What Makes a Photograph “Great?”

A reader left this rather innocuous comment on the post about gear, ‘What We Mean When We Say “It’s Not About The Gear'”. I read it a few times then decided that it was one terribly difficult question followed by one that may be even more thorny.

Just the kind we like here at the LE Compound.

“This has raised some other questions for me.
1 – How do you define a great image? What separates the work of folks like Jarvis and McNally from the dross found in so many places?
2 – How does one develop, nurture, and expand vision?”

Good questions. Let’s look at them one at a time.

How do I define a great image? And for something like this, I can only speak for myself.

Wow… I want to say something along the lines of “I don’t know what it exactly is, but I know it when I see it.” Or something like that. I am not sure I can quantify what makes a great photograph. I mean, certainly not give a list of what a photograph “must have” to be great, or even good. If anyone were to try to quantify it with some sort of hierarchical list of ‘need to have’ items, I would tend to probably laugh my ass off at the absurdity of it all.

I tweeted my followers with the question and got a huge mixed bag of answers:

@arthuralmassy: a certain “how u say?” so hard to explain. it’s not tech skills, but crap tech skills can b a distraction. “great” photos pull u in.

@dfjphoto: The feeling it invokes in the viewer

@abiteofsanity: To me, the thing that makes a photo great is it makes the view ask the question “What’s next?”

@thetrudz: A great photo is where technique & emotion meets. Science & art working in unison. It makes you verbally say wow when looking. Makes u think

@enlightphoto: Great light, unique perspective, compelling subject / story – something I haven’t seen before, or presented in esp. evocative way

@kathrynwilson24: A great photo makes me really feel something. Happiness, love, sadness, inspiration, anything.

@Sniper_Photo: I guess it’s the photojournalist side of me, but being able to tell a story with one frame makes a great photo!

@mattdewittphoto: Great images are ones that make me wonder “how did they take that?” & then “what can I do to shoot something like that?”. They draw me in.

@MichelleSPhotog: I think “great” is subjective; for me: gr8 combo of Subject, Contrasts & Perspectives-w/little 2 no need for footnotes/explanation

@Keith_Taylor: A photo that impacts you & makes you actually FEEL something is truly great — even if it’s not technically perfect.

Back in 2007, Jim Colberg at Conscientious had a really interesting post where he asked a lot of working shooters what they thought made a good image. You should read that article sometime soon.

At Fuel, they have a post with 10 things that they think make a good photograph. Not sure I am on board with all that is on that list, but it is a good read.

All Things Photography has this well written post as well. Check it out.

Please also note that we are not asking what makes a good photographer. We know the answer to that. Silver hair, a propensity for Coronas – ice cold – a wardrobe of many colors – mostly black, and a wonderful, suave demeanor that endears him to … … Sorry. A good photographer is created by a separate, perhaps a bit more identifiable presets. We are focuing on the image… what makes IT good.

Here are a few more sites that attempt to get pretty granular in their pronouncements of what makes a great photograph.

Entice the Light:
“Newcomers to Photography, and even seasoned shooters, are often confused as to what it is exactly that makes a Great Photograph. We all know what a pretty, or cute, or moving photograph is, at least at some emotional, non-verbal level, but we find it hard to define in words what separates the Good from the Great.”

John J Lopinot:
“Great photographs have technical excellence. The photographer understands his camera and know when to use fast or slow shutter speeds, how to use the lens aperture to increase or decrease depth-of-field (the amount of sharpness) in a given photo, how to properly expose the film or digital media.”

“Photographs of the Grand Canyon are no more than pretty pictures unless the viewer can also see more than the rocks themselves. A cliff says that life can be dangerous. Rocks caught in early morning light show that even something as solid as a rock also has a gentle quality. Use your photographs to communicate things you know about life to be true.”

“There is a sad fact that we must all face: Beautiful subjects usually result in beautiful images. A new fashion portfolio will not look like a top New York fashion photographers’ unless the photographer seeks out the most beautiful models. Home interior portfolios will not match those of the top magazines unless the photographer seeks to photograph in some of the most beautiful homes. Great landscape photography is hard to create without photographing in beautiful places.”

