Friday, February 02, 2007

What makes a good image?

I wonder about this a lot, and have done so more since I have entered some of my images in CCC competitions. As I mentioned before, I am inconsistent in knowing what makes an image good, having got a 50% success rate in having images graded. Therefore, I want to explore this a bit more, to improve this ratio and to build on my critical knowledge of images. I know it's not an exact science, but I think some of the factors can be better rationalised.
  1. Technical Competence - focus, exposure etc. These matter, and clearly would detract from an image were they not there. But, an can have these elements in place, and not be great. So, neccessary to have, but not sufficient.
  2. Composition - Great images have this, whether rules are followed or broken, and I think that they need that to elevate them above mere snaps. But following the compositional rules does not in itself make a great image. Like focus and exposure, it's a requirement (with a great latitude over what makes acceptable composition) but not sufficient in itself.
  3. Light - Ah, now we are getting somewhere. I think light, as the word "photography" itself means, is the most critical element. By light, I mean great light: light that shows up the texture of objects, the form of the land (modelling), adds warmth and depth to a scene. Great light can, I believe, transform an ordinary scene into something special, ethereal, a brief moment captured. Key elements in a scene (hills, mountains, rocks, topography, mist) are all influenced and accentuated (or made more subtle) by the impact of light.
  4. A sense of "place" - this, twinned with light, I think, form the basis for the emotional response to a picture. Clearly, the photographer has a link to the place or scene being captured. He/she should probably have an emotional reason for taking the picture too. This should come across in the way the image is captured. Clearly the light (above) impacts the sense of place, but the way the photographer has chosen to compose the shot is influenced by the very nature of the place itself, trying to show it in it's best light (sorry) or capture a feeling evoked, such as desolation, magnificence, warmth etc. Photographing a coastline, as I have done much of, shows this. Beach or rugged coast; calm or raging sea; detail or vista. I'm not explaining this well, but I think we know what I am getting at; by it's nature, it is the essence, or "soul" of the picture.
  5. The X-factor - not sure if this is covered in one or more of the above (it probably is, or certainly could be), but it's something that makes the image stand above the crowd; a new angle or composition. Pairing something down to it's bones and making the viewer really look. The unexpected.

Also, I wonder what proportion of your images you feel are great - 1%, 10%? And, has shooting digitally improved that percentage or not? Thoughts?



Anonymous said...


I think you have covered many of the points that create a good photograph; that separate the good photos from the snap shots.

I certainly know when I am about to shoot a good photo and when I am about to shoot a snap shot. By thinking about those two situations, one can list the factors that create one or the other. And those are pretty much covered here.

I think shooting digitally has improved by ability at shooting. Simply because of the cost of shooting. I no longer have that wall which I have to jump over before I depress the shutter. That can of course lead one to shoot without much thought and perhaps rely more on chance at getting that good photo rather than the factors listed above. That may happen to some but will likely only be a short phase.

Digital also provides the camera settings making it easier for one to experiment.


Anonymous said...


Some interesting points. I don't neccessarily think that digital improves ones photography per se, precisely for the reasons you mention - there's no down side to messing up, so we click click away. We may get some great images, but what's the hit rate? UK photographer Joe Cornish uses large format field cameras and sheet film. He can't take loads of pictures, and it is the very limited nature of the process that has, by his own admission, improved his photography. Less is more. Imagine if you had 20 shots only to get that one great image - how would it change your process. I bet you'd slow down and really think and connect to the scene. You'd likely try to research your location better too, so I'm not sure digital improves - I think it faciliates experimentation, so perhaps in time the hit rate goes up, but with no penalty, would it go up as high as if we had limited image-making resources. Tough one.


Critical Light said...

It's all in the light. Start, middle and end of the matter.