What Makes A Photo Good?

November 9, 2022

We live in a time when more photographs are taken than ever before, and more photographs are shared with the general public than ever before. We also live in a time when it's easier than ever for anyone to set up a website, or use any of more than a dozen marketplaces, and try to sell their photos. But if you're in the market for a fine art photographic print to adorn your walls, you probably want to ensure you select a good photograph to have a print made. And if you're a budding photographer, still learning and trying to become better (let's face it, we all should be continually trying to be better), sometimes it's difficult to understand why a photo does or does not work. I thought I'd put together this journal entry to explain the various elements that determine a good, or even great photograph.

A fog moves over the rock formations on Bandon Beach just after sunset.

Bandon Afterglow

Limited Edition

A vivid sunset on an early autumn evening creates a palette of orange, pink, and purple in the sky and reflects off the wet sands of Bandon Beach, while a light fog moves between the large sea stacks dotting the shoreline. The scene is truly breathtaking with its one-of-a-kind dichotomy between the serenity of the water and the ethereal beauty of these enormous rock formations, shrouded in the mysterious mist. It's the perfect image to capture the unique magic of Bandon beach. Fine Art Limited Edition of 100 prints, includes signed Certificate of Authenticity.

The Technical


The technical aspects are the most basic elements of a photograph that need to be correct. These include exposure, focus, and composition. Exposure refers in part to the brightness of an image. Is it too light? Are any bright areas washed out, lacking detail? In photography lingo we call that "blown highlights". This is usually an area of bright white that lacks any detail. At the other end of the spectrum, ask if the photo is too dark. Are there dark areas that lack any shadow detail? In the image above, "Bandon Twilight" there are both bright highlights and deep shadows. But the highlights retain color and detail, and the shadows retain detail and texture as well. On occasion, photographs may intentionally create an image with dark shadows lacking detail, or bright highlights with no details. This will usually be fairly obvious to the viewer, in that it won't feel out of place, or off somehow. If an image lacks highlight or shadow detail and it doesn't feel like it was meant to be that way, it's likely an incorrect exposure.

Waves wash over the cobblestone beach of Monument Cove on a spring morning in Acadia National Park, Maine.

Spring Morning in Monument Cove

Waves wash over the cobblestone beach of Monument Cove on a spring morning in Acadia National Park, Maine.

Exposure doesn't just refer to the brightness, however. Exposure also refers to shutter speed an aperture settings, which in addition to helping control brightness of an image, also control the visual appearance of an image. In the image above taken in Acadia National Park, I used a slower shutter speed to allow the water to blur and maintain the feeling of motion as the water washes over the rocks. This is an image where there are likely several shutter settings that would have worked, each giving a different look to the motion. But there are times when photographers use an incorrect shutter speed setting. This is most apparent when there is an object moving through the scene that appears to have a slight blur to it. The photographer has used too slow a shutter speed for that situation. We all make mistakes- I normally keep my hidden just for me to agonize over- but that slight blur on a small thumbnail on a website might look like no big deal. But blown up large on paper, that blur gets accentuated and the photo suddenly doesn't look as good anymore.

West Quoddy Head lighthouse stands in the background as flowers grow in the foreground.

Tall White Asters at West Quoddy Head

West Quoddy Head lighthouse stands silent watch over Passamaquoddy Bay on a bright, sunny day in Lubec, Maine. In the foreground, tall white asters gracefully splay their petals among the lush green grass. The contrast between the vibrant wildflowers and the red and white striped exterior of the historic landmark structure create a stunningly peaceful image of a summer morning in down east Maine.

The other exposure setting that helps determine brightness, but also plays a role in the visual appearance, is aperture. Aperture is the size of the lens opening that allows light into the camera. It also plays a role in determining the depth of field of an image- that is, how sharp the image is from foreground to background. If you look at "Tall White Asters at West Quoddy Head" above, you'll see what I mean. I made several attempts at this composition that morning. I felt that for my image to be successful, I needed both the white flowers in the foreground, and the lighthouse in the background, to be tack sharp. It took some doing, as I was working at an odd angle, nearly at ground level, and couldn't really see my screen. I ended up using a technique called "focus stacking" to make this work. The point is, if the flowers were blurry, or the lighthouse was, the image would not be a good one, rather than one of my most popular sellers.

