What Makes a Great Photograph?

I’m sure this article will be controversial. I mean, after all, how do you objectively characterize what makes a good photograph? It’s not like marking a mathematics paper, where there is always a right or wrong answer. Photography, much like any other art form, is very subjective. That said, I do believe that there are certain elements that all great photographs share in common. Here’s my (subjective) attempt at defining them:

things that make a photo good

Photo by Giuseppe Milo; ISO 50, f/6.3, 25-second exposure.

1. Great use of Light – I’ve placed this in position 1, because photography is essentially all about light. As has been said many a time, photography literally means ‘painting with light’, and to become a true master of this discipline requires that you can read and understand light in the same way that you read and understand language- Metaphorically, it is one of the linguistic building blocks of photography. When taking a picture, great photographers will consider the direction as well as the quality of light. Is the subject side lit, or back lit? Is the light source hard or soft? Will I set up the picture so that it is low-key or high key? Depending on the answers to these questions the overall emotional feel and aesthetic of the image will change radically, thereby changing its meaning. To give you an example, look at some classic pictures taken of jazz clubs in low light. Typically these are low key in nature and they create a very definite ‘noir’ aesthetic. Play around with light so that it supports the meaning you are trying to convey in the image.

2. Great Composition – As in great art, great photographs generally have a sense of compositional form and balance that is pleasing to the eye. As a starting point it’s a great idea to understand the basic rules of composition, such as using the rules of thirds. Once you have learned them though, don’t be afraid to play around with them and break the rules. It’s a way of establishing your own unique style, and who wants to be limited by rules anyway?

taking a good picture

Photo by Martin Snicer Photography; ISO 100, f/5.0, 1/200-second exposure.

3. A Sense of Timing – Take a look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the undisputed master of street photography, and you will notice that, as well as having complete mastery of composition, he was also a master of timing. He knew how and when to anticipate what he called ‘The Decisive Moment’; that point in time when all of the elements of the image fall into place and when the emotional ‘pitch’ of the story is at its peak. Great timing is essential in photography. Practice being patient, and remember to try to anticipate the best moment at which to engage the shutter button.

4. A Clear Subject – Great photographs generally have a very clear idea of what the core subject of the photograph is. If you find that when you frame an image the subject is unclear then try taking out any unnecessary elements. Sometimes simplifying the image is the best way to improve it.

how to take a good photograph

Photo by Ed Suominen; ISO 80, f/2.8, 1/1000-second exposure.

Try experimenting with these different elements to see what works for you. Don’t forget you only get better with plenty of practice. Good luck!

About the Author:
Matt Foden Photography (mattfoden.co.uk) is a wedding and portrait photographer based in Croydon in London.

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6 responses to “What Makes a Great Photograph?”

  1. Cosmin says:

    Indeed, light is the most important in a photography. And, of course, your skillz of playing with the light.

    I tried to play with on a clear morning in the major train station from Bucharest. If someon would like to say his opinion about the series you can acces my blog clicking my name and you find the series called “Necunoscutul din Gara de Nord” at Portraits.

    Anyway, the other elements depend on what kind of photography you practice. If you make photojornalism for example, I think the sense of timing is more important than the composition.

  2. How interesting. I just came up with something similar as a principle, but in a different light and approach.


  3. true enough bout photography is a subjective matter and i agree with Cosmin. To me “photography is a never ending learning process” .

  4. Miguel says:

    This is my opinion:

    For a photograph to pass the threshold out of mediocrity it needs to have at least these characteristics:

    1. Should evoke emotion in viewers unrelated to the work.
    2. Should be technically well executed. (Composition, processing, presentation etc.)
    3. Must transcend the commonplace.
    4. Preferably should show some aspect of the photographer that makes him/her stand apart from other photographers.

    Now what do you think?


  5. Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead says:

    Indeed. After 4 years of DSLR photography I have just discovered the United States of America on the world map – (i) simple is great (ii) there should be one subject and not half a dozen (iii) work on composition till your last day on this earth.
    Warm Regards from Mauritius

  6. Have you ever waited for the moment when all these converge? Have you ever studied the same scene at different times, different weather? 100s of Photos. Have you ever taken picture lying on your stomach
    or on your back. There’s a total moment for the shot and then, it’s not there anymore.

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