Let’s take a deeper look at what makes a great photograph.

OK… We have seen how tough it is to find come consensus on what makes an image great, I will attempt to tell you what I think makes an image good to me. I cannot even presume to chat about what makes an image ‘great’… that is something that is conferred upon it by the viewer. One person’s greatness is another person’s ‘meh’. A wonderful photographer I know doesn’t much care for Bresson. I adore Bresson. So conferring ‘greatness’ is something that others will do to the image based on their take, their context, and their own emotions.

Personally I am in search of good images that someday may be considered ‘great’ by others. And that challenge is one that is plenty difficult to deal with all on its own.

I look at photographs differently according to how they are presented. Ad photographs in a magazine I look at with different eyes than say, images in a photographic art gallery. Snapshots are not seen with the same set of values that are used to view editorial portraits. Not usually anyway.


Sometimes it is the subject that brings a sense of greatness to the image. A very famous photograph by Josef Karsh of Winston Churchill shows a scowling, dour faced fellow. Sans the infamous cigar, Churchill glowers at the photographer – and therefor us – with a contempt and a revealing posture that gives us something more than a smiling fellow. For some background on the image, visit CigarAdvisor. The context of the shot being W Churchill vaults it to a ‘great’ position.

Would a random, dour gentleman shot in the same fashion, with the same technique, lighting, composition and post-processing be as interesting to the world? Could it be a ‘good shot’? Of course, but would it be ‘great’ to a large amount of people?

Similarly, a photograph of a super model in ones fashion book carries more ‘greatness’ to it than a shot of a girl in your hometown that looks every bit as stunning, every bit as ‘fashion’ as the supermodel… but it is the subject that brings something special to the image.

Think of Annie Liebovitz’s work. She is a very talented and excellent photographer, and this question in no way denigrates her work; Would the images be just as great if she were doing similar shots on Model Mayhem models in Grand Rapids? I am gonna say no… the fact that the subjects are celebrities and politicians and such bring a context of a common ground approach to the subjects… we know who she is photographing, and we have our pre-conceived ideas of who that person is. With MM’rs in Grand Rapids we bring nothing to the image regarding the subject. We can look at the picture, but we bring no context of who that person is and our own ‘story’ to them.

No context. And context can be shown to be the major influence in our own shots as well. I have some truly ‘great’ shots of my family and my kids. They fit the criteria of context to me. You may find them less than stellar, but you don’t bring my ‘story’ with it. Personal images can be great to a much smaller group.

Show me something I haven’t seen before.

And not a Photoshop action, semi-desaturated image, but an image that shows me a vision, even a small one, of something/someone/somewhere I haven’t seen before.

No, I don’t simply mean travel images… I have never been to landfills in Jersey, but unless you can show me something really cool with your images, just showing something that I am not familiar with is not enough.

Maybe it is an angle, or a convergence, or simply the way you framed the image… but it is unique, and pulls me in. Maybe something that I am very familiar with, but shown to me with a twist of irony or drama or skillful approach to the frame… that makes the image stand out to me. And it brings me looking for similar things in the photograph. It pulls me in.

Photographers who I think do that consistently:
Jay Maisel
Michael O’Brien
Gregory Heisler
Dan Winters
Jake Chessum
(There are more, but this short list may help give me some context as well…)

Yeah… and using three point lighting, with some $50 Photoshop Plugin isn’t really gonna do it for me either. I will go for the image as it was caught far more than how it was manipulated. If the manipulation enhances the image captured then all the better… but taking a bad image and running it through “Magic Larry’s SuperDuperEdgy Awesomeness” Plugin wont save it. Not for me.

Sometimes the image will approach a known entity and bring something of the photographer along. I love that. The work of Mary Ellen Markt and Eliott Erwitt always seem to show me something I am very familiar with, but they do it from their context and their vision.

A technical approach that compliments the vision.

