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What makes a photo great?

This is a discussion on What makes a photo great? within the General photography forums, part of the Photography & Fine art photography category; Now we are cooking folks Some debate and verying opinions. Excellent. Those 4 points I put up weren't actually my ...

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    Now we are cooking folks Some debate and verying opinions. Excellent.

    Those 4 points I put up weren't actually my own definitions, more observations because I didn't with every photo I saw that got an award from forums or even in well known magazines etc and it got me wondering.

    Later when I get home from work (short day today ) I'll go through and correlate what's been said and adjust that list in my first post WITH some distinguished facet for the greatness from a pro/enthusiast perspective and a non photographic view point or perhaps more angled to Tomorrowstreasures suggestion of the definition of greatness which should be similar anyhow. Of course there's always crossover.

    Any more thoughts very welcome.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tomorrowstreasures View Post
    I think that if the question were what makes a photo fine art - the debate would be different than what you are doing here. What makes a photo great? Define great. Are you referring to emotionally great? technically great?

    I do want to say that this discussion provides pause for considering points of view separate from one's own. Good work here.
    ahh but let's not get distracted....the title of the thread is what makes a photo great. What makes a photo fine art is a totally different beast.

    I am referring to Great. If the photo is emotionally great but technically crap then IMO it can never be Great.
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    Quote Originally Posted by marko View Post

    For me a great photograph contains ALL of the following;
    -A suggested story or strong focal point
    -Great printing meaning a full selection of tones from black to white
    - No distractions
    - good exposure, composition and lighting
    Marko - these points I fully concur with. Within the thread there is a bit of quibbling about taste. That is from which I was coming from. Is greatness a taste issue? or is it a technical issue?

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    Quote Originally Posted by marko View Post
    If the photo is emotionally great but technically crap then IMO it can never be Great.
    Interesting viewpoint. I don't share it...

    From my viewpoint, For something to be artistically great, it has to become *more* than the sum of it's parts.

    Yes, the technical side contributes. Yes, the artistic intent contributes. Often, *luck*, or chance, contributes. Sometimes happy accidents, and so on.

    But it *is* possible to have a varying degree of these factors, and still be regarded as great. If you captured a candid shot, even acidentally, of, say, a leading figure in such a way that the capture, the moment and the subject combined to make a powerful artistic statement, even unintended, and it wasn't captured technically brilliantly - could it still become an iconic image and regarded highly by peers and the public alike?

    I say yes...

    Art has to communicate with the viewer - and it doesn't always have to be technically perfect in order to do this. Sometimes, something being less than technically perfect actually contributes to its artistic quality...

    Edit: However, there are certain standards below which something is just going to always be poor - so it doesn't mean I think that someone can pick up a camera with no ability and expect to make great art with every snap...
    Last edited by Ben H; 01-22-2009 at 03:52 PM.

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    Ok ... updated that first post.

    Have a look guys and tell if I'm doing ok with that.

    Let me know if any of the list is incorrect or needs to be included in both lists etc.


    Hey Marko ... you might end up with a unique resource for a future podcast here

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    EDIT-23/01- Some good debate going now which forces me to be more specific.

    For the purposes of this discussion ... a 'Great' photo will be separated and defined in the following two categories ....

    Professional Great (photos that have are technically and visually well done) & Emotional Great (photos that simply are great regardless of technical aspects)
    I may change those titles as we go along but for now they help us to move along.


    PROFESSIONAL 'GREAT'
    (Must have all or some of the qualities listed as a great photo is likely to need several to make it 'Great')

    A Professional 'Great' photo has ...
    • great content
    • good photographic techniques applied
    • no bad quality elements such as overexposure etc
    • shows the photographer captured the image he was intending to create
    • a suggested story or strong focal point
    • great printing qualities meaning a full selection of tones from black to white
    • no distractions
    • good exposure, composition and lighting
    • transcends the traditional boundries of the craft and takes it to a new and exciting direction



    EMOTIONAL 'GREAT'
    (Must have all or some of the qualities listed as a great photo is likely to need several to make it 'Great')

    An Emotional 'Great' photo has ...
    • great content
    • good photographic techniques applied
    • appeals to you personally with less emphasis on quality
    • shows the photographer went well out their way to capture the image regardless of the quality attained
    • sentimental value
    • artistic intent and content
    • content not usually photographed
    Please keep in mind that there is no right answer here...

