What Makes a Good Photograph?

A quick scroll through your Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook feeds will undoubtedly yield an endless stream of photos of cats, dogs, food, and selfies. We take pictures of everything.

Most of the photos we take are easily forgotten with the next refresh of our feeds but once in a while, a random photographer will set themselves apart by sharing something pretty incredible. Then suddenly, your Instagram feed, the one filled with photos of your friends’ meals, gets a bit real.

This got me to thinking about what makes a good photograph.

Is it the composition, the subject, the color or any other specific confluence of factors? Why are some photos considered good while others are merely images we forget about just as quickly as they appear?

I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of photos in the last several years as a hobby and as a professional. So believe me when I say I’ve taken my fair share of terrible photographs just like many of you. Luckily, I’ve been able to take a few photos I am quite proud of as well.

Here’s what I’ve come to know about good photographs.

Good Photography is Evocative

It brings up feelings and emotions and memories. A good photo communicates and engages with its audience without having to be prodded and forced into revealing its secrets. A good photo connects with its onlookers.

Even when you hate a photo for what it’s depicting, it’s still evoking a strong reaction, isn’t it?

Good Photography is Beautiful

They don’t always conform to philosophical notions of beauty or are aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but good photography is somehow always, beautiful. Even when the subject matter of a photo is ugly and hard to look at there’s still some measure of beauty within that photo.

For instance, the work of photojournalists who work conflict zones is never pretty and yet the best photojournalists’ works have a certain feeling of perfection or completeness about them. They have a certain elegance and invoke a feeling satisfaction (if not “pleasure”) that can only be described as beautiful.

Good Photography is Immediately Recognizable

A photo is good or it isn’t good.

I’m not saying that every “good” photo deserves an award or that every not-so-good photo belongs in the trash, but rather, that once you finally take a photo you’re happy with, you’ll know exactly why those other photos you took weren’t as good.

I’ve found that there’s an immediate recognition or judgement as to whether a photo is good or not. Very rarely will you have to convince yourself one way or the other because deep down you just know. Being able to honestly recognize good or bad photography in your own work is how you become a better photographer in my opinion.

Good Photography Feels Like Magic

There have always been rules in photography about what works and what doesn’t work. There are recommendations and best practices about taking decent photos. However, when it really comes down to it, all of those rules and guidelines don’t mean a thing when you see a really good photograph.

It’s like seeing a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. You know there are tricks and illusions and other things that happen in the background but all you’re really concerned about is the rabbit. It doesn’t matter how the rabbit appeared, all that matters is that it did.

A good photo can make you forget everything you know to be true about taking a decent photo.

Good photography is Difficult to Define

It’s tremendously difficult to pinpoint why a photo works or why it doesn’t. There’s never really a perfect description about what makes a photo good. Every photographer is just approximating a good photograph. It’s always just a hope of creating a good photo when you decide to press the shutter release.

Is it the structure, the timing, the composition, the subject, or the light? Is it a specific combination of these things that makes a good photo? If so, then what is that specific combination of variables? If we knew this, then wouldn’t all our photos be amazing?

As much as we (photographers) like to talk about what kind of equipment we used or which exposure settings we applied to our cameras or the techniques we employed, it always boils down to one infinitely complex variable: the person operating the camera.

There are no set variables to a good photo because there are no set variables to making a good photographer.

Tell us what you think in the comments below!