Over the past several weeks the same topic has been coming up for me over and over again The question of what makes a good photograph. We talked in part about this a few weeks ago in the two-part episode about Camera Lucida (You can get part 1 here and part 2 here) and the notion of punctum from Roland Barthes. I also had a classroom critique with a student who was showing work on a new project that was technically sound but not that good of images.
As I began to think about what makes for a good photograph, I realized that this is in many ways a moving target. Depending on where you are with your photography, you might find what makes for a good photograph to change from month to month and year to year. In my own understanding, I have broken this down into three areas.
Good photographs when starting out
When we are just starting out, a good photograph might be one that is finally in focus or has a good composition. It might be one where you got the printer to produce a print that meets your expectation. As you are working in different genres it might be one where you have proper lighting techniques and can produce butterfly or 2-to1 ratios. Maybe you can finally create real HDR images. A good photograph when starting out is one that can meet or exceed your core competencies. Even as you learn new skills, you might find your way back here. When I started moving to wildlife work, being able to get a bird in flight to be in focus was a good photograph. However, I don’t think this ultimately tells us if a photograph is good or not.
Good photographs in the middle
For me, this is the biggest challenge. In my three levels, this is the ego level. When judging photographs, I look to see if I could recreate the photograph. Do I understand all the technical aspects the photographer used? Do I think I could have created the image given the same situation? I know that this isn’t a flattering position, but I do think a lot of us end up here at some point or another. We judge the quaily of work based on if we could create it or not. I know that this evaluation is not one that can tell us if there is any value in an image or not.
What are good photographs
In the end, I think a good photograph comes down to one thing. Can a photograph show me something I wouldn’t have seen even if I was standing at that same place at the same time? Good photographs have so much of the artist inside the image, that when I look at the image not only do I see a photograph that meets a minimally acceptable bar for quality but also something new. When we put aside ego and schooling, ultimately for me, good photographs show me something I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.