What is good?

Yow, it’s been nearly a month since I wrote.

We’ve since moved to a new house, mostly settled in, mowed the yard - the first time I’ve mowed since 1998.

And there have been many good works to edit and pictures to make this past month. Never a dull moment.

Among the conversations was one about what makes a photograph good. And I was thinking after talking that it’s relatively easy to say what makes a photo bad, how to categorize failures, lack of success. But to be able to say what makes a photograph good is much more difficult. Much in the same way it’s easy for people to be generally critical or negative and for some reason it’s more difficult to praise and recognize the positive.

Good is not a universal quality. What I believe to be good about a photograph you may not. There can’t be more than a few thousand photographs among the billions made that most people would consider to be equally good, the best.

How many times have I scratched my head in wonder as a fellow contest judge lobbied for pictures that I thought were garbage? About as many times as other judges looked at me with the same wonder.

But are there qualities that those few thousand images considered to be the best share? And are there equally clear qualities that less favored images share? Hmm, that puts us back to the point where we started, that it’s easier to say what doesn’t work than to come up with words that explain the magic that creates the best.

But let’s give it a shot.

Good photographs are without flaw. What is a flaw? Here we go with the negative stuff: Incomplete use of the frame, lack of dimension, works on only one plane, has bad light, poor composition, no moment (and I mean moment as I’ve defined it elsewhere here), color isn’t working and on and on.

In essence, then, a good photograph is a complete thought, expression, impression, realization by the person who made the picture about what was happening in front of the camera. And that realization has dimension, depth, meaning, insight, some universal connectivity and clarity of expression. The color, light, composition, moment and distance from the subject all work together to convey dynamic qualities to the viewer. 

I say dynamic qualities because the more dimensional the qualities that photographs convey, the more likely a greater number of people will respond to the image. That results in fewer contest judges wondering what the other judges were thinking in lobbying for some images.

It's critical to understand that the subject does not make the picture, it is the photographer's insight and skill that elevate the subject to a compelling image. That's why most of the thousands of best photographs are not of inherently interesting subject matter. What makes them interesting is what the photographer did.

And to clarify, the two aspects of a successful image are that the photographer set out to convey a quality or say something about what was photographed and used the medium’s tools to convey his or her thoughts and feelings about the subject. One aspect without the other is not likely to produce a good photograph. And it’s likely to be a good photograph only if both aspects are of the highest caliber.

A photographer asked me yesterday how he goes from producing one-dimensional newspapery photographs to making ones that are good. That’s a big question. A small answer is: Before you can make a good picture you have to set out with clarity and depth to say something about what you photograph and you have to make the image reflect the clarity and depth by using the medium’s tools to their fullest. Piece of cake.

The challenge is that you can only a picture that you can make; photographs can only be what the person making them is capable of. So to make better pictures today than you could yesterday, you have to grow, you have to set out to say more with a picture than you did yesterday, you have to know more than you did yesterday, you have to feel more than you could yesterday. Several pieces of cake.

Holding out this carrot in front of you - continual growth - is the only way you’ll evolve to making better pictures and given that pictures largely reflect the person who made them, you grow in the process. What a bonus.

Congratulations to Matt Eich

Cycling photography isn’t easy