I don’t presume to think that I, or anyone else for that matter, has a definitive set of rules that would define the technique as must having “this” or “that” or something else. I do not think sharpness is a must for ALL good images. Nor is the rule of thirds, ‘correct’ exposure, closely cropped, ‘perfect’ DOF or any other ‘rule’ can be extracted to show what makes a truly good image. They are simply parts of a technique that the photographer adopts as his/her own.

Having a ‘strict’ approach to the technical aspect can lead to putting the process above the result. A typical situation many who are new to any art may find themselves in. Struggling with the gear becomes overwhelming and the vision gets relegated to a secondary position.

Miles Davis was not the greatest trumpet player, technically, by a long shot. There were younger guys who could pack three times the notes into the same space… with absolute register and timbre. But Miles played the ‘right’ notes with the self assured approach that gave his music something that reached beyond the ‘pack-in-the-notes’ guys. (Note that there are also greats with amazing chops. John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Mingus, Dustin Bieber. (Just checking to see if you are actually reading this.

The work that attracts me technically is the work that seems self assured with a point-of-view and a technique that compliments the vision. No more or no less than needed.

Matt Mahurin
Mark Tucker
Joni Sternbach
Eric Weeks
David Eustace
Andrew Hetherington
Robert Wright

Emotion and Storytelling.

Probably most important to me is whether the image can reach out to me. And much of that is of course dependent on me. I meet the photographer, and we have a moment with the image presented. His story, my context. Her emotional expression and my ability to recognize it. A meeting of the two of us at the moment of the image’s presentation. We bring it… and I make decisions based on my life experience, taste, aesthetics, emotional depth, and even a little bit of the transient ‘mood’ that we all experience.

Simple beauty won’t do it. A ‘beautiful’ photograph of a Lilly in a field in Colorado with great skies may be fun to look at for me, and maybe we even categorize the image as being an attractive shot of a Lilly in a field in Colorado. But while that image may be attractive to me, it doesn’t rise to the level of greatness, possibly not even good.

Maybe it’s only ‘meh’… And that is perfectly OK. With all the bad imagery out there, simply making a shot that doesn’t ‘suck’ is an accomplishment. (The cool thing about art is that same ‘meh’ picture to me may bring recall of wonderful moments spent in the mountains, and a visceral response to the Lilly to someone else. They may think that image rocks. Great. That brings us back to context… personal context.)

But if the image doesn’t trigger an emotion in me, I cannot get beyond ‘OK’ for the image. It doesn’t mean that every image has to leave me walking away like a 14yr old after watching “Ol’ Yeller” for the first time. A simple small twinge of humor, pathos, love, anger, perseverance, time/life or whatever, is all it may take to make the image ‘stick’ with me.

If the image tells a story, or implies a story, or shows the bare glimpse of a story… and it draws me in, I am probably going to put that image in the ‘win’ column. Sometimes an image… a single image… can impart on the viewer the bare essentials of a story.

A novel, albeit small, shown in a single image. A photograph that has the ability to ask questions and give answers… even if all of our (the viewers) questions and answers are different… by design. We may see something different in the image, but it is within the full breadth of the image that we find common ground.

So, for me, it takes an appropriate, but not at all necessarily traditional approach to technique, a vision that shows me something that I haven’t seen before, the context with which to view it and the ability of the image to engage me to make an image good. And not all of these attributes must be present on every image. Not at all.

The “Wow” factor:

The ‘Wow’ factor is all of the things that I bring to the shot, and the presentation of the work for my consumption. Context and presentation combine with the elements that bring me into a photograph and create a ‘total’ package of the image that compels me to see it again and again. (And please don’t mistake the ‘wow’ factor for meaning the image has to be over-the-top, incredible, screaming hot. Sometimes the understated and/or the body of work will leave its own impression.)

All of that can make an image “great” in my eyes… and we all will bring a little different ‘viewing’ experience to the work… it is within our nature to bring a little of ourselves to what we see.

And to the second question – “How does one develop, nurture, and expand vision? – I will simply choose to punt.

I don’t have an answer that would fit in the space. It is something I struggle with daily. One’s vision must stay true to itself, but we can sometimes not be equal with our own vision and it will fail under the weight of time and life’s challenges.

