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

The last light of the day glows with the mist that hangs over Bandon beach, Oregon on a summer evening. Fine Art Limited Edition of 100 prints, includes signed Certificate of Authenticity.

The Technical

Exposure

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

Tall white asters grow in a meadow near West Quoddy Head lighthouse, in Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec, 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 waters of Lake Tahoe gently wash around the rocky shoreline at Sand Harbor.

Composition

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

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 frame the setting sun on Rodeo Beach in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California.

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 sun sets to the west of Wildwood State Park in Wading River, NY. Wildwood State Park is a state park located in Suffolk County, New York in the USA. The park is in the Town of Riverhead on the north shore of Long Island. The park includes a beach on Long Island Sound.

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

Jupiter descends toward the horizon as stars begin to shine just after twilight in Badwater Basin. The pyramid of light you see is known as Zodiacal Light, the result of sunlight reflecting off cosmic dust orbiting in the solar system. Badwater Basin is a salt flat that lies 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley National Park. Limited edition of 100 prints. Includes signed certificate of authenticity.

Intangibles

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

The sun sets over Barnegat Bay in Lavallette, NJ.

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

Just below the summit of Tumbledown Mountain lies Tumbledown Pond, an alpine lake and popular place to swim and relax for hikers on the trail. Tumbledown Mountain is located near Weld, Maine.

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

December Sunrise in Ogunquit

The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean near Marginal Way in Ogunquit, Maine. Marginal Way is a 1.25 mile cliff walk that winds along the ocean in Ogunquit, Maine. It begins near the sandy 3 mile stretch of Ogunquit Beach and finishes in Perkins Cove.

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 cascades 198 feet over Palouse Falls as it winds its way through the scablands of eastern Washington, before it joins the Snake River. Fine art Limited Edition print, series of 100. Each Limited Edition includes a signed Certificate of Authenticity.