What Makes a Great Photograph

by Miserere

  

Newcomers to Photography, and even seasoned shooters, are often confused as to what it is exactly that makes a Great Photograph. We all know what a pretty, or cute, or moving photograph is, at least at some emotional, non-verbal level, but we find it hard to define in words what separates the Good from the Great.

Fret not my children, Miserere has spent a few minutes thinking hard about this and has it all figured out for you. A Great Photograph is…

  

A Photograph Taken in an Exotic Location

Michel & Christine Denis-Huot - Troupeau d'Elephants

©Michel & Christine Denis-Huot

Humans are curious creatures who are drawn to adventure—it’s one of the reasons we spread around the Globe after Africa became too much of the same old, same old. But we still miss our old homeland, which is why photos taken in Africa are all Great. Unless you actually live in Africa, in which case they’re just photos of your own back yard. Show the average group of Westeners a photo of elephants majestically traversing the Serengeti and you’ll receive a chorus of “ooohs” and “aaahs”. Show it to one of the local Maasai tribe members, and he’ll let you know exactly what he thinks of those $@#&ing elephants that walk around thinking the plains are all theirs and keep stomping on his vegetable patch. Show this same Maasai warrior a photo of a polar bear on an iceberg, and you’ll get “ooohs” and “aaahs”. Now, show this same photo to an Inuit, and…well, you get the idea.

  

A Photograph Taken in a Remote Location

© Mars Exploration Rover Mission
(click for huge size)

This category of Great Picture is sometimes confused with the preceding, and indeed, there can be overlap in some cases; but they are different. A remote location is one that is difficult to get to, which makes it rarely visited, and even more rarely photographed. Many exotic locations used to be remote, but since the advent of affordable air travel and vaccinations, almost anyone can visit Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica… Remote locations are becoming more and more difficult to find, but there are still some remaining: Mount Everest, deep caves, oceanic beds, the Moon, Mars… The reason these photos are great is obvious: There are very few of them. Take a look at the photo of Mars illustrating this section; I could call up the guys at the Mars Exploration Rover Mission and tell them how much they suck at stitching photographs (haven’t they heard of Hugin?) and how terrible the photo looks. They would probably say, you think you can do a better job? Then go ahead and get your arse over to Mars to take some pics with your fancy panorama head and tripod. That isn’t going to happen, is it? Like the great philosopher said: When there ain’t no competition, you’re best by definition™.

  

A Photograph Taken with Old Equipment

Sally Mann - Blowing Bubbles

©Sally Mann

When Carleton Watkins hauled his mammoth camera into the wilderness, he made Great Pictures of remote locations. Nowadays, he would be making Great Pictures simply by using the camera anywhere. It doesn’t matter what you photograph—as long as you do it with an old camera, it will be a Great Picture. The best part of this category is that greatness increases proportionally with the age of the camera used.

You can even buy a whole book of Great Photographs made recently with old cameras.

  

A Photograph Taken with Bad Equipment

Arthur Liou - Cedar Key #39

©Arthur Liou

Maybe the easiest of the Great Photographs that one can take. Just use a broken camera, or better still, a toy one. Point it at something, anything, and voilà, instant greatness. The fact you could have used a perfectly good camera and achieved the same effect with a click of a button in Photoshop is totally irrelevant. If you want to jump start your Great photographic career, get yourself a Holga!

  

A Photograph Postprocessed into Surrealism

Jill Greenberg - Aaron Eckhart

©Jill Greenberg

Nothing says I know what I’m doing like a healthy dose of Photoshop, and if being unique helps a photo become Great, then it’s your duty to separate the image from reality as much as possible. In fact, you shouldn’t settle for surreal, make it unreal! HDR (High Dynamic Range), DHE (Dave Hill Effect), PPE (Plastic People Effect), it doesn’t matter, just use the effect, and make sure you buy the software version that goes up to 11. Then apply it twice, just to be on the safe side.

See that photo above? Is that the real Aaron Eckhart or a photo of his statue at the local wax museum; or is it a painting? It doesn’t matter! (Those were trick questions.) It’s a Great Photo, period.