Finding a vision can be simple for some, and complex for others. I think you have to shoot… a lot. A hell of a lot. Try this and try that… default to what makes you excited when shooting? Do that more.

1. Do not shoot to impress Flickr commentors
2. Do not ask for critiques from people who have no context of your work and what you are trying to do.
3. As to number 3, are you trying to do something? Or is it just another shot of a pretty girl in a striped bikini. If the goal is to make a shot of the girl in the bikini that makes her look astounding, then you are trying to do something… right?
4. Take a mental audit of the things you are drawn to on the magazine rack. What are the images that get you really going… and bring on a feeling that you want to do that… that is what you were put on this planet to do.
5. Stop trying to copy Dave Hill or Joey L or whoever is the current photographer dujour… those photographers have a lot more going for them than the forums tend to water down – “he uses ‘Crazy Larry Actions for PhotoGods’, so I will too”

Shoot till you get some images that look great together. Images that you like to look at… and something will begin to ‘Gel’ as to what you want to do. At that point it may be time to meet with a good photography consultant.

(I must take this opportunity to mention my compatriot at the Going Pro NOW seminar, Selina Maitreya… and her wonderful audio seminar. Enter FOSLE at checkout and get $100 off the sales price.)

So there you have it… a defined, non-definition of what makes a good photograph for me, and the convergences that can make it great. Your comments are most welcome, and I especially want to convey that these are MY criteria, and you are under no obligation to adopt them for your own, or disagree.

I think so much of it is a personal set of experiences that one brings to the image being shown.

I am not teaching any more workshops until mid August, so we will be working on this blog, and the new video stuff for quite a while. If you are thinking about a workshop, check out the Learn to Light site. If you want to stalk me on Twitter, that would be great.

Oh, and shoot a whole lot more.

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  1. This was a really good post. I like the way you summarized a variety of perspectives and included your own as well. Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

  2. You are a brave man to attempt this :-)

  3. Some really interesting thoughts here – excellent stuff!

    Quite a coincidence that I stumbled upon this article today, as I have also recently opened up a discussion centred around the age-old argument that “It’s not the camera but the photographer” which makes a great photograph. This can be found here: http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?topic=173&post=411&uid=116537375027117#post411

    I would welcome anyone to join in, adding your thoughts and opinions – the more the merrier!

  4. My 2 pennies.
    An image that I see ‘something’ in each time I look at it. An image that doesn’t become background or invisible in a few days if it is on my wall.

    Great job of taking on an impossible subject for many Don.

  5. So many good thoughts in this article Don. I’m convinced that the strongest criteria you listed was that the image tells a story. That’s the true point of all of the tricks we use, or at least it should be. Lighting, depth of field, leading lines, composition, perspective, field of view, color pallet, post processing, etc. are all either servants to the story or detractors from it.

    Greatness happens when a strong story is well served by strong technique. If I have to loose one of those two I will forfeit technique every time.

    You mentioned Dave Hill and Joey L.. They are far better story tellers than they are photographers. That is what sets them apart. It’s not their post processing, it’s the way that their post processing strengthens the stories in their images that makes them so interesting to look at. It’s the main reason that most people who figure out their “formula” fall so far short of achieving their “look.”

    We are not photographers, we are story tellers. When that sinks in it can transform our work in a way that puts great images within reach.

    • “It’s not their post processing, it’s the way that their post processing strengthens the stories in their images that makes them so interesting to look at.”

      YESSSSS… for the win! Exactly. The technique exists to support the vision, not the reverse.

      However, I can say with certainty that it is far easier to copy the ‘post’ than to develop a style.

      Ya know….

  6. A great & well written take on a complex issue; save one step removed from “What is Art?” I too might have defaulted back to the “I know it when I see it” quote. A few other photographers that I know that always shows greatness in their images are Sebastio Salgado, Chris Rainier, Nick Nichols, and Frans Lanting. When you think of all the other Great Photographers, the common thread is the strength of their vision. Style & technique are always secondary to the idea of “What are you trying to communicate?”

