What makes a great photo?

August 16, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Often I show a group of photos to different people, and I’m always struck that there is rarely a consensus on which is the best photo. Different people are drawn to different things — a photo that speaks to one person seems to leave another person flat.

Sometimes I’ve had to pick a photo — my own or someone else’s — for a publication or some other purpose and I canvass opinions. Some people agree on one photo, while others feel strongly that other photos are better.

The quality of a photo depends a lot on the use you intend to make of it. A picture to hang on a wall will be judged by very different criteria from a picture to be used for editorial purposes (e.g. in a newspaper), or shown in a gallery. A portrait of a person may be stylish and edgy, or conventional and Conservative, and the appropriate picture depends on the person and how it will be used.

To me, there are three elements that must be present for a picture to be good. They may be present in different amounts, but they must all be there:

  • The photo must be technically good
  • It should be presented in a creative and interesting way
  • The photographer should have access to interesting subject matter

I’ll comment more on each of these elements in later posts, but for now, here are a few examples of what I mean.

Technical quality:

Many pictures are technically very good, but the subject matter isn’t interesting. But good subject matter can be ruined if the picture isn’t technically good. The elements of a technically good photo include the right exposure — not too dark or two light; and the right depth of field and focus. You normally want your subject to be in sharp focus, but whether or not you want a sharp or soft background depends on the subject matter and your creative choices. Good technique involves understanding and using light and shadows for the best effect. You also need the right balance of aperture and shutter speed to control depth of field (the area in focus) and the movement of the subject (blurred or frozen sharp).


Thousands of photographers photograph the same subjects day after day, but a creative approach is needed to make a photograph stand out from the pack. Usually this involves choosing an interesting angle, framing the shot appropriately, and ideally including or excluding various elements for added effect. Ideally, a photographer uses technique in a creative way, for example using light and shadows to create a special effect, or freezing or blurring motion to emphasize movement or highlight the subject. Creativity is probably the most important element of a good photo.

Access to subject:

A person who lives in the area of an interesting natural feature is going to have a huge advantage over someone just passing through on a short visit, all other things being equal. The local person will know the best time of day to photograph that subject, and the best angles. They can return over and over under different weather and light conditions or different seasons to get the shot just right.

Likewise, a person who has access to unique subject matter because of where they live or work has an advantage. It’s always best to write about what you know, and the same applies to photography. Subject matter you are familiar with is going to be easier to present in photos than strange subject matter. This is not to suggest you need to live in an exotic place to get great pictures — often there is exciting subject matter in your own home or backyard if you are creative enough to find it.

I’ll comment more on these points in a later post.

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