What is a Good Photograph?

Just what defines a good photograph is, and will always be, a topic of heated discussion with serious photographers; and in my opinion, is one that is certainly worth regular examination because, simply put, a “good photograph” is what those who enjoy this medium want to make.

There are, of course, those that believe a good photograph must capture an image absolutely true to life, while others might say it’s totally about how creative the photographer is, however, if one relies on they number of “likes” they receive on social media sites a good photograph probably depends on the beauty of the subject.

When I taught photography I told my students that a good photograph includes acceptable composition, exposure, and an interesting perspective.

I also said that a good photograph makes us have a connection with, or think about the subject, and might help us understand what the photographer feels about that subject; and if successful, evokes some kind of mood, whether good or bad.

American photographer Ansel Adams said, “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” And he elaborates, “Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Does this subject move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print – my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey – from the subject before me?”

And Adams reminds us, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”

Another of my favorite scenic photographers, Elliott Porter, commented, “You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis; you get better the more you play. The more you look around at things, the more you see. The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed. You just have to keep doing it.”

Vogue magazine Editorial photographer Irving Penn, wrote, “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”

What is a good photograph? That might only be in the “eye of the beholder”. If one is a camera club member there will be rules on how a photograph is judged. And when I graded my students’ work I was mostly interested in their knowledge.

Sometimes we see a photograph that moves or inspires us, makes us feel, think and dream. And when a photographer is able to convey that to viewers he or she has truly made a good photograph.

Communicating Our Personal Photographic Vision  

 

 

I enjoy pretty much everything when it comes to photography. I am happiest when I get to talk about it, read about it, and look at other photographer’s work, and of course, any occasion where I get to point my camera at a subject.

Famous and influential photographer Edward Weston once wrote, “Photography suits the temper of this age – of active bodies and minds. It is a perfect medium for one whose mind is teeming with ideas, imagery, for a prolific worker who would be slowed down by painting or sculpting, for one who sees quickly and acts decisively, accurately.”

Weston most likely said sometime in the 1950s, but it aptly describes many of those taking pictures with all kinds of cameras in the 21st century. Yes, it is the, “perfect medium for one whose mind is teeming with ideas…”

As I looked at several images (several were from iPhones) that were proudly posted online I thought how those words fit many modern photographers. However, there I was looking at many pictures that, although quite creative and colourful, lacked the basic compositional guidelines I was taught              (I suspect Weston learned also) and are still being taught in almost any class on photography.

Photographic composition is the selection and arrangement of the subject within the picture area. However, what I saw seemed in many cases to be hastily captured images with little regard to the importance of any centre of interest that might help viewers identify what the photographer is trying to communicate.

Maybe it is the conditioning we get by clumsily pointing our cell phones at a subject, or the thoughtless reliance on a camera’s auto focusing device to select whatever is in the middle of the viewfinder for proper focus.

There is a compositional guideline called, “the rule of thirds”. This so-called rule is a simple principal that divides an image into thirds, horizontally and vertically, and tells us to position the most important elements in our scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect, and by doing so, adding balance and interest to one’s picture.

I subscribe to four components when I create a picture:

  1. The Centre of Interest: A strong center of interest helps the viewer identify the point of the picture, or what the photographer is trying to communicate.
  2. Angles: Begin by looking at the subject, move around – up and down, vertical or horizontal. Decide what should or should not be included.
  3. Distance: Don’t back away. Eliminate everything that does not add to the picture.  Close-ups convey intimacy, long shots build space and depth.
  4. Background: The background can make or break that photograph. Use the background to build interest in the center of interest.

There will be those photographers that in the interest of their own creative freedom will disregard anything that they believe will restrict their photographic independence and innovation or what they think might apply limits to their imagination.

I wouldn’t agree with that. I don’t think this is an argument of vision.

If our goal as photographers is to create an image that withstands the test of time and communicating a personal vision, then one must learn the        basics of composition in the same way as one would learn the basics of exposure, or how to make the camera actually work whether it’s a DSLR, or a feature of a cell phone.

What Shall I Photograph when its windy? 

