61 — What makes a Photo Great

Pho­tog­ra­phy pod­cast #61 talks about what makes a photo great. Given that most of us try hard to pro­duce the best pho­tographs we can, in this pod­cast we are try­ing to come up with the cri­te­ria needed to cre­ate great pho­tographs. I offer my per­sonal opin­ion on the mat­ter and I’d love to get com­ments telling me that I’m on to some­thing, or com­ments telling me that I’m full of it. These two pho­tographs below fit the bill for what I call great pho­tog­ra­phy. I dare you to chal­lenge me on these pho­tos, I dare you. This pod­cast is based on a sug­ges­tion from Mad Aussie in our forum. Many thanks Mad Aussie!

Afghan Girl — Steve McCurry

Melancholic Tulip - 1939 - Andre Kertesz

Melan­cholic Tulip — 1939 — Andre Kertesz

Links men­tioned in this pod­cast:
What makes a photo great? (Orig­i­nal thread that inspired this pod­cast)
Guess what it is thread
The image game
Marko’s Jan­u­ary 2009 pick for best mem­ber image
Nom­i­nate other member’s pho­tographs
Zen And The Art Of Motor­cy­cle Maintenance:an Inquiry Into Values

Assign­ments on our pho­tog­ra­phy bul­letin board:
Feb­ru­ary 2009 Photo Assign­ment — Love/Passion/Romance and Red should be a fea­ture
Febru­rary 2009 — Assign­ment — pho­tograph­ing words — Shadow
Febru­rary 2009 — Post pro­cess­ing assignment

Thanks as always to‚Susan and Benny who posted a blog com­ment about our last pod­cast and to all the new mem­bers of the bul­letin board.

If you are look­ing at this mate­r­ial on any other site except Photography.ca — Please hop on over to the Photography.ca blog and pod­cast and get this and other pho­tog­ra­phy info directly from the source. I Sub­scribe with iTunes I Sub­scribe via RSS feed I Sub­scribe with Google Reader I Sub­scribe for free to the Pho­tog­ra­phy pod­cast — Photography.ca and get all the posts/podcasts by Email
You can down­load this pho­tog­ra­phy pod­cast directly by click­ing the pre­ced­ing link or lis­ten to it almost imme­di­ately with the embed­ded player below.


  1. Tony says:

    Thanks for this help­ful, educa­tive and enter­tain­ing pod­cast, from the wilds of your vehi­cle (recorded with some MP3 equip­ment?)
    I agree with your analy­sis of great­ness, as you say, beyond the ‘story’ fea­ture, we shouldn’t for­get the expo­sure ele­ment, free­dom from dis­trac­tions v. impor­tant too.
    That com­par­i­son of the Afghan woman! The left photo is just mem­o­rable 100%, but I almost thought the right one was a par­ody! LOL ;-)
    Best wishes.
    Oh, nearly for­got… Does your title area have no image? It appears on my {Fire­fox} as just grey… no image?

  2. Susan says:

    After read­ing all of the above essays , er, “com­ments” I have one thing to add. Are you happy now Mad Aussie? ;0)

  3. Kent Wilson says:

    Of course, I am aware that the ini­tial ques­tion con­cerned pho­tog­ra­phy rather than paint­ing. I raised the issue of paint­ing because I believe that there is con­sid­er­able lit­er­a­ture on what makes a good (per­haps great) paint­ing and that this might throw light on the issue for pho­tog­ra­phy. It is not appar­ent to me how the two cases dif­fer in rel­e­vant respects with regard to judg­ing great­ness. That is, how exactly do the facts that paint­ing has been around longer and has exhib­ited many more and dif­fer­ent styles than pho­tog­ra­phy make a dif­fer­ence in what is required of a pho­to­graph for it to be great as dis­tinct from the require­ment for a paint­ing tobe great?

    In terms of an innate sense of what is great, your intu­ition about how peo­ple would judge two abstracts can, I would think, but put to a sim­ple test: present a series of pairs or triplets of abstracts (or in fact of other types of pho­tos) to a group if peo­ple com­pris­ing both sophis­ti­cates and naifs, and see if their judg­ments coin­cide. I think it would be inter­est­ing as an ini­tial test to learn the out­come. While per­haps not up to the stan­dard of a sci­en­tific exper­i­ment, it could serve as a begin­ning. Note that the selected images do not have to con­sist of a great and a mediocre image. All may be great, none great, or some mix may be pre­sented. That way, no ques­tion is begged con­cern­ing which pho­tos are great accord­ing to the per­son select­ing the images. In fact, one could have a com­mit­tee of nearly ran­domly cho­sen peo­ple select some images and another group choose among them sets of images to be pre­sented to the “sub­jects” for their judgments.

    Please note that I am not pre­dict­ing an out­come either way, just rais­ing the ques­tion and mak­ing the obser­va­tion that your opin­ion might be sup­ported (or refuted) by data.

    I agree that money and the rep­u­ta­tion of the artist may have noth­ing to do with great­ness of the work.