  

A Photograph Taken with a Medium or Large Format Camera

Andel Adams - Fence

©Ansel Adams

This is a double-whammy, because using a medium/large format camera not only produces Great Photographs, but you also get to call them, and sell them as, Fine Art. Fine Art is just like Standard Art, except the prices paid have 3 or 4 extra zeroes added on. For example, had the above image been made with a P&S, nobody would pay more than $6 for a print; but because that photo was taken with either a 4×5 or 8×10 view camera… the print costs $60,000. Of course, it was also taken by somebody famous, which overlaps with, and brings us to, the next category.

  

A Photograph Taken by a Great Photographer

The most efficient way for you to make your photographs Great is by becoming a Great Photographer. After that, every photograph you take will be Great by definition. This applies to any Art, be it Photography, Painting, Sculpture, Bonsai Growing… There is a catch: In order to become a Great Artist, you first need to make Great Art, but in order to make Great Art you need to be… You get my drift. (Although some artists have managed to become Great by other means…)

  

A Photograph Containing 3 or More Clichés

Robert Doisneau – Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville

Robert Doisneau – Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville

Nothing says Great Photograph like a bunch of clichés thrown together. Take Doisneau’s Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville for example:

Cliche #1:
A street photograph in Paris. How original—nobody ever did any street photography in Paris during the 50′s.
Cliche #2:
A photograph taken from a street café. In Paris.
Cliche #3:
Love. Oh, Love…the ultimate artistic cliché.
Cliche #4:
A couple in love. In Paris. Wouldn’t it be perfect if they were kissing, carefree, in the street, to express their great love for each other?
Cliche #5:
Black and White. You gotta have B&W if it’s a street photo. C’mon! Everyone knows that.

I’m surprised this photograph didn’t make the camera explode the moment it was taken. Just imagine you’re shooting street photography (using B&W film) in Paris. And you’re sitting at an outdoor café, in Paris, when you happen to see two people, in love, in Paris, on the street, kissing. Because they’re in love, in Paris. And you’re there with your B&W-loaded camera. Shooting street photography. In Paris. Just imagine!

The only thing that would make this Great Photograph reach critical cliché mass and annihilate the whole internet is if the photographer had actually posed the photo and not told anyone for decades. Now that would be something…

  

A Photograph of Somebody Famous

Dennis Stock - James Dean in Times Square

©Dennis Stock

Is this a good photograph of an unknown young man walking in the rain in New York’s Times Square…or is it a Great Photograph of the famous actor James Dean?

  

A Photograph Everybody Else Considers Great

William Eggleston - Tricycle

©William Eggleston

I have one name for you: William Eggleston. Critics, photographers and other beret-wearing artists tell me what a masterpiece of contemporary photography William Eggleston’s Guide is. And yet…I don’t see it. But that lonely tricycle must be a Great Photograph…because everyone tells me it is. The legendary MoMA curator John Szarkowski wrote the introduction to the book, which is certainly saying something about the book. That’s what people tell me, anyway.

  

A Photograph Within an Important and Larger Body of Work

Robert Frank - The Americans, book cover

Robert Frank - The Americans, book cover

If you look at any of Robert Frank’s individual photographs taken in and around the US during the mid-50′s, you wouldn’t necessarily gasp in amazement. Look at them again within the context of his great opus The Americans, and they slowly begin to shine. In fact, Robert Frank’s book is a great example of that worn cliché about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Each photograph within the book is Great by virtue of belonging to this Great Work. And the book itself is Great despite not containing Great Photographs. There’s a bit of Zen in this one…

Wikipedia has a pretty good entry on The Americans.

  

Conclusion

I hope that with these examples it has now become clear to you what a Great Photograph is. And now that it’s clear, you should be well on your way to making each and every one of your photographs a Great Photograph. Anything less would be an insult to me, who just spent ages writing it all down for you in detail.

Now grab your camera and run off to take some photos—make sure they’re all Great. Don’t let me down!

  

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35 Comments

  1. This was great! An insightful interpretation of the eternal “What is art?” discussion.

  2. Brilliant expose on Great photography – very perceptive. Just what I needed to know to break out of the ranks of the mediocre.
    A Great Photographer in waiting.

