Question from Libby: How do you know it’s good?

As a followup to the previous post, Libby asks: How do you know when a shot has that X Factor, especially if it’s outside the realm of acceptable technical parameters?

By X factor, I’m taking the meaning to be a superb photograph. Knowing when a picture is phenomenal is tough, especially if you made it and you’re using non-standard processing.

Photographers definitely don’t accurately perceive the quality of their work consistently enough to use that as a measure of quality. Some photographers put forth mediocre work as if it were God’s gift to the planet; other photographers sheepishly offer amazing photographs.

I’ve found that offering a neutral impression of your work is most effective, when you’re dealing with editors. Don’t put it down or elevate it beyond what’s there. Saying: “It is what it is, I’ll be eager to hear what you think,” is what I like to hear. That way it doesn’t set me up to expect a lot or a little; I can come to the work with fresh impressions.

But that doesn’t help determine when a photo is great. You would think that if the color, light, moment and composition are all exceptional, then the photo should be great, especially if the subject matter is engaging. But if there is limited perception/impression on the photographer’s part and the photographer didn’t set out to do more than make those four things work, then it still wouldn’t be a great photograph.

I do know that when a variety of people are choosing from a set of pictures - such as judging a contest - the top image in a group rises to the top universally, or nearly so. In other words, in a contest setting, the first place image is the easiest to agree upon, while third brings the most argument. So there must be universal aspects to successful photographs.

Some people say great photography is like pornography: You know it when you see it.

Maybe you could ask a series of questions about a given photograph: Do I feel something from it, does my eye travel from point to point of the frame down to the smallest of elements that still engages somehow, do those four aspects work, would I hang this on my wall, do I care about what was photographed because of the way the photograph was made.

And maybe you could ask a bunch of people. I used to that in publishing environments. It’s also educational to see which pictures people respond to and to learn what draws a response.

I see that there’s now software to determine which are the best pictures in a set of similar images. How helpful. If only it worked. Rather, thank God it doesn’t work.

A poobah at the White House once told me to never make a major decision quickly. Time does help determine if a photograph has that magical quality. Removing the emotional layer connected to the making of a picture and the significance you might see that others don’t gets easier over time. But who can wait 20 years.

A bunch of people send me pictures asking if I think they’re good. That’s another option.

When friends come to town

Where’s the line on toning photos, especially for contests?