Sand Harbor in Lake Tahoe.

Sand Harbor Tahoe

The crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe rhythmically lap at the shoreline at Sand Harbor. A picturesque lake abounding with splendor, the sun reflects off its surface like a million diamonds. Gigantic rock formations and towering evergreen trees frame this peaceful scene, while above, a few white fluffy clouds dot the sky, adding to the tranquil atmosphere. Sand Harbor lies on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe, high in the Sierra-Nevada mountain range.


Composition is the way objects are arranged within the scene. The photographer has control over this in a number of ways, from where they stand, to whether they get on their knees, or stand on a ladder. In addition, if using a zoom lens, zooming in or out will change the composition. The way a photographer organizes a scene is paramount to communicating what they want the viewer to see. Good composition leads the viewer's eye through the scene to where the photographer wants them to look. Busy compositions can have the viewer looking all over the scene, unsure what they should be looking at.

Spatial relationships between objects are important. When things are too close together, or even overlapping, they can lose visual impact and make the viewer feel constricted. Spread too far out and objects often lose their relationship with the rest of the scene. It's a delicate balance that photographers struggle to maintain.

The sun rises over the Sierras as viewed from Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Sunrise on Sentinel Dome

The incredible beauty of Yosemite National Park is on full display as a pine tree stands tall on Sentinel Dome, silhouetted against the rising sun. The sun glistening through its branches casts a magical golden light across the granite surface, while Half Dome is visible in the far distance beneath the cloud-filled indigo blue sky. This is a panorama that captivates the eye and captures the spirit of this awe-inspiring national park.

There are compositional tools the photographer may use, such as framing, leading lines, the rule of thirds, and negative space. Successful use of the elements helps ensure an image with impact. Photographers must also be conscious of distracting elements. Objects that poke into the photo from the edges can lead the viewer's eye right out of the frame. Other objects within the frame may also cause distractions. It can be as simple as a light colored rock that stands out more than it should, or a bird that's flown through the scene at an inopportune time.

Lastly with regards to composition, does the image have a clear center of interest? Is there visual impact, something that strikes the viewer immediately? Do you as the viewer have an immediate reaction when viewing the image?

The Great Smoky Mountains lay before the setting sun on an autumn evening at Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Appalachian Sunset II

The Great Smoky Mountains lay before the setting sun on an autumn evening at Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The sun appears as a large yellow disc, casting warm rays over the peaks of the mountains. The sky is painted in a gradient of red, orange, and pink, creating a vivid contrast with the blue and purple hues of the mountains. The use of a telephoto lens flattens the image to large, graphic shapes, showcasing the natural beauty and grandeur of this stunning landscape.

Post Processing

All digital images need to be processed somehow. Many people just let the camera's presets handle this processing, for its ease and simplicity. However, most fine art photographers prefer to process their photos themselves, allowing them to customize the finished appearance of their images. This customized look often becomes a part of the photographer's style, making their work recognizable at a glance. Their processing look often works in lockstep with the way they expose and compose a photograph, enabling those familiar with a specific photographer's work to identify it as soon as they see it.

Sunset on Rodeo Beach, California.

Sunset on Rodeo Beach

Two sea stacks stand guard, framing the radiance of the setting sun on Rodeo Beach in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California. The sky, streaked with pink, orange, yellow, and blue hues, creates a vibrant backdrop for the ruggedness of rocky shoreline, while the waves washing over the sand and around the rocks, bring a sense of motion to the otherwise tranquil scene.

It's no secret that I like bold color in an image. This comes from my days as a film photographer, where I selected films known for their vibrant color palettes. In the digital age, this is more easily accomplished in post processing, where there are several settings we can play with to adjust the vibrance and color saturation. But it is possible to take things too far in post processing. This is often most visible in the reds, oranges, and deep blues. If a photographer goes too far, you'll often see some banding in those areas, and a loss of detail. Other telltale signs of poor post processing can include haloes around objects that contrast with the background, or thin white lines around the edges of objects due to over sharpening.

Glacial boulders in the waters of Long Island Sound near Wading River, New York.