    I like this list M.A. but i disagree with 2 points from
    A Professional 'Great' photo has
    - transcends the traditional boundries of the craft and takes it to a new and exciting direction - I disagree with this 100%. A strong conventional image can easily be Great.
    - shows the photographer captured the image he was intending to create. I disagree here as well as 'happy accidents' can also create Great photographs

    In terms of your second division "Emotional" I don't agree that it deserves it's own category. What's emotional to one person can be trite to another.

    I can see a strong argument (even though I don't personally buy it) for Sentimentally Great or Personally great since who am I to say that a photo is NOT great IF it affects another human on a profound level...but like I said, I don't accept that as Greatness.

    Marko - these points I fully concur with. Within the thread there is a bit of quibbling about taste. That is from which I was coming from. Is greatness a taste issue? or is it a technical issue?
    This question further strengthens my assertion that Greatness is NOT a taste issue, for me it's closer to a technical issue. (If it WAS a taste issue, defining it is a waste of time, again taste is personal and completely subjective. What I think we are searching for is something tangible and objective). A Great photo is still great EVEN if it doesn't appeal to a person's taste...that viewer should still be able to see the Greatness in it.

    This is why I feel the Greatness should have an almost Universal appeal (you'll never get EVERYONE to agree but you will get MOST people to agree ESPECIALLY those that 'know' about photography.)

    Again - Just my

    I do agree M.A. that this could indeed be an interesting podcast
    Last edited by Marko; 01-23-2009 at 12:07 PM.
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    I think 50% Subject Matter + 35% Skill + 15% Luck = Great Photo.

    Subject matter is a lot. Look at National Geographic photos. People love them so much because of the subject matter. What about that arab girl with the iconic green eyes that has been seen everywhere, a National Geographic icon. When that show was taken it was just another portrait shot of kids in the area, but to me that shot is fine art. Everything was perfect about it, pose, lighting and most important = the subject matter.

    It also takes skill. A lot of skill. You have to get lighting right, exposure has to be spot on. You have to recognize opportunities, that to me is also skill. Recognizing when to take a shot is very important. Again, a lifetime goes into everytime a professional snaps one of these shots. The thousand portraits, the thousand landscapes that they have shot go into every pull of the shutter.

    And luck. It takes a little luck too. Your photo needs to be seen by the right person. Sometimes, things just turn out right in your favor or something happens that gives you an opportunity to take a shot.

    I think it takes skill but more importantly it takes a great subject. A good landscape photographer might spend all day getting to that perfect spot to shoot a valley. No one else ever gets that shot because they are not willing to hike all day to take it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by marko View Post
    Please keep in mind that there is no right answer here...

    I like this list M.A. but i disagree with 2 points from
    A Professional 'Great' photo has
    - transcends the traditional boundries of the craft and takes it to a new and exciting direction - I disagree with this 100%. A strong conventional image can easily be Great.
    - shows the photographer captured the image he was intending to create. I disagree here as well as 'happy accidents' can also create Great photographs
    I agree that a strong conventional photo can be great. I also agree that a 'happy accident', as you call it, can be great also. I don't think what I wrote contradicts that at all.
    I did state that a 'Great' photograph (Must have all or some of the qualities listed as a great photo is likely to need several to make it 'Great')

    Would you agree though that a great photo might have the following included in it?
    - transcends the traditional boundries of the craft and takes it to a new and exciting direction
    - shows the photographer captured the image he was intending to create.



    Quote Originally Posted by marko View Post
    In terms of your second division "Emotional" I don't agree that it deserves it's own category. What's emotional to one person can be trite to another.

    I can see a strong argument (even though I don't personally buy it) for Sentimentally Great or Personally great since who am I to say that a photo is NOT great IF it affects another human on a profound level...but like I said, I don't accept that as Greatness.
    Point taken and I understand your viewpoint but I think it's biased by your photographic professionalism, which we all respect of course.