Lilac

Oregon Grape

Allium

Oriental Poppy in wind

Iris in wind

B&W Iris in wind

I looked out the kitchen window at my wife’s garden. It was late afternoon, the sun was peaking out under the clouds after a light rain, and the garden was glowing with a gusty, light breeze.

Linda mentioned that we hadn’t taken any pictures of the spring garden yet and suggested that it looked so fresh after that rain that I should be able to get some good flower photos in spite of the wind.

Wind? Wind is not a problem if photographers take the time to problem solve. I could increase the ISO or shutterspeed, but that wouldn’t do much for the ambient light, and I like more control. My normal technique for photographing flowers is to underexpose the ambient and illuminate the subject with a flash. I recall years ago having given my photography students a “stop action” assignment. They were to go out at night or find a large, dimly lit room, and use a flash to stop a moving subject in a photograph. All they had to do was select enough flash power at a specific distance to illuminate their subject properly when they released the shutter.

Those were assignments given before modern, computerized cameras and TTL dedicated flash when the flash would always produce the same amount of light and the aperture controlled the amount of light exposing the subject.

My technique for my windy garden was the same. I placed my 200mm macro lens on my camera and attached a ring-light on it. I really like is using a ring light on rainy days. I keep it on manual mode and stay at a specific distance so it won’t under or over expose the subject I am photographing. My ring flash also has ¼ and ¾ power increments to reduce the flash power output if I need it.

Just as my photography students learned all those years ago, when I pressed the shutter the flash stops the movement of the flowers in the wind. Nevertheless, the wind was quickly drying out the plants, so I had to quickly search for leaves that still showed raindrops.

The movement problem was almost solved. I took extra shots when I thought some motion had wrecked my shots, however, it was the sun that became the biggest concern. I had hoped the high clouds would block the sun, but instead of getting more bad weather, I got less, and with the clearing sky I began to struggle with the bright light.

The bright light would have been fine if all I wanted to do was document plants in the sun, but I wanted to go beyond that. Just pointing and shooting is boring. I would have liked to get out lightstands, a couple of off-camera flashes, and even a black backdrop, but the wind continued on, and would probably blow all that stuff over and I never followed up on that option.

So while other photographers might have celebrated the sunny, clear sky and be willing to put up with windy landscapes, I was done for the day.

I think I am pretty lucky that I don’t have to go far when I want to take pictures. Over the years I have looked hard into what is close to me and instead of being one of those photographers that depends on a car to find a location to get inspired. I just look around the yard and adjust my thoughts and camera for what awaits me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viewing Scenic Photographs   

 

seagulls and boat 2

Falis Pond 2

Wolf ranch

I enjoy looking at photographs that seem to have been made with the goal of saying something about a moment in time or place. Sometimes I even get a sense of the struggle the photographer had while trying capture a particular mood and how hard it was to convey that mood to the viewer. I think creativity takes a lot of effort.

This week I thumbed through a hard cover book I have had for years by one of my favorite landscape photographers, Eliot Porter. The book, entitled Intimate Landscapes, is from an exhibition of fifty-five color photographs by Eliot Porter, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I enjoy how he eliminates those elements that add nothing to the composition and selects those that add meaning to his visual statement. He had an amazing awareness of how colors create mood. A review I read went on to say that his photographs, “reflect the standards of excellence that are Eliot Porter’s greatest contribution to the field of color photography. Upon seeing these photographs, the viewer is immediately struck by the artist’s distinctly individual and intimate interpretation of the natural world.” His photographs are different and specific, and have a personality that I think come from the experiences of the photographer.

When I finally put down the book I thought about how many of the scenic photographs that populate photography forums I currently read are mostly documentary type photographs, and I wonder if the photographers believe that any vista with lots of space and colour is worthy of photographing. They might be of the opinion that all it takes is a wide-angle lens to miraculously convey the feeling and emotional reaction they personally felt at that moment. Perhaps that is why the viewers’ responses they get are sometimes limited to, “nice sky and good composition”.

My long-time friend, Bob Clark, used to critically suggest that all one needs for people to like your landscape or scenic photo was to have a “National-Geographic-sky”, a magazine that was filled with pretty pictures of places from around the world with blue skies and billowy white clouds.

