We all love to create images, and as serious photographers, it is our passion. We strive to create with skill and precision, and ultimately produce photographs that viewers consider “good,” or, better yet, “great!”
Photography is a bit of a blend between art and science. You should have a grasp on how your camera works, and how to manipulate your equipment in order to achieve the desired outcome. That’s the science part. The art is up to your vision as an individual, and this is where things can get muddy.
So, what constitutes what is good, great, average, or poor? Photography is subjective, let’s be honest. One person can really like an image for their own personal reasons, while another can see the same image and find it uninspiring and not all that good. There are many arguments and differing trains of thought that can apply when attempting to answer a question such as what makes a photograph ‘good?’
Today, Backcountry Journeys’ Photo Guides chime in with their opinions.
What makes a photo a ‘good’ one? I think that aside from the obvious things like proper exposure, what makes a good photo could be many things. Above all, I think a good photo helps convey a message about the subject. That message may be telling the viewer what a location or an animal looks like, but it still conveys a message. Now, a photo that can evoke some kind of emotion will not only convey a message, but it will also make a viewer react in some way. Photographers should always strive to take photos that capture some kind of emotion or reaction. I know I’ve done my job when someone views a photo of mine and it makes them reflect (maybe even for just a second) on why they love wildlife and the outdoors. When you can do that, a photo will go from good to great.
What makes a good photo? To me, there is no simple metric to determine what makes a good photo. Photography is an art form as well as a technical skill, and beauty does lie in the eye of the beholder. But, there are certainly attributes that can be seen as making a photo “good.” For instance, the technical aspects of photography will certainly lend quality to your photography, such as, is the photo sharp, well-composed, properly exposed? The qualification of “good” could also be attributed due to the capturing of a rare moment in time or interesting behavior, human, animal, or otherwise. I also believe, though, that great photos can be blurry, strangely composed, or over/underexposed. To me, what makes a great photo is the story it evokes in the mind of the viewer. Whether referring to landscape, wildlife, cityscapes, portraits, or any other medium, a great photo pulls the viewer into the subject matter and makes them wonder just what is going on here. The play of light off of a mountain peak, the glint of joy in the eye of a performer, or the gaping yawn of a mighty grizzly, any of these elements can create in the mind of the viewer the sense of a time and place, an emotion or experience. This to me is the nature of good photography, the emotional journey of the viewer. And, this is what I always try to take into consideration when shooting, editing, and selecting photos, where does it take my viewer.
I’ll speak on the landscape side here. To me, a powerful image is a unique image. In this day and age, especially with social media, I think it’s difficult to be unique and to truly be self-expressive when it comes to photography. I’m guilty of it. We see so many images of places and things each day, that when we photograph one of those locations ourselves, we want to emulate what we’ve seen before and what’s popular. It’s hard to break free from that tunnel vision sometimes and be creative and explorative. As I said, I’ve struggled with this. My all-time favorite images and photographers are the ones who are unique, either in composition, location, or processing…most of the time it’s a combination of all three of those. It’s not easy to be unique. It takes a lot of time in the field, a lot of time making mistakes and learning from them, a lot of experimentation, and a passion to discover new things. I find the unique photos really inspire me the most, too. They make me want to get out and create unique images of my own (or at least try!). I try to take this perspective and apply it to my photography – whether it’s me going to Gates of the Arctic NP in Alaska where not a ton of photographers have been, or shooting something iconic like Tunnel View in Yosemite and trying a find a different composition/take.
A ‘good’ photograph… That’s a tricky question. I suppose that a good photograph needs to have proper exposure and toning. It needs to focus and adhere to the rules of composition, such as the elements of art and design principles. And finally, a good photograph needs to be about something. The problem with all of these general rules is that I can think of examples of great images and image-makers that regularly break one or more of them. So let me say this, I classify a good photograph as an image that conveys an idea. That is both a simple and complex challenge. Like many ideas, the best, most effective manner to represent an idea is by reducing its complexity. This can work, but you have to be cautious about removing critical information. In photography, everything is subservient to the idea. Photojournalism says this as “the story is king.” Remember that photography is a language, and it will say something regardless of whether the photographer is trying to.
To my mind, the mark of a good photograph is the same as any other art form. Whether it’s a song, painting, poem, or photograph, good art elicits emotion from the viewer. In my landscape work, the emotion I typically aim to engender in the viewer is one of appreciation for the natural world and all the wonders therein. However, I also do a fair amount of photojournalism work, and in this work, I try to convey as best I can the raw, unvarnished emotion of the subject, be it joy or pain, love or hate, hope or despair. Simply put, good photography should make us feel something.
When I think about what makes a photograph a ‘good one,’ I can’t get away from one simple thing. And that is the image has to make me want to look at it. Really look at it, not just glance. My kneejerk reaction, then, is to then decide if I can find anything technically wrong with that image while I’m looking at it. If it passes that test, then it’s ‘good,’ right? If you really think about it, that just isn’t enough. Does that image tell an interesting story of its subject? Does the image make me feel something? By that, I mean, if I’m looking at a mountain scene, do I wonder about that place? Do I think that I’d like to go there to see it for myself? Do I ask questions about how I’d feel standing right there where the photographer was standing? If its a photo of a bear, am I scared because he’s charging, or showing his teeth? Or, does the image show that bear in its natural environment? One I’d like to experience? Does that image tell me a bit about what that bear is feeling/doing/experiencing, and if so how do I react? If these things exist, I have to say the image is successful. I spent some time in the photojournalism world, and within that environment, it’s a must that an image tells the story, reflecting accurately the mood or the emotions of that event or story. If I am inspired by an image, I would call it good. Maybe even great.
Boy, it’s a lot of things, isn’t it? A ‘good’ image needs to be technically sound, first. Proper exposure, sharpness, etc. all need to be present. There has to be more to that, though, too. There needs to be something in the image that demands that you look at it, and by ‘look’ at it, I mean really look at it, with questions and feelings involved. I’ve seen – and taken my fair share of – photographs over the years that are technically sound, but aren’t what I’d call exactly ‘good.’ They’re fine, but they come up short in one manner or another. If a technically sound image leaves you feeling nothing, is it a ‘good’ image? I’d say not really. I’d like a landscape image to make me interested in what I’m looking at. I want it to draw me inside the scene with questions about what is happening here. What it felt like to be there at the time this image was made. In a wildlife shot, I want to be shown something about the animal that is compelling. Where they are living, or potentially behavior that is lesser-seen that is indicative of this animal’s way of life. Essentially, a ‘good’ image needs to make you feel something about the subject.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.