What is it that makes a great photo?
The answer is nearly as difficult as the one to what great art was. Photography has so many different types and genres that it‘s quite hard or nearly impossible to define a special type of photograph that is great. You could pick hundreds of completely different photos that could be all great in a different way.
The quality of a photo lies in the eye of the beholder. One photo may be great to me but pretty average to others. But I can try to explain what impresses me about photos and how I as a photographer try to achieve a good photo.
When I think about photographers those like David LaChapelle or Gregory Crewdson come to my mind quickly, but it‘s more because they create impressive artworks, that are loud and in your face and stay in your mind. I do not particularly love them as photographers but more as artists. Their images have more of a painting or a staged play captured with one exposure. But to be honest it‘s actually not what I love about photography.
Great photography to me means capturing a moment, to freeze life in one photograph. That creates a whole lot of different scenes you can imagine to fit that purpose. It can be a portrait of a person that is happy and the capture of this happiness, during a wedding or just a stranger in a restaurant. It can be a sport event and a fascinating moment of the hit of the ball. It can be a sad moment in your family. It can also just be the sky and a crazy formation of clouds. It can also be a flower and its intriguing colours. It may as well be just a normal daily street scene in your hometown.
The subject doesn‘t really matter, life gives you endless opportunities to create a great photo. But what is it that makes your photo stand out?
It‘s hard to define one way that makes a photo great, I think there are many. Let me give you an example, a photo of a woman I shot in Vietnam. To me it's pretty much a perfect portrait. I saw this beautiful old woman in a little village. She allowed me to take her photo. Not only does she look amazing, it's also her clothes and this perfectly balanced background that just emphasized her magnificent expression. You could have done the same in a studio with someone casted and pose this way. But the great thing about this image is it's completely natural and I managed to just captured this graceful attitude. It's one of my most favorite portraits ever, I just love it.
But a photo of houses in Hongkong may be as interesting to you. What I like about this photo are those crazy lines that give it dramatic expression. I shot the image late in the day and the light was just perfect and created all shades of crazy colours. It's a completely different genre of photos and still I love them both in their own way.
A photo to me has to tell a story at best in an arty or powerful way. For example you can take a photo of someone in the streets by just point the camera straight towards her or him. But you can make it a better photo by including some of the surrounding into the photo in an interesting way.
You can try to compose a photo in a very symmetrical way to make it look more appealing. Photographing only straight lines sometimes make a great photo.
There are different factors each possibly contributing to a good photo. Subject may be one factor. A photo of a beautiful woman may be great just because it‘s a great looking person. But to me photographing obviously beautiful people or things often lead to not so interesting photos although the subject may be interesting. That‘s why I never really liked photographers like Helmut Newton or Peter Lindberg too much. Without a doubt you have to be recognized and proven to be a really good photographer to get the chance to shoot celebraties or Supermodels, but there‘s not such a great story behind it in the end.
To me a photo is more interesting when the person is not amazingly beautiful in the first place but becomes beautiful the way you take a photo of her/him and tell their story in one exposure, maybe by including some of the natural environment the person is working or living in. A photo to me is more interesting when you see someone on the streets that could be a Supermodel but simply isn‘t. I rode a bike on the countryside in Myanmar and passed this young woman. I turned around after a couple of meters and went back to take her photo. It‘s one of the most beautiful people I‘ve seen last year and on this trip. She was just sitting beside the street in a little booth to sell some goods to the village people. It‘s a completely natural portrait.
Good photos draw peoples attention and stay in their heads. But it‘s very difficult to tell what this special something has to be. Light for example plays a huge role in almost every photo and morning or evening light is much more pleasing because its softer and often gives interesting skies and colours.
Compostion has a huge impact on a photo. Placing a person or couple right in the middle of the frame is not as interesting as placing it on the sides or the bottom sometimes.
Timing is a key factor in making a photo special. To capture the exact moment of a unique situation sometimes make the photo a winner.
Sometimes it's simplicity that makes a photo powerful.
Very noisy images with lots of different things going on like in a street scene can be as interesting, too, though.
Sometimes it‘s one factor alone that make a photo good but often it‘s only a combination of all those factors that make a photo great.
I‘m very critical for example. One photographer that I am probably the most amazed of is Henry Cartier-Bresson. He used to shoot for Magnum, one of the greatest photo agencies in the world. Bresson's photos are outstanding. They often combine a very special moment in life with incredibly interesting people, his ability to hit the exact neccessary moment and an incredible talent in composing all this in an image you will never forget. Bresson is one of the very few masters that I consider an idol for me. And his images keep me hunting for those moments in life that are very, very hard to put into a photograph quite the same way. If you succeed you got a great photo, only others may tell if it was truly outstanding.
As photographer you always think you could have done better ...
I think this can only be a Part One of what makes a great photo, there's so much more to write about it ...