  3. Very funny.

    You forgot to say a great photograph has to be boring – the more staid the better. Lots of empty spaces to contemplate in.

    Heaven forbid fun should enter into it.

  4. I’m taking the great photographer route. What’s remarkable is that photographs I took last year have taken on the glow of greatness since I let my hair grow and developed, through strenuous practice, a certain je ne sais quoi.

    I have to say, though, that even I would be pleased with that shot of James Dean. :~)

  5. oh man your point about fine art and MF cameras nails it! Heck, just shooting on film makes you a “great” photographer. Doesn’t matter if the cameras they are using are auto-exposure slr, the fact is that you shot on film makes it just great. so amazing. so great.

  6. Thanks a lot for this wonderful and educational article! Pity I couldn’t read it two years ago when I was shooting with Mamiya C330. Had to sell it, but the pictures remain: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alex_virt/sets/72157604253898839/ Are they great or what? Certainly not exotic locations, but shot with an old mechanical film camera, medium format and square (6×6 is the greatest of medium formats!). And lots of cliches.

    Maybe I should try a different approach to greatness. How about Yashica EZ F521 with excessive post-processing?

  7. Yeah, but, but, but,…… well, alright.

  8. And, I forgot to ask, oh wise one, is a great photograph ART?

  9. What a GREAT article! I now see how I can make all of my photographs GREAT! Thanks for the laugh!

  10. I am not ashamed to admit that I am a poor photographer who with luck , once in a great while, finds good subject matter to photograph and that allows me to make GREAT ART I think.

    • Syd, Ansel Adams said that any photographer who made 10 good photographs in a year should consider himself very fortunate. I’m not even sure I’ve taken 10 really good pictures in all my life :-D

  11. >any photographer who made 10 good photographs in a year

    I wonder how he would adjust this number in the digital era.

  12. Also, consider the “The Blurry, Ambiguous Photo” ala Hiroshi Sugimoto. Nothing is more evocative and mood-enducing than a blurry photograph. You wouldn’t want your work to look like all the other sharp photographs out there. That is true originality.

  13. This post definitely made me chuckle! I also followed your link to your Flickriver. Amazing!

  14. Loved this! Especially the part on ‘postprocessed into surrealism’.

    “Make sure to get the version that goes to 11 and then run it twice.”

    I’m still laughing at that, thanks for the chuckle.

  15. Very funny, very poignant, very true! A “GREAT” tongue-and-cheek take on the clichés that drive photographic popularity. How about Part II?

  16. I bought the Eggleston book because I read in several places that it was full of Great Photographs. Then I looked at it, and realized, to my shame, that I was not clever enough to understand the Greatness.

    I have never spoken of this to anyone, until now.

    Thank you for showing me I’m not alone.

    • It’s OK, Scott, you’re in a safe place here :)

      I visited a recent Eggleston exhibit in Chicago and came away with a little more understanding of the man and his Photography (discussions with Doug Brewer and Christine Aguila helped in this regard). Now I think I get him, but that doesn’t mean I like his Photography.

  17. Amazingly great tips!
    Noticed that using the retro cam-app for android phones and shooting at basically anything, made great great photos :)
    Anyways, I had to share this on facebook..

    great stuff!

  18. What about contextual Great Photographs? Not to mention decontextual?

    Specifically, The Americans is profound in the context of the “social realism” of Life Magazine. Frank’s The Americans wouldn’t have the same impact without contradicting the conservative, glossy, idealized America portrayed by the Henry Luce publishing empire.

    I’ll leave decontextual for the art professors and curators.

  19. The battery in my camera died today with the day less than half done… but this article put the smile back on my face.

  20. Thanks for your website. I think the most important photos for me was the Eggleston photo of the tricycle, the elephants and the Paris cliche, but mostly the Eggleston. It was very illustrative and inspiring. It showed me something about myself and who I want to be as a photographer.

  21. another clue to achieve greatness in photography : have your work exhibited at a major museum

  22. Nice Exotic & Remote Location Creativity…….

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