    Cheers, & thanks for including my tweet above. (@enlightphoto)

    • So true! I have seen amazing photographs that didn’t suffer at all from ‘poor technique’ and a great many that were technically perfect and just abysmal as a photograph.

  7. Very good topic.

    A snippy response maybe: What most images out there are lacking. But then most things in life follow a bell curve, and in order to know what a great photograph is, we first must look at many others to set a baseline. You always have to appreciate those who help to define average, because without them we wouldn’t know what great would be. After all it’s a relative measure, not an absolute one.

    On a more technical note though, the PPA has the 12 elements of a merit print. I think it’s a well reviewed and debated list that provides a framework to tackle his question: http://www.ppa.com/competitions/international/12elements.php

  8. Can’t resist observing that a historian or curator most likely would dismiss most of these “success factors” as trivial (did Atget’s work have a “wow factor”?)

    Not that they’d be right and the working pros would be wrong, but as is often the case, the right answer depends on who’s asking the question…

    • You are most assuredly correct.


      You did notice that I am not a curator or a historian and that at several points I noted that this is what I look for. It is not a sweeping generalization of what others should look for. I am sure there is some cross over from my personal to many others. And some would choose other points for their own choice of excellence. That is what makes life cool.

      Regarding Atget… I believe the first time I saw a book of his images I thought ‘wow’. His body of work is amazing – especially within the Context of its time and place. “Wow” doesn’t mean some sort of outwardly expressive, over the top presentation, but rather a response to the work. Taken as a one-off, however, it may be possible to say that some of Atget’s work was understated. Taken as a body of work… well… wow.

  9. Thanks for posting this Don! I appreciate the list of photographers as well. This article caused me to stop and think about why i like the photographers that I do like, and to go back and look at their work more closely. Maybe if I can understand what it is I like, I can make my own work a little bit better. Thanks again!!!


  10. Thanks for dealing with my questions.

    This is extremely helpful and forces me to ask some hard questions of myself and my photography. It seems that there are some objective pieces to this and some subjective pieces. For instance technique should always be in service to vision regardless. Context, emotion, and wow factor can be highly subjective. I’m not yet sure what to do with that but there enough there to wrestle with.

    With the vision question it seems that we need to keep shooting until we have some kind of breakthrough. I imagine (I have yet to have a breakthrough) that once you hit that you ride that out until it no longer works and go back to shooting again. This time with a different vision or intent.

    The lists of photographers is really, really helpful. It’s a lot easier to see greatness than to read about it!

    Thanks again,

  11. For me… trying to define this I come up with the phrase “does it take me there?”.

    This can be applied to most images…

    Am in in the landscape? DO I feel the desolation, peace, thunder etc?
    Am I in the room with the portrait subject – do I expect them to speak?
    Am I watching the police chief in Vietnam shooting a collaborator? (and I pick this to illustrate that I feel technical quality is less important… Every version I see of Eddie Adams image is grainy, “fuzzy” (not blurred) etc but it still takes you to that moment of death.

    This is probably why most glamour/fashion photography leaves me cold. Yes I can admire great lighting but I feel feel (nor want to feel) “there”. (Maybe thats different for guys? ( lol)..

    If a photo transports you from your seat/room whatever, then it’s great…..


  12. I tend to break the elements of a great photograph int three topics for discussion: Curiosity, Imagination and Empathy. Naturally they overlap but I like using these because it’s very hard to apply concepts that blossom from these topics without very personal interpretation.

    Once we speak of Depth, Line, Motion, Perspective, composition, etc., we are teaching craft and moving away from ideas. I write more about my thoughts on my site in a post with a similar title as this one if anyone is interested.

    • One of the best blogs for discussion of creativity, style and vision, Bruce’s site offers plenty of great posts. Visit the site at Permission to Suck.

  13. For me, the difference between a good image and a great image is how long the “Wow” factor stays with you. I’ve been in love with an image and upon revisiting it notice more and more, things I would have done different.(Good) Others, I still love today as much as the second the shutter clicked.(Great)


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