Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What makes a photograph great?

At the 9-11 Memorial, New York City, Stephen P. Russell
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.


Peter-Philly said...

As a vacation shooter, and certainly not a professional, I really had no idea that much thought went into photos. I should have know better.

Will (Dallas) said...

Ned, do you use auto or manual focus?

Ned S. Levi said...

I use a combination of autofocus and manual focus as needed. On my cameras I've decoupled the shutter release button from autofocus, so when the shutter release button is pressed, focus isn't changed.

To activate autofocus I press a button on the back of the camera, not far from the LCD monitor. My lenses are capable of being manually focused or autofocused without changing settings. When autofocus can't get me a sharp focus due to any reason (This comes up often in wildlife photography.) I'll get as close to final focus as possible with autofocus, then zero focus in manually.

I hope that helps you understand what I do.

Vic said...

Everyone should read this Ned. It's the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. It's why for a big event, like a wedding, people need to hire a real pro, and not choose by the lowest price. You get what you pay for.

Sasha (Chicago) said...

Ned, I'm just learning. How do you sharpen just a small area of an image, like you did with the rose?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Shasha. It's actually quite easy. You can use a sharpening plug-in like Nik Sharpener by Google, or you can use the built-in sharpening in programs like Lightroom or Photoshop.

First you have to select the area you want to sharpen and great a mask, so the sharpening will only occur in that area. Then when you apply sharpening, it will only be in the area of the photograph you chose.

The toughest thing in all of this generally is making the mask exactly like you want it.

Good luck.

Dan - Miami said...

Ned, can you do an article on composition soon? Everyone talks about the Rule of Thirds for helping us compose but nothing else.

Jordan said...

Never understood how the composition of a photo or painting can lead your eyes to the right spot.

Ned S. Levi said...

Someone who begins to look at a photo or painting will generally begin looking at the painting at the place which is most emphasized it. Then their eyes will move within the painting via an emphasized path in it.

In a well composed photo, the photographer will have chosen the entry point and path for the viewer by defining each well, and that helps give the photograph wow power.

In the image above, the entry point is the rose for most everyone, and that's by design. The rose is already emphasized in the image by its color contrast to the rest of the image, but by sharpening it and nothing else, I added emphasis to it.

From there I wanted to ensure the names on the parapet were seen, not necessarily to read them, but to note there were names there and that they were important. The diagonal lines of the parapet due to my angle to it, with the crossing shadows, immediately draws the eyes up and down the parapet and to the names on it.

All that was by design in the way I shot and postprocessed the image.

We know that this is true from studies which have been made using scientific instruments to follow eye movement when viewing images.

I hope this gives you some beginning insight into the answer to your question.

King-Dallas said...

A very interesting article. Your photo at the 9/11 Memorial is great. Oh, also heard you on Rudy Maxa. Good interview. I hope you get more of them.

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks very much King.

Sasha (Chicago) said...

It's going to be an interesting case on appeal.

Jannatul said...

Though I am not expert yet but still think that two things are more important in making any shot perfect. That is the ability to see the things in a different view as well as has the ability to take that particular shot according to that imagination!

Mark Johnson said...

Nice informative post. Thanks for the detail post.

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