I prefer scenics that make an impression on me and convey a mood. I want to look at a photograph that allows me to find a story in it; or at least be able to search for one, and hope for a photograph that I can respond to on some level. A photograph should try to accomplish something, and should have a strong sense of self-expression. Photographers should look for something in the landscape that is unique, and that will set their photograph apart. As photographers we should try to express our personal viewpoints and hope to summon an emotional response from those who view our photographs.

Which Button is for the Composition Mode?        

Pritchard store

Open Gates bw

Forest path

Canon Beach 2

Palouse falls 2

Which button is for the composition mode?     Yes, I did get asked that question the other day, but it is not as silly as it first sounds. I’ll go back to the conversation from which it comes.

A customer stopped by my shop wanting to get a different camera other than the one he had been using for over 20 years.

I was showing him a couple of cameras and explaining the different modes like “aperture priority”, “shutter priority”, “program” and “manual” when he made the statement, “All that seems a bit complicated, just show me which button is for the composition mode because mostly I like taking scenics”.

The other customer in the store stopped her browsing, turned, and just looked at me. I’m not sure if she was troubled by his statement, or also wanted to know about this secret button.

I replied, “Composition is what you do, not the camera, to position your subject within the viewfinder frame,” and added; “composition also deals with perspective and the relationship you create between subjects in the foreground and background.”

Does all that seem too complicated of an answer? I was making squares and rectangles with my hand and moving things around on the counter as I explained it hoping to make it clear to him. Now, however, let us go back to his question of the “composition button” and what he was trying to achieve with his camera. Remember his last camera was from the 1970’s. Even auto focus was new to him.

Cameras programmed since the 1980s are pretty capable of getting the exposure correct in all but the most contrasty lighting conditions. If he were to get serious now that he was about to get a DSLR he would be trying to discover how other successful photographers compose a scenic. Or he would be doing some reading, joining a camera club, or taking some classes that would teach him composition. My impression was that he just liked to take pictures and capture memories of the places he has been. So I think either the mode with the “little mountains” or with the “running person” on the dial of the camera I was showing him would give him exactly what he was looking for and we could, if we wanted to, call them composition modes.

The exposure mode I feel most comfortable with is manual and I am continually thumbing through the different menus on my camera to reset things. I make my living using a camera so I have a camera in my hand a lot of the time. I think each of us needs to use our cameras in ways that make us comfortable so we won’t happen to be confused and experimenting with the settings at that moment when the action happens in front of our camera.

I used to call that a “Kodak moment”. Hmmm, I think I need to find a new phrase now that I am no longer using Kodak films and that company has pretty much disappeared.

In any event, I recommended that he not worry too much about composition and experiment with the different modes his camera has to offer other than “P”. Hopefully he’ll stop by again and I can get him using his DSLR as more than just a point and shoot camera.

In closing this article that started with thoughts of composition, I particularly like this quote of Alexander Lee Nyerges of the Art Institute of Dayton, Ohio, when discussing an exhibition of Ansel Adams of the American West.

“His landscapes were operatic in composition, complete with lighting, tragedy and drama—luring those who viewed his works to seek Nature and capture the spirit of the wilderness.” I am certain Adams had a special button for composition.

Getting Close 

Cowboy hats Not eaxctly bullet proof

Ford V8

c. Cat & Car

Blue bottles

People watching Ocean Tree

Watching the Rodeo

 

 

There is an old saying in photography that goes, “ If your photographs aren’t good enough, it’s probably because you aren’t close enough”.

I remember saying this to a young photographer, who became somewhat alarmed and responded, “You mean I should stop using my wide angle and shoot with a telephoto instead?” However, that isn’t what that long time photography quote is about.

What that means is that a photograph should be about something. That the photographer should discard, crop out, or, when making the original capture, move in close enough so that those elements visible in the image are the only things that relate to the photograph.

When I was just a young photographer I would question other photographers who I felt were successful at their craft for ideas that would make my photographs better, and I remember the following advice by a working photojournalist.

He talked about pre-visualizing a photograph (a term Ansel Adams and Minor White coined regarding the importance of imagining in your mind’s eye what you want the final print to reveal about a subject), and continued that a photographer should follow the rules of composition with all the elements in the scene, and finally told me I should always think about stepping closer to “tighten up” the image.

