What makes a photo great?

dryanparker

Art photographer based in Miami.
Oct 9, 2011
121
0
42
Coconut Grove, FL
www.dryanparker.com
distant.star said:
.
The examples of "iconic" pictures here don't seem to clarify the issue. Most are mediocre pictures at best, and when a background story is needed to make them important, they are reduced to simply supporting documents. One thing I most love about the Ali picture is to see the expressions on the faces of photographers behind Ali. They all know the guy on the other side of the ring just got the great shot, and all they have is Ali's rear end -- such is sport photography.

Really appreciate your thoughts, though I'll take some issue with this bit. These four images I chose...do you need the background story for them to be compelling visuals? I certainly don't. I suppose if I didn't know anything about them, I might find the Ali picture the least compelling of the four, while still a great image.
 

mkabi

EOS RP
Mar 21, 2013
509
2
41
A photo is great when it tells a story.
If its a good story you will come back to look at it again.
If its an amazing story, you will show others.
 

Halfrack

EOS RP
Sep 14, 2011
668
1
It's that personal connection to an image, when an image is just so powerful to a person that they'll put it on paper, show it, or look at it regularly.

When a photo is truly art in the eye of the owner.
 

chauncey

EOS RP
Jun 5, 2011
564
1
You guys are being waay too philosophical here...if it sells and makes beaucoup dollars, it's a great image. ;)
 

Sporgon

5% of gear used 95% of the time
CR Pro
distant.star said:
.
It's good to see this topic pop up. Thanks for originating the post. The arcane back and forth of technical
minutiae usually grows wearisome, and I see most of it as the equivalent of picking fly poop out of the pepper.

I have a strong interest in what makes not only a great picture, but also a good one. None of us, probably, will ever make a great picture, but I think we all have a great chance of making some good pictures. The first step, of course, is to understand what makes a good/great picture. Most of us are trying very hard to make good pictures -- but if we don't know what makes a great picture, how do we judge our success and or progress?

My initial response to the question was simply, consensus and/or acclaim make a picture great. When just about everyone agrees it's a great picture, perhaps it is. Or, maybe not. I've long been told Mona Lisa is a great picture, but I don't really see it. I've long tried, but to me, it's just another portrait. I understand some of the artistic elements, and perhaps in 1520 they were novel. Today, frankly, I've seen lots better.

A few folks here seem to suggest that "visual impact" is what makes a picture great/good. That seems like a cheap answer to me -- sort of like saying horsepower makes a car great.

The examples of "iconic" pictures here don't seem to clarify the issue. Most are mediocre pictures at best, and when a background story is needed to make them important, they are reduced to simply supporting documents. One thing I most love about the Ali picture is to see the expressions on the faces of photographers behind Ali. They all know the guy on the other side of the ring just got the great shot, and all they have is Ali's rear end -- such is sport photography.

While I have years and years of experience taking pictures, I have not a single moment of formal training. I've always felt deficient because of that. I have a good eye for composition, but I don't have the formal education to elucidate why one picture works and another doesn't. Of course, that never stops me from trying! One of the best things I've come across in this regard is a B&H presentation by Adam Marelli, Bridging the Gap: Classical Art Designed for Photographers:

Bridging the Gap: Classical Art Designed for Photographers

In that lecture, he begins with the basics of what he calls "visual language," going from straight lines and arcs and circles to volumetric figures and arabesques, etc. He has formal training both in photography and sculpture so he actually knows what he's doing when he's taking pictures. While I'm plodding along hoping something good shows up in my visual field, he is looking for specific visual imagery that makes a good picture. So, probably for every good picture I get, he gets 50 or more. He not only knows what makes a great picture, he knows how to see it (visualize, some would say) and capture it. He did a worthwhile followup to that video with another one, How to Talk to Strangers: 7 Tips for Photographing People:

How to Talk to Strangers: 7 Tips For Photographing People


As some folks here probably know my first photography interest is public photography, what's generically known these days as "street photography." I like people in public spaces -- whether in streets or parks or markets or public transport or festivals, carnivals, etc. For reasons I've never been able to adequately articulate, I like good pictures of people in public places. Interestingly, I usually get bored rather quickly looking at such pictures, and Marelli explains why. He says 99% or more of what is considered good street photography does not make good pictures. There is far more to good public photography than a picture of a homeless man with a kitten peeking out from under his tattered coat. That may be cute, but if it does not contain the essential elements of a good picture, that's all it is.

An example of a good, perhaps even great picture, I like to use is one by Henri Cartier-Bresson:

http://www.copypasteculture.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/henri_cartier_bresson_photo_001.jpeg

I believe this comes from France in the 1930s -- so he didn't have the resolution of a 5D3 or the post processing power of Photoshop. What he got is an image contrasting stolid classic lines and shapes in hard, cold steel and stone with the warm, fluid flowing movement of a person on a bicycle. One second earlier or one second later and the picture would not work. I'd like to think he was just walking down the steps one day and he saw this and snapped, but you can be sure that's not what happened. He surely saw the forms and waited for something to come along to accentuate it through contrast. That's why Cartier-Bresson is a big name in photography -- and I'm not!

