image on all six fronts well, then you have delivered a masterpiece!
Mind you, the scales may not be as easy to use for any type of photography.

(1) From superficial to deep

It is not about the depth of field , it is all about the volume of the shapes in your image. Lacking volume makes a picture superficial, thin or light. Usually we speak of a "flat” pictures.
Shapes and objects in an image should have mass or weight, which gives a photographic image depth. And depth is what a man expects to see - after all through our eyes we perceive depth.
In other words, as a photographer we have to be able to create three-dimensional volumes. This can also be achieved with different gradations of light. Depth quality should be present in each picture, whether it's a studio portrait, a landscape or a sports photo.
The questions to ask : Does my photo has enough depth? For example, did I choose an unique position, or did I shoot from eye level? Is there any perspective in my picture? Do I show shapes with volume or mass?

(2) From optical to tangible

Photography captures reality from a visual standpoint. Bringing 'tangible' reality in an image needs detail and light gradations. A painter has the advantage of the paintbrush bringing light and shadows to perfection with a stroke. Photoshop is a tool that can come to the rescue, but then there should be plenty of visual detail in the original image. Therefore, one should always look for an optimal balance between lights and darks, so as to preserve the visual facts and texture in the image at the moment of the capture.
Adding too much detail, for example with high dynamic range (HDR), is dangerous. Excessive manipulation makes the image artificial, non-photographic. A good picture still feels like the product of vision. In other words, the palpability of origin of an image has to be photographically.
Ask yourself: Has the picture sufficient detail, is there a play of light and darkness? Is subject realistic and made practically palpable?

(3) From pattern to idea

A picture that is completely dedicated to a pattern is an everyday feat for a camera. Simply capture patterns, or only display technology, is soon photographic kitsch.
Images must retain our attention they must mean something. Otherwise we just look at a blank ornament and forget quickly.
So , search for a meaning , new idea’s. Nature can be aesthetically interesting when natural processes and intervention of the human creates a composition of motifs and finds, think about industrial patterns and nature.
Ask yourself: Do I show more than a technique? Maybe I'm just trying to meet expectations, but lacking own ideas?

(4) From part to whole

A camera can only catch a fragment of the surroundings . The photographer captures a part of a bigger thing, something incomplete. The art is to trick the viewer so that he believes to sees the whole thing. By selecting the important feature of a subject and frame the subject so that it is part of a separate universe. Choosing the essential detail is crucial. It is important that the viewer feels the totality of a situation by only observing a fraction of the scene.
Questions: Do I show the essentials and no more than that? Are there no disruptive, distracting elements or useless areas in the image? Has everything shown a function? Is the composition OK? Are the various motifs in balance to each other and are “none essential elements been truncated?”

(5) From noteworthy to universal

A camera has relatively easy access to exotic and quirky subjects. Feeding the peoples curiosity with foreign or bizarre situations. But you must do more than capturing grotesque business. And it should not be perverted. Look from a positive angle for universal qualities in people even when they are suffering from exclusion or ugliness.
This scale is particularly relevant to photojournalism or documentary photography. Capture the decisive moment.
The questions you can ask : What is the picture all about? Does it tell a story that others can recognize? Does it show the decisive moment?
Things that rank high on the scale of remarkable to universal are fear, anxiety and anger things we all feel as recognizable.

(6) From registration to original

An ordinary picture shows what was captured at a specific time, it is a simple registration of a moment in time. An original photograph shows a fresh discovery. That means going after something new, refreshing.
It is not enough for a photographer just to be there with a camera, he/she has to be there as a person. Original photographs are created from a combination of alertness to the unusual - an instinctive recognition of images that tell something new. Be allergic to clichés and stereotypes. Maybe we have seen an object, place or situation a thousand times, so shoot it again as an revelation, a new image of it.
Questions: Do I have a picture that no one else has? Is it unique and not to common? In other words, Did I made a distinctive, original photograph?

How to apply the six scales to your own photos?

Applying the whole model on your own recordings will be uncomfortable at first. Try to practice on others, for example; books by famous photographers and publishers. Find strong photos and walk the picture through all scales . Because these pictures already have gone through a selection process, they probably score well on several points.
At some point you will begin to recognize the big picture.
For example make a macro photo an of insect. And rate it.
A good macro picture comes to life through the mass of the beast (scale 1). That creature should be naturally sharp and detailed , it comes to life and thus becomes tangible (2). You surprise the viewer with something interesting what he sees normally (3). Show a heavily magnified part of the whole, a universe as large as a matchbox. Hopefully you have thereby made a peaceful composition of the animal against a natural background, without distracting elements (4). In one example show that the world is full of this kind of particular animals (5).
The biggest challenge is, as with any photo in scale 6: is the photo original? Some critics believe that macro photography is precisely an example of "once is enough".
Focus on your knowledge
Much will depend on whether you have created your own, original photograph. Today everyone can use the same sophisticated equipment, your vision as a photographer becomes therefore the distinctive aspect of your creations. The eyes, fingers and wrist of a painter are unique and determine to a large extent his work of art. That is much less in the hands of the photographer around the lens and the shutter.
However your visual and intellectual 'equipment' is key . A camera has not (yet) an integrated selection mechanism to take a picture at the right time, and does not move automatically to a good position. So the decision to shoot is still a creative act.
Good images are a testament to your knowledge, besides your technical skill.

Searching for evidence;

In short, you must have something to tell, transmit an idea, and thereby demonstrate a wisdom that is different than that of others. It is therefore important to use more and a better framing reality, literally and figuratively, shoot pictures on your own reality.
It's true that most of the images are evaluated in a fraction of a second, sometimes more with the stomach than for the purpose. But for a proper assessment of an image you need insight into techniques, plus a broad knowledge of the art form.

Thanks for reading, Steve Fouquaert
A photographer without a style, is like a pub without beer


  • PeanoPeano Registered Users Posts: 268 Major grins
    edited July 24, 2015
    You're over-analyzing and over-generalizing the question. The "good" in a good picture might require a thousand words or no words at all. It depends on the picture (and on the eye of the beholder).
  • D3SshooterD3Sshooter Registered Users Posts: 1,187 Major grins
    edited July 25, 2015
    Peano wrote: »
    You're over-analyzing and over-generalizing the question. The "good" in a good picture might require a thousand words or no words at all. It depends on the picture (and on the eye of the beholder).

    I can agree to that, however what I wrote is a method to judge your own pictures before exposing them to a public. Photographers and that is me inclusive see their own pictures from another angle then the viewer. That is why it is always good to apply the scales as self critic.
    A photographer without a style, is like a pub without beer
  • pathfinderpathfinder Super Moderators Posts: 14,687 moderator
    edited July 25, 2015
    Interesting discussion.

    So often the discussion on photo forums is about equipment, rather than about what makes a great image, which I find a bit of a shame. Great images can, and often are, made with simple tools, cameras, gear. Originally they were just made with paint and a few brushes.

    For me, I try to keep things simple, and remember the three points that Jay Maisel hammers home is his book "Light, Gesture, and Color ( Voices that Matter ) Jay was trained first as a painter.

    He is a master at using all three in his images.

    Always remember that light ( which renders shape ) is the enemy of color, or vice versa. The absence of light is what creates drama and shape.

    Gesture is that split second when something stands out special, separate, unique, and will survive whatever kind of light is available. Gesture has narrative content. Gesture is the heart of what we all strive to capture in our images. Gesture is the essence of the subject you are looking at, be it man, or woman, or tree or rock, leaf or insect.

    And if the image is still not good enough, one can always get closer.......
    Pathfinder - www.pathfinder.smugmug.com

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
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