The simplest question in photography is also the most complex: What makes a good photo? It isn’t enough to say that a good photo comes from its lighting, composition, subject, and so on; this question has a deeper answer. Good images – as different as they may be from one another – all stem from the same roots: The photographer has a strong goal for the photo, then expresses that goal in the most effective possible way.
1) Forming a Vision
Every photo you take must exist for a reason. That’s true whether it’s a throwaway image, a family snapshot, or the greatest work of art ever created. If you don’t have a reason to take the photo, it simply won’t exist. That reason is the vision behind a photograph.
It always helps to have the clearest possible vision in mind when you take a photo. Rather than, “Wow, what a cool scene, I need a picture,” it’s better to say to yourself, “This landscape would work perfectly in a dark, moody photograph. How can I achieve that?”
One helpful technique is to imagine the final photograph in your mind’s eye. Really look at the scene in front of you, and try to figure out exactly how it will appear in your photo – the good points and the bad points. Then, imagine the best possible version of that photo, and figure out how to get there.
Forming a vision is the easy part; all you really need to do is pinpoint the message or emotion you’re trying to capture. The real challenge is achieving that vision – matching your final photo to the ideal image you have in mind.
2) Putting Your Vision Into Practice
To put your vision into practice, you need to approach every aspect of photography thoughtfully and consciously. You can’t just take some quick snapshots when something catches your eye; instead, every last bit of the photo should be intentional. That starts with one of the most important parts of photography: your subject.
2.1) Choosing a suitable subject
At a workshop I once attended, one activity was to photograph a flower in a way that evoked a sense of anger. Everyone’s results were interesting, and some succeeded to a degree, but none of them truly matched that vision. My takeaway from the exercise? Flowers just aren’t good at expressing certain emotions. I’m sure that wasn’t what the instructor intended for us to learn, but it’s a crucial lesson.
Not all subjects will work for every single vision you have. It would be very tricky to photograph a bright waterfall on a sunny day and evoke a sense of terror; it would be equally difficult to capture a lightning storm over a massive volcano in a fun, lighthearted way.
The point is that you need to choose your subject with care. Everything you photograph brings something different to the table – its own, unique qualities that could be more or less suitable to your vision, depending upon what your vision actually is. Many scenes aren’t tailored to capturing “something beautiful,” for example, if that’s your goal. Some will always work better than others. So, choose your subjects with care.
2.2) Does everything have a reason?
Deliberate. Purposeful. When you’re learning how to capture successful photographs, those two words might be the most important of all.
Don’t do anything thoughtlessly. Every single part of each photo you take should exist for a reason. Nothing can be an accident – not the lighting in the scene, not the way you compose your subjects, and not the smallest details at the bottom of the frame.
Consciously evaluate every single element in a scene, and, if something is unwelcome, find a way to eliminate it. So much of photography – good composition and good post-processing – is about minimizing the elements that harm your photo. With this goal in mind, consider changing your composition, perhaps by moving your camera around to a different position or using a different lens. Refine your photos as much as possible in the field so that nothing takes away from the overall look of the image.
One thing I would caution is to avoid using extreme post-processing to prop up a photo that has major issues. Sometimes, it’s true that you may be able to spot-heal an annoying patch of grass out of a photograph, or warp and squeeze a distant mountain to look more impressive. But, even if you don’t mind doing those sorts of adjustments from an artistic or ethical perspective, it is always ideal to start with the best possible base image. No matter how minimal or extreme your post-processing style may be, the quality of a completed image owes itself directly to the quality of your out-of-camera photograph.
That’s why every element in your photos should have a purpose. Nothing should exist just because “that’s how the scene looked,” and you didn’t find a better vantage point – or, worse, because you didn’t pay enough attention to notice a particular issue in the first place.
I’m not saying this is always easy. As a personal example, I recently took a photo that is almost good enough to publish, but there’s an entire mountain in the distance that doesn’t work well, and it’s not possible to crop out in a way that looks decent. There’s not much to be done in situations like that, except to avoid adding the photo to my portfolio.
Even if you can’t optimize every single element of a photograph, chances are good that there’s some way to improve upon your initial attempt at a scene. This is where it’s crucial to learn about things like light and composition, since they have such a profound effect on the way your final result appears.
The highest expression of photography is to make the whole image image deliberate and intentional – capturing the world in such a way that your vision and emotion are seamlessly conveyed to a viewer. If anything in your image looks unnecessary, or it distracts from your goal for the photo, you aren’t making the most of the scene.
2.3) Finding the right audience
Many of the most cliché photos on stock photography websites also happen to be meticulously designed, with every part of the image created intentionally. But the photographer’s vision in these cases is not to create a stunning work of art, nor to reveal something in the world that hasn’t been seen before. It’s to take a photo that matches someone’s keyword search.
If you, as a viewer, approach a stock photo in search of a masterpiece, you probably won’t find one. But if you instead look at the same photo from the perspective of someone who needs a picture of a red stapler in front of a blue background, you’ll be thrilled to find the right image.
So, whether a photo is “good” depends strongly upon your audience. You might succeed in capturing the most beautiful wildlife photo of all time, but a viewer won’t care if they’re just trying to find a picture of a harmonica.
And this isn’t just about stock photos, either. Say, for example, that your goal is to capture the best possible photo of a mountain landscape. Depending upon your audience, this could mean very different things. Personally, I love photos that are dark, moody, and calm. The most beautiful mountain photograph for me might be one taken after sunset, when there is very little light remaining, and much of the subject’s detail is lost in shadow.
Many other photographers would find photos like that to be too gloomy, or maybe just not interesting enough. That’s equally valid. If your definition of a beautiful landscape picture includes strong lighting, rich colors, and a once-in-a-lifetime subject, you’ll gravitate towards very different photos.
So, for a viewer to find one of your images successful, your vision for the photograph needs to work in harmony with theirs. The closer your two tastes are, the more they’ll like the final product, and the less they’ll notice any issues it may have.
Of course, it isn’t possible to know exactly how other people will view one of your images. In some sense, it’s down to luck more than anything else. However, chances are good that your viewers will have tastes that are similar to your own, or they wouldn’t be following your work in the first place. For that reason, unless you’re already shooting with a particular viewer in mind (again, like stock photography), all you can do anyway is capture and display photos that match your own preferences. At the end of the day, in most cases, that’s enough to find the right audience and know that they like your style.
A good photo is one that:
- Has a clear vision
- Expresses that vision successfully
- Harmonizes well with your viewer’s own vision
Checking off these boxes, especially the second one, isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. If you fulfill all three, the result is clear: You will end up with a successful photo.
At some level, every single element of photography – light, composition, subject, and so on – are just the tools you use to reach your goal, or your vision. Whether that vision is to create a beautiful, spectacular landscape photo, or to take a quick selfie to send to a friend, it doesn’t matter. A good photo simply succeeds at its goal and suits your viewer’s tastes.
To get there, though, the most important thing is to act with purpose. Start by choosing your subjects deliberately, and ensure that every single bit of each photograph exists for a reason. A good photo rarely happens by accident. If you keep that in mind, you’re already a huge step ahead of the game.