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What makes a good photograph?

It’s a simple question – I think the answer to this might be slightly deeper than what appears on the surface.

Perhaps to answer this, it’s best to start with what doesn’t necessarily make a good picture.

Aesthetically pleasing is not necessarily good.

This is not to say that the images that look pleasing can not be good pictures. But the point here is that an image that is well composed and well exposed doesn’t automatically translate into a good picture. If it did, all photographers would be following that set of criteria to come to identical image again and again (although many of us already do that!).

In his book, PHOTOGRAPHICALLY SPEAKING: A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Images, David duChemin proposed substituting the word good with successful in the vocabulary when critiquing photographs.

To explain that, let me take a small step back to the foundation of photography itself.

I believe that honest, real and impactful photography happens when:

  1. The photographer is moved or impacted emotionally by a subject matter.
  2. Photographer then uses his or her skill and craft to fully express his or her emotional reaction toward the subject in the clearest way possible.

Now if we re-examine the question – what is a good photograph, I think it becomes obvious is that the answer lies in how well the photographer has managed to express and then communicate her emotional reaction to the subject. This is where, as David duChemin suggested, perhaps the word successful is a better adjective when talking about photography.

An example of this would be any of my personal projects. Each of those projects has been picked because the subject resonated with me on a personal level and I wanted to express that resonation through the photograph.

Consider my project, Monochrome Auckland as an example. The quote below is directly from what I wrote when I started this personal project.

One of my earliest memories when it comes to photography is looking at night images of light trails cast by moving vehicles. This memory became my inspiration for the personal project that I am currently working on. I am yet to name it, but it involves shooting Auckland landscapes at night in a manner different to how I have shot them before.

I have decided to make all the images in this project black and white and cropped to 1:1. I will also be using a focal length of 250mm and higher in this project. I chose these constraints to force me to step away from how I have shot this subject in past (two words – wide and colorful) and how others have also shot it over and over again. I also am excited about cropping to square, if only to see what comes out of it at end of it all. I’ve always wanted to try square format ever since coming across Michael Kenna’s work. Being curious is a wonderful gift.

Below are a three of the images from the project.

This does, however, raises the question – who should be the judge of whether the images is successful or not? That’s the blog post for next week.

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