    Fac­tors such as luck, tal­ent, tech­ni­cal com­pe­tence are all, in a plain sense I think, exter­nal to the pho­to­graph itself. What is inter­nal and rel­e­vant to judg­ing merit is sub­ject, com­po­si­tion, sharp­ness or blur, etc.

    The photo stands alone, with­out the pho­tog­ra­pher along­side to explain it. What­ever luck, com­pe­tence, and tal­ent the pho­tog­ra­pher has in mak­ing the image may be man­i­fested in the image, but the pho­tog­ra­pher may not be around to explain the pres­ence or the role of any of these in the photo.

    Let me pose another, more rad­i­cal, ques­tion: Is this issue even mean­ing­ful, or is it so fraught with ambi­gu­ity and vague­ness that any answer will be problematic?

    Have fun.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks so much for that provoca­tive com­ment Kent! It is a com­pli­cated issue for sure and there will always be those that dis­agree with the 97% of peo­ple that think a cer­tain pho­to­graph is great.

    Your Pol­lack exam­ple is a good one for sure, but the ques­tion was what makes a photo great not what makes a paint­ing great (paint­ing is harder since it’s older and spans many more totally dif­fer­ent styles and gen­er­a­tions of ‘art lovers’) and it was a member’s sug­ges­tion. That said, I still think that if you put 2 abstracts side by side and one of them IS great, most peo­ple will choose the great one regard­less of the artist that painted it. If it’s not great — they'll tell you neither is great. The monetary value or the notoriety of the artist, for me, does not play into it. I've seen paintings of pure black canvasses that go for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Is that a great painting? NO, imo. Why? again it's the Universal definition that I'm after, not the opinions of rich artsy eggheads that tell me the painting symbolizes death and nothingness.

    In terms of luck, I agree, some­times no luck is involved, it is 100% skill and Weston’s pep­pers are a great exam­ple. Pho­tog­ra­phy is so vast though and has so many dis­ci­plines and sub-disciplines, and in some of them luck does play a part. (Though I do agree with you — skill by far is the most impor­tant aspect in any photograph).

    Thanks for the com­ment and I too am a philoso­pher, but only after a few beers :)

    Cheers! — Marko

  5. Kent Wilson says:

    A Very inter­est­ing topic. I have a num­ber of ideas (none definitive).

    First, the idea that “If it’s great to me, then it’s great.” Isn’t that like a color blind per­son say­ing “It’s green to me, so it’s green”? The relative-to-me posi­tion is fairly pop­u­lar (for exam­ple, among ama­teur ethics philoso­phers), and can’t just be dis­missed, but I sus­pect most peo­ple are look­ing for some­thing a bit more universal.

    2nd, an innate aes­thetic sense. This is more com­pli­cated, but I doubt that Robert Per­sig had any reli­able data to back it up. There is data sup­port­ing the view that humans have an innate music fac­ulty, but this does not sup­port a sense of qual­ity. Too com­pli­cated to into here. So let me pose a question.

    I show you 2 abstract paint­ings, one by Jack­son Pol­lock and the other by a painter not regarded as very good, much less great. Are you con­fi­dent that you will be able to dis­tin­guish the great one from the mediocre one? Of course, one response might be that Pollock’s work isn’t great. But then that kind of brings us back to “If I think it’s great, then it’s great” view.

    Finally, for now any­way, luck. Part of what makes the issue as it has been framed here is the impre­ci­sion of the ques­tion. One might bet­ter ask “Is luck a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for great­ness? A suf­fi­cient con­di­tion? Both? Neither?

    I’d sug­gest not nec­es­sary (except per­haps in a silly sense). Edward Weston’s pep­pers were care­fully selected, the set up was delib­er­ately com­posed, the light­ing arranged, the expo­sure deter­mined. All this is skill or craft, not luck. So where did luck come in? Well, he was lucky to be alive, lucky that a severe storm did not dis­rupt his photo ses­sion, lucky that he had a cam­era, etc. But I think these are silly.

    Is luck suf­fi­cient? I guess that depends on how much luck we’re talk­ing about. Clearly, one can be lucky in find­ing a strik­ing sub­ject, but not skill­ful enough to make a good expo­sure. If we are talk­ing about being Blessed — so lucky that absolutely every­thing falls into place even tho’ the pho­tog­ra­pher is inept and the equip­ment used in in poor con­di­tion, etc, then of course, luck is suf­fi­cient. But that is an awful lot of luck!

    I hope my con­tri­bu­tion is not too nerdy. In a past life, I was a (trained) philosopher.

  6. Jlabel says:

    I liked the pod­cast, but I have a very dif­fer­ent opin­ion on what makes your photo a good one and it starts with Sweat (effort), Lan­guage (what you want to say) and Cre­ativ­ity (How you will say it and light it), and the last say 20% will be shared by Tech­nique, Luck, Loca­tion, Mod­els and Background.

  7. admin says:

    Thanks Steven…I know, I know I’m SO damn Canadian(Says marko in a low tone non-threatening voice) LOL.

  8. Steven K says:

    Great and edu­ca­tional as always but you need to stop apol­o­giz­ing for hav­ing your own opin­ions lol.

Speak Your Mind