Anyway, I could go on, but this should be enough to tweak some folks who think "visual impact" is the characteristic of greatness.

Thanks again.

Congratulations !

You described in 700 words, 2 videos and 1 picture what I described in two words ;)
 

sanj

EOS R5
Jan 22, 2012
3,916
822
Old but interesting discussion.
For me it could be anything as long as it creates a wow factor: Story, Technique, Content, Mood, Special perspective, Uniqueness.
Anything as long as it makes me notice the photo.
 

distant.star

EOS 5D Mark IV
Jan 19, 2011
1,813
0
USA
wetracy.smugmug.com
Hillsilly said:
If you want to make a great photo without seeking worldwide fame and acclaim, there are quite a few guides available on the internet. For a simple read, I thought this was good: -

http://www.lccc.org.au/EVALUATION_MANUAL_JAN_2012.pdf

In particular, I liked one of the starting concepts, attributed to Cecil Beaton,

"A technical 'failure' which shows some attempt as aesthetic expression is of infinitely more value than 'uninspired' success."

Thanks. That's the kind of thing I believe is helpful. I think you have to be able to see what makes a picture good before you can know how to create it.
 

distant.star

EOS 5D Mark IV
Jan 19, 2011
1,813
0
USA
wetracy.smugmug.com
dryanparker said:
distant.star said:
.
The examples of "iconic" pictures here don't seem to clarify the issue. Most are mediocre pictures at best, and when a background story is needed to make them important, they are reduced to simply supporting documents. One thing I most love about the Ali picture is to see the expressions on the faces of photographers behind Ali. They all know the guy on the other side of the ring just got the great shot, and all they have is Ali's rear end -- such is sport photography.

Really appreciate your thoughts, though I'll take some issue with this bit. These four images I chose...do you need the background story for them to be compelling visuals? I certainly don't. I suppose if I didn't know anything about them, I might find the Ali picture the least compelling of the four, while still a great image.

It can be nearly impossible to ignore what we know about the scenes in those pictures, hence objectivity is difficult to obtain. The best objectivity I can get to with the pictures is:

Chinese protest image -- this looks like a guy pausing to look at a row of tanks. There is no sense of movement in the frame. To me, he looks like he's just coming back from shopping and paused to take a quick look.

JFK funeral -- cute picture of a kid saluting because adults around him are doing it. There is nothing to say what's really going on except for the woman in black. She suggests it may have to do with death. The military people around suggests a military death. Otherwise, the composition seems pretty chaotic.

Ali -- a good picture, but not great. Triumphant vanquishing of an opponent by a boxer, nothing more.

Prison -- this is the worst as it's plainly contrived. I spent too many years working in prisons to think this was anything other than a setup. In this case I can't get to objectivity because I bring too much background to the subject. I'm also pretty jaded since I've seen too many staged prison pictures. If you go to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (now a prison museum and a great place to take pictures) you'll see a picture on the wall of inmates taken probably around the 1920s. If you look closely, you'll see one of the inmates has keys hanging from his belt. When I asked the people who run the place what that was about, they said such photos were usually staged by having guards dress up as inmates; apparently one of them forgot to hide his keys. That said, the chess picture does evoke a sense of what most people think of as prison so it works on that level.

Again, if you have a chance to go to Eastern State, it makes for a great day. I haven't been there in two years, and it's time for me to get some more good picture opportunities there.

http://www.easternstate.org/
 

distant.star

EOS 5D Mark IV
Jan 19, 2011
1,813
0
USA
wetracy.smugmug.com
Sporgon said:
distant.star said:
Anyway, I could go on, but this should be enough to tweak some folks who think "visual impact" is the characteristic of greatness.

Thanks again.

Congratulations !

You described in 700 words, 2 videos and 1 picture what I described in two words ;)

Yep, I can get a bit windy on the subject. But the "visual impact" seems to need unpacking, in academic terms. Sort of sounds like a trade show tag line -- something that can mean whatever you want it to mean and doesn't really say anything. I was once in the business of creating such phrases; I know them when I see them.

Again, I think it takes a lot of work to get to where we can look objectively at a picture and say what makes it good or not. And only when we do that can we begin to apply it to our own work.
 

distant.star

EOS 5D Mark IV
Jan 19, 2011
1,813
0
USA
wetracy.smugmug.com
infared said:
Technical ability and passion. If you only have one, take the passion.

I agree with that, Bob!!

These days I see so many cold, heartless pictures rendered perfectly from a technical perspective. However, if we have great passion and little knowledge, it can be really frustrating! I think this is one reason why so many people abandon photography very early. It's not easy!
 

