It seems to never fail, that in an exhibition of photographs, there are always one or two which stand out from the rest. Even though decisions are mostly subjective about how great an image is, most people zero into the same few images they consider great.
Invariably it's not one or two characteristics of an image that make it great, but a host of them, and how they work together. Contrary to popular belief, the qualities which make a great photograph aren't a secret of professional photographers and editors. Anyone who thinks about it, can figure it out.
Great photographs portray a clear idea of the subject of the image:
In a great photograph, a viewer can readily identify the image's subject. All the elements of a photograph add to one's understanding of it. There are few, if any, distractions in a great image, or the subject matter is so dominant the distractions are virtually unnoticed.
In the above image of the 9–11 Memorial in New York City, I don't think you can miss the subject is remembrance. Seeing the names on the parapet, the viewer will likely “know” the subject, but the single rose, with its stem anchored in a name punctuates it. There is a synergy between the white rose and the names in the sun lighted parapet announcing the image's subject.
Great photographs have a strong sense of organization from its composition:
Most photographers who've been shooting for a few years have heard of the “Rule of Thirds.” Unfortunately too many follow the rule religiously, even when it's not well suited to the scene. There are other “rules” which according to the scene can better organize your image such as “Balancing Elements,” “Leading Lines,” “Symmetry and Patterns,” “Depth Control,” “Converging Lines,” “Framing,” “Diagonal Lines,” etc.
In the image above, both “Diagonal Lines” and “Depth Control” were used. The camera was angled to the parapet for a diagonal line perspective, and set to ensure the shadows would run across the diagonal to highlight it.
The flowing water down the sides of the Memorial, under the parapet, is blurred in the upper left of the image, in order to keep the focus on the rose and the parapet section in which it's inserted.
Great photographs use lighting to enhance the subject:
Lighting is used to focus the viewer's eyes on the subject, and along with composition, move the eyes appropriately through the image to help the viewer identify the subject. It sets the intensity of color to show the subject well. Each photograph requires the tension between harsh and diffused light, contrast and flat light, heavy color saturation or little color, be managed to the benefit of the image's subject.
Sometimes natural lighting is best, while other times, artificial light or reflected light is needed to enhance or sometimes replace the natural light. In the image above natural light was all that was necessary.
Great photographs require the right focus and the appropriate exposure:
Typically, the subject of an image should be “tack sharp” but not necessarily the entire image, though there are times that a soft focus, or a partial blur of the subject is in order. Typically, a viewer's eyes will be drawn to where the photograph is the sharpest, despite the image's organization.
In the image above, the rose is the most sharp element in the photograph, and in fact, it's sharpness was enhanced in postprocessing to help bring the eyes of the viewer to it. The “name area” immediately under and around the rose is also sharp. Further down the parapet the sharpness drops off, and the water falling in the upper left is very blurry, all controlled by the camera's distance to the rose, the particular lens used, and the depth of field chosen via the lens aperture.
The exposure of an image needs to be appropriate to show off the subject well. Exposure can control sharpness, the appearance of motion, and depth of color, and the detail of the subject captured in the image.
In the image above, the exposure had to deal with two major issues. First, the lens aperture had to be set to control the depth of field and therefore what in the image would be in and out of focus, and how blurry different parts of the image would be. In addition, the overall exposure combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed, needed to be set to ensure the white rose wasn't overexposed and thereby retain its detail. Therefore, the image was slightly underexposed when made, then corrected in postprocessing to retain the rose's detail.
Great photographs usually tell a story:
More often than not, the photograph you remember and the one which elicits a “Wow!” tells a story. In great photographs the story is quickly revealed by the image, and evokes an emotional response.
I think it's easy to see a story of sacrifice, heroism, love and remembrance in the image above.
The great American photographer, Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” He meant it. Great photographs are difficult to make and are achieved only with serious, careful thought, technical expertise, and great skill.