I was recently asked to help judge a photography exhibition. Some of the work was spectacular, full of emotion and life. Others, not so much. So what makes a good image? I’ve been asked this question many times, and this recent experience gave me pause to think about the topic a little more in-depth. So I figured I’d share my thoughts on the subject and solicit other opinions as well. And for this exercise, I’m primarily referring to landscape and skyline photography.
I think the technical aspects of an image are important:
– correct exposure: no underexposed darks or blown highlights unless intentional
– correct or intended focus and sharpness…. This can include a range in depth of field from a single focal point to a sharpness from the foreground to the far distance.
After the basics, the composition should be considered:
– the subject of the image should be obvious, whether a single object such as a bluebonnet or a vast Texas landscape like the Chisos Mountains.
– leading lines… This is very important for me. I like line, angles, curves, and anything that leads the eye to guide me to the subject. I also want those lines and angles, whenever possible, to intersect with the corners of the image exactly. These lines could be composed of roads, water, buildings, rocks, and anything that allows the eye to flow.
Within the composition of an image, I look for elements that make up a scene.
– first, unless I’m going for a minimalist approach, a sky with good, if not dramatic clouds, is a must. I shoot mostly at sunrise or sunset and always hope for pleasing colors, but even a nice blue sky with high wispy clouds can be pretty nice and can complement a nice foreground, often making an average image much stronger. I also always know when and where the moon will appear. Often, the appearance of our moon can enhance an otherwise dull sky.
– foreground element(s)… When I photograph a field of bluebonnets, I really like to have a few of the flowers up close to show the detail. For this, I’ll often shoot several images for varying depth from front to back and blend them together on photoshop. Other foreground elements could include rock formations, trees, logs, and even silhouetted people.
– background elements… In most cases, I want a sharpness throughout the scene, especially for those vast Texas landscapes. I want folks to see what I saw and feel the wonder of the scene.
When all of these factors are taken into account, you have potential for a strong image. That being said, the most important aspect of a photograph is the impact it has on the viewer. Does it capture your attention? Does it make you pause or think “wow.” Does it tell a story? It can be technically perfect, but if the image leaves the viewer void of emotion, it loses its impact.
In my recent experience of judging photographs, I saw several images that showed superior planning and execution, but came away feeling nothing. Conversely, some of my highest scoring images had minor technical or compositional issues, but left me gazing longer, wanting to know more about the story being presented. Emotional appeal – or impact – makes or breaks an image.
I like to think I practice what I write. And I know some of my images come up short. But many times what I think are average photographs turn out to be best sellers. The images I like the most barely get a second glance. So no matter what anyone says, if you enjoy photography, keep on shooting. Unless you are utterly daft at the point and shoot, you’re sure to appeal to someone!
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