Chuck Alaimo

EOS R
Feb 8, 2012
1,052
0
chuckalaimo.com
Some of this is really comparing apples to oranges, or hell, apples to potato chips even. Great, Iconic, legendary --- I mean hell, your at a wedding and capture the perfect emotion of the bride as she dances with her father ---great photo...yes...legendary --- no...sadly you don't get legendary status unless your in ver special circumstances...in these cases your in the presence of living history - like this

iconic_photographs_10.jpg


or this

iconic_photos_03.jpg


you could be the masters master of macro photography selling giant images for millions but you know what, these grainy shots will always be more iconic because its more than just a picture. Of course, we can only say that because for something to be historic and iconic it does have to pass the test of time --- images like these are not grainy but I am pretty sure as time passes they will be heralded as legendary --

article-0-17533521000005DC-155_634x644.jpg

AP01090105647_232923.jpg

r


How many here have the sac to put on a flac vest and spend years following troops around putting your own life on the line to get that kind of image?

Ability, gear, passion ---yeah all that is good and fine, but there is a huge factor of luck too - to be in that right place, that right time, with the right people. All the tech, gear and passion in the world doesn't get you that iconic image unless your at that location, the spot where something of history is taking place...

article-2425002-1BE4A9AA000005DC-633_964x641.jpg


(lol, In thinking iconic is was hard to not look for beatles picutres and i found this one with Ali and the beatles...lol...thought it was a nice way to bring it full circle!)
 

dryanparker

Art photographer based in Miami.
Oct 9, 2011
121
0
42
Coconut Grove, FL
www.dryanparker.com
Chuck Alaimo said:
...sadly you don't get legendary status unless your in ver special circumstances...in these cases your in the presence of living history...we can only say that because for something to be historic and iconic it does have to pass the test of time. ... All the tech, gear and passion in the world doesn't get you that iconic image unless your at that location, the spot where something of history is taking place...

We're on the same page here. The way I see it, "iconic" photos can be captured any time. However, "legendary" photos have passed the test of time.

The thing is...a "great" photo can be any of these—including the high-dollar macro mural you mentioned. The concern I get sometimes (and what spurred the post in the first place) is that "great" photos are often defined in technical terms, and I wanted to get people thinking in different terms. Terms like passion, creativity, awareness, and yes even LUCK! The bottom line is the gear doesn't matter all that much to the greatness of an image. What matters is that you made the image for the love of making the image, however you choose to do it.

Great Ali + Fab Four picture!
 

jrista

EOL
Dec 3, 2011
5,348
32
jonrista.com
dryanparker said:
We love CR, and we're here because it's fun to discuss and debate new technology, engage and speculate upon rumors, share techniques and advice...among so many other great reasons. That said, I feel like someone needs to lower the boom every once in a while to keep things in check. MTF charts, megapixels, noise and JPEG artifacts have their place!

Let's not forget what an iconic photo looks like. The reality is most of them are soft and grainy; and any one of us would be blessed to bear witness and capture such a moment just once in our lifetime.

The last thing I want in my portfolio is a bunch of perfectly-lit, ultra-sharp, mural-sized, noise-free crappy photos. I'd be happy with a single epic image that I can be proud to have captured. That search continues.

Soapbox dismount!

I think the critical component you are describing, which literally has nothing to do with image quality, is emotional impact. Regardless of what emotions the images you shared may evoke from each individual (which are bound to be different from individual to individual), the key factor is their emotional impact. Every great photo throughout history, the ones that stand the test of time, damn the IQ, are the ones that pack a hell of a lot of emotional impact.

The man who stopped a train of tanks...doesn't matter what emotion that evokes, it is still an emotionally evocative photo. Same thing would go for that Nat. Geo. photo of the young afghan woman with those stunningly piercing green eyes:

national-geographic-100-best-pictures-cover.jpg


This is considered one of the best photos of the last 20-30 years. It is an emotionally evocative photo. It is also a technically superior photo as well! It has EXCELLENT image quality...perfect focus on her eyes, creamy boke, great color, etc.

I don't think it matters whether a photo has good IQ or bad IQ, and neither do I think that a world renown great photo "has" to have crappy IQ. The key is simply that it has emotional impact. Any photo, of anything, can have emotional impact, doesn't matter if it is of a person, people, animals, landscapes, still life, whatever.
 

dryanparker

Art photographer based in Miami.
Oct 9, 2011
121
0
42
Coconut Grove, FL
www.dryanparker.com
jrista said:
I don't think it matters whether a photo has good IQ or bad IQ, and neither do I think that a world renown great photo "has" to have crappy IQ. The key is simply that it has emotional impact. Any photo, of anything, can have emotional impact, doesn't matter if it is of a person, people, animals, landscapes, still life, whatever.

Agree 100%
 

Click

I post too Much on Here!!
Jul 29, 2012
14,757
3,621
Canada
dryanparker said:
jrista said:
I don't think it matters whether a photo has good IQ or bad IQ, and neither do I think that a world renown great photo "has" to have crappy IQ. The key is simply that it has emotional impact. Any photo, of anything, can have emotional impact, doesn't matter if it is of a person, people, animals, landscapes, still life, whatever.

Agree 100%

+1