His advice came from a time period when very few photographers were using mutifocal or “zoom” lenses. In that time period quality glass and sharp images depended on fixed focal length lenses, or the more modern term is “prime” lens.

I will not go into a discussion of prime versus zoom lenses. Some people enjoy arguing about equipment, and they will pull out charts and make lots of tests to prove their point of view. Personally, I select a lens with which I am comfortable with and that I think will help me do the best job for the work at hand.

Getting closer changes the perspective and builds a relationship between the foreground and background. With a wide-angle or 50mm lens, the elements in the foreground become more important, and with telephoto’s 200mm and longer, they become less important and, as in a scenic taken with, say a 100mm, everything seems to have equal importance.

Teach yourself to look at the many features inside your composition. Start with the centre of interest or main subject, decide what in that composition relates to that centre of interest and then step closer to remove areas and features that have no relationship or interfere with whatever you want your viewer to concentrate upon.

Pre-visualise what you want to say visually and get closer to remove everything that doesn’t relate to the composition.

I remember reading an article written by a photographer I really enjoy, Ron Bigelow, www.ronbigelow.com. In an article he discussed his experience shooting with another photographer. However it was his summary that made me stop and think,   “I couldn’t help thinking of some of the extraordinary images that I have seen from various large format photographers. It was obvious to me that much of what I admired in their images had nothing to do with the very high resolution that their equipment produced. Rather, it had everything to do with the time that they put into each image. The observing, thinking, and preparation that occurred before they fired their first shot.”

Photography, a personal vision.

Kamloops Lake 1

Kamloops Lake

Kamloops Lake 1a

Lawnmower Race copy1

Lawnmower Race copy2

Sax player 1 Sax player 2

 

 

 

 

My photographer friend Greg posted the following statement on the Canadian photographer flickr.com/group: “Recently I’ve come across a number of photographs on the social media outlets that are absolutely stunning and amazing works of art, but there are a whole host of people who comment saying ‘it looks fake’, ‘it needs to be more real’, ‘that picture has no resemblance to reality’”. And he continues raising the question with “Should we be striving to produce photographs that are more ‘real’ to please the crowds who seem to have very little understanding of art?”

My quick and easy response is to quote Plato, “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”. Even Shakespeare in his work, Love’s Labours Lost writes, “Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye”.

I understand his (and others) frustration with those that are ready to condemn anything that deviates from their personal interpretation of photography, but we need to remember that is just their opinion. I don’t think Greg or any other photographer should “be striving to produce photographs…to please the crowds”. However, when one displays a photograph on any social media site one needs to be ready for someone else’s opinion.

I used the following last January in my discussion of Photography as a Fine Art. Wikipedia’s on-line encyclopedia says, “Fine art photography is photography created in accordance with the vision of the artist as photographer.” That should be enough to ease my friend’s frustration. I will comment to him that those detractors didn’t understand the interpretation or artistic vision of the photographer’s work.

Some may disagree with me, but I think photography has always been a technology driven medium. And just as there are those willing to push the limits, there surely are also those that employ their cameras simply as devices to document the people, objects, and scenes in front of them, and I have no doubt their criticism might come swiftly to those that manipulate their images instead of maintaining the more conservative course of photographic reality.

Regarding Greg’s question about some people’s understanding, or lack of understanding of art, that is a question that countless generations may have struggled with possibly since the first humans decided to place a favourite rock in their cave or put coloured pigment on the wall.

I believe the question is actually, “What is Art and who has the right to define Art?”

Mark Twain is attributed with the words, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”   I expect most of us fall into that category.

Here are a number of quotes about art by artists. American architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use.” However, I much preferred photographer Ansel Adams words, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.” Or this from novelist Rainbow Rowell, “…and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.” And French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas wrote, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

When one has the need to be creative they should have the right to decide on their own particular style to fulfill their personal creative vision. What that vision is should be entirely up to the photographer, and the audience for whom the image is produced. I think the problem in this day of mass social media is how to select the right audience.

I do look forward to your comments. Thank you, John