- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?