Quiet Long Island Sound

The still waters of Long Island Sound surround glacial boulders, resting comfortably in the calm waters that mirror the soft glow of twilight, alight with a mesmerizing display of pastel hues of pink, purple, blue, and orange. The boulders, covered in lush moss and barnacles, are a stark contrast to the wispy clouds overhead which add an ethereal touch to this peaceful scene, creating a moment of unmatched beauty. This stunning photograph captures the essence of Wildwood State Park in Wading River, New York and is a must-have for anyone who appreciates the beauty of nature. The tranquil, serene atmosphere and the unique blend of earth and sky are sure to bring a touch of peace and tranquility to any room.

Getting back to color, you'll want to take note of the color balance of an image. Proper color balance ensures all elements work together in an image, as the colors all relate. Typically, sunset or sunrise images will have a warmer tone, night time images will have a cooler tone. Color balance can also be used to convey a feeling- blues tend to convey loneliness while warmer tones do the opposite. The main question is, does it work? Does the feeling the color balance provides harmonize with the content of the image? Or does it some fight the image, making it feel disjointed? For instance, a cool overall tone on a landscape image showing a tropical sunset might provide a conflicted reaction with the viewer.

A starry sky above Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.

Celestial Basin

Limited Edition

The incredible beauty of the night sky is on full display as Jupiter descends toward the horizon and stars begin to shine just after twilight in Badwater Basin. The pyramid of light you see is known as Zodiacal Light, a stunning phenomenon that is the result of sunlight reflecting off cosmic dust orbiting in the solar system. Badwater Basin is a vast salt flat that lies 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley National Park, and is characterized by the mesmerizing polygonal patterns created by groundwater rising up through the salt and evaporating. This is a limited edition of 100 prints and includes signed certificate of authenticity.


Lastly, when judging whether an image is successful, there are several intangibles that only the viewer can really determine. Does the image tell a story? Do you have an emotional response to it? Does the style appeal to you?

The sun sets over Barnegat Bay in Lavallette, NJ.

Sunset Over Barnegat Bay

A long wooden dock stretches into Barnegat Bay in Lavalette, New Jersey, at sunset, reaching out into the calm, mirror-like waters. The dark wooden planks contrast starkly with the reflective surface of the bay, while a warm orange glow radiates from the horizon, casting a blanket of light on the sky above. Exquisite streaks of clouds disperse in the sky, illuminated by the intense orange hues of the setting sun, adding a peaceful serenity to the composition. The still, unruffled water gives the photo an ethereal quality, showing the serenity of the landscape, made even more beautiful by the setting sun..

When I photograph a place, my goal is to transport the viewer to that place through my photo. I feel I am most successful when I carefully apply all of the above elements. When I'm working on location, I am constantly running down a mental checklist regarding my exposure settings, my composition, and even planning how I will process the image. Keeping the process at the forefront of my mind helps me to capture the photographs I do.

Tumbledown Pond lies below the summit of Tumbledown Mountain in Weld, Maine.


Tumbledown Mountain in Weld, Maine is a popular destination for hikers. Just below the summit lies Tumbledown Pond, a pristine alpine lake and popular place to swim and relax for hikers on the trail.

The mountainsides are blanketed with a dense cover of trees, their branches reaching skyward, creating a vibrant canopy of greens and browns. The sun shines down from a indigo blue sky filled with clouds, illuminating the landscape and casting a warm glow over the forest below.

The sun rises over the rocky coastline of Ogunquit, Maine along a path known as Marginal Way.

December Sunrise in Ogunquit

The rising sun burns through a marine layer of fog on Marginal Way in the coastal town of Ogunquit, Maine. As the sky above glows with yellows and oranges, a long exposure artistically captures the movement of water around the rocky shoreline as if painted by an artist's hand, showcasing the wondrous natural beauty of the coast of Maine.

The Seoul, South Korea skyline at night.

The Seoul Skyline

The city of Seoul, South Korea, as seen from Namsan Park.

Palouse Falls at sunset in Washtucna, Washington.

Sunset at Palouse Falls

Limited Edition

The Palouse River plunges 198 feet over Palouse Falls as it winds its way through the scablands of eastern Washington, before its confluence with the Snake River. The setting sun illuminates the basalt cliffs framing the river, creating an ethereal glow over the rugged landscape. Fine art Limited Edition print, series of 100. Each Limited Edition includes a signed Certificate of Authenticity.