Essay: What makes a good photograph.

I just completed the Photographic Society of America course on judging (the Image Analysis course).  More about that later.

If ever there were a subjective topic, this is it!  So… what you are going to get is my opinion.  I hope it doesn’t offend.

I have several pet measurements when it comes to proclaiming (in my own mind, at least) an image GOOD.  I’ll refer to these as personal and I’ll use the term again later.

The Wow Factor:  The most difficult to describe and maybe the most important.  It’s the first impression.  It is the initial impact.  (Usually evidenced by a reverentially spoken — almost whispered — “wow”).

New Take on an Old Subject:  If it looks like the post card I’m not impressed.

Creativity and Cleverness:  Not necessarily bullets passing through light bulbs but inventive ways of presenting things.

Emotion Invoking:  George Lange (in his book The Unforgettable Photograph…) says “The unforgettable photograph is one that makes that intimate connection understood and felt by the viewer.”  My italics.

Inviