Thursday, April 15, 2010

What Is A Great Photograph?


The question was posed to me the other day, "What truly is a 'great' photograph?" "Great" is one of those words every English teacher cautions their students against using because they have become a bit mundane and worn out. So for this article, I will concentrate on words that define "great" instead.

Let's phrase the question this way, "What makes up a first-rate, notable, photograph?"

The old saying goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." In other words, what one person likes in a photograph is not always what another person likes. Choice of subject matter is different for each photographer. One person may photograph architecture and another wildlife. Excellent, first-rate photographs can be created from each, so it is not specifically the subject that makes the best photographs.

From a viewer's standpoint, I might prefer photos of birds in their environment whereas you prefer super-telephoto shots. What is "great" to me in that case then may not be the same to you. We all have our preferences.

Yet, there are other factors involved in finding that "perfect" shot. The first thing I look for is exposure. Is the shot too dark, too light, or is it exactly as it should be? Did the lighting in that image set the proper mood for the subject? Did the photographer capture it well? If the overall exposure is not correct, then the image is lacking.

Tri-colored Heron
Tri Colored Heron

The next big thing I always look at is composition. There are many elements incorporated into proper composition, the first of which is the subject itself. For that particular object, is the choice of horizontal or vertical alignment correct? If it is a long, skinny flower, perhaps a vertical image would have worked better. A "first-rate" photograph takes into consideration the "movement" of what is in the image.

By using the word "movement", I am not strictly talking about "moving" objects, but the comprehensive shapes and textures of what you are trying to communicate. Are you trying to show the length of the stream, or the flowers beside it? One might need a more horizontal format than the other.

Palmhenge Florida Sunrise

The proper composition for each image is greatly subjective to the photographer. However, there is a point at which even the photographer has to pay attention to certain rules of placement. A running baseball player placed directly at the forward edge of the photograph will always look like he is running into a wall. But placed towards the backwards edge, he will have "room to run" and look like he is heading somewhere. One photograph will definitely be "better" than the other.

Now we come to the rule of thirds. Much debate has been made over following or not following this rule. I have found that most time it is the proper way to decide on subject placement, yet there are times when it does not work. Round objects, a view looking into the dome of a ceiling, the descending evening sun, and certain flower shapes, often lead to centering in an image. Making an image "work" outside of the rules is a sign of a truly "notable" photograph. Keep in mind though - Yes, you broke the rules, but you broke them knowing them. It is not now a habit you should pick up permanently, laying aside the others.

Crescent Moon
Crescent Moon

There is another popular saying "Everyone's a critic." This statement is unfortunately so true. There is always someone out there who doesn't like what you've done. Take comfort instead in those who do like it, and be wise and don't return there to the place where people didn't receive you.

I have photographs I have taken which I like more than others. I also have those people comment on those that I really don't like quite as much. In this sense, what was "great" to me was different to them. I don't beat myself up about it. When something I've taken that I really like doesn't receive any mention I just take it in stride and move on. For in the end, I am happy with it and that's all that matters.

*Here's an image I took at a local fair and to me there is nothing remarkable about it, yet it has 15 comments.
Discus Fish
Discus Fish

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Suzanne Williams Photography
Florida, USA

Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.

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