    However, I'd like to try to establish what makes a photo great from the perspective of both the professional/enthusiast and also the general photo lover/non professional sector as well.
    As it was pointed out by yourself and TT, it's not going be valid to try to establish one list that covers both camps.

    The definition of 'Great' is the bug bear here I guess so I need to further clarity and quantify the categories.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mindforge View Post
    I think 50% Subject Matter + 35% Skill + 15% Luck = Great Photo.

    Subject matter is a lot. Look at National Geographic photos. People love them so much because of the subject matter. What about that arab girl with the iconic green eyes that has been seen everywhere, a National Geographic icon. When that show was taken it was just another portrait shot of kids in the area, but to me that shot is fine art. Everything was perfect about it, pose, lighting and most important = the subject matter.

    It also takes skill. A lot of skill. You have to get lighting right, exposure has to be spot on. You have to recognize opportunities, that to me is also skill. Recognizing when to take a shot is very important. Again, a lifetime goes into everytime a professional snaps one of these shots. The thousand portraits, the thousand landscapes that they have shot go into every pull of the shutter.

    And luck. It takes a little luck too. Your photo needs to be seen by the right person. Sometimes, things just turn out right in your favor or something happens that gives you an opportunity to take a shot.

    I think it takes skill but more importantly it takes a great subject. A good landscape photographer might spend all day getting to that perfect spot to shoot a valley. No one else ever gets that shot because they are not willing to hike all day to take it.
    I don't think we could possibly narrow down a great photo to percentages like that.
    As much as I hate to admit that luck could be a factor I guess it should be included. But is it luck? Or did the photographer put him/herself into a position that made the shot possible? Is it still luck then? Does it matter or is it necessary to split it this deeply? Perhaps just adding 'Luck' is enough afterall, every point could be debated and disected beyound recognition if we got too anal about it all.

    The AFGHAN GIRL is the photo that mindforge is referring to and I have a DVD from Natioanl Geographic about this amazing photo and the amazing effort they went to find this orphaned child many years later. Retinal examination techniques etc were employed to accurately identify her.

    This is the photo with a photo taken when they found her many years later ... as Marko would say ... "Her eyes really sing" ...

    To read more about this http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/afghangirl
    and a more brief account http://news.nationalgeographic.com/n...2_sharbat.html
    Last edited by Mad Aussie; 01-24-2009 at 01:44 AM.

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    This is a GREAT photo and a great example. (Even though it may not appeal to everyone's personal taste)

    Would you agree though that a great photo might have the following included in it?
    - transcends the traditional boundries of the craft and takes it to a new and exciting direction
    - shows the photographer captured the image he was intending to create.
    Do these 2 points matter for a shot like this or any GREAT shot? For me even if these 2 points are false for this photo, the photo is still GREAT....so for me, these points are not valid when describing the greatness of a photo. It's true that those two points 'can potentially' help push a photo into Greatness, but they are NOT fundamental to Greatness which is what I think we are looking for.

    I think 50% Subject Matter + 35% Skill + 15% Luck = Great Photo.
    I think you may be onto something here with this point of view. I think I'd change the %ages to 65% skill 20% subject matter 15% luck though. CHOOSING the right subject matter is also a skill which is why I'm adding to skill and removing from subject matter.

    However, I'd like to try to establish what makes a photo great from the perspective of both the professional/enthusiast and also the general photo lover/non professional sector as well.
    As it was pointed out by yourself and TT, it's not going be valid to try to establish one list that covers both camps.
    Not trying to be difficult here but if we REMOVE personal taste I think we can come up with 1 list for both camps. Even a 'lay photographer (regular person)' can tell the difference between a good and a great photograph and this is one of my key tangents. Great photographs are 'almost' Universal even though a viewer may not 'know' (according to our list) why it is Great.

    The Afghan photo above would not be great if if was 2 stops underexposed and the eyes were blurry with a red cast. Both pros and non-photographers would stop referring to it as Great it this were the case.


    BTW - I'm LOVIN' this discussion everyone
    Last edited by Marko; 01-24-2009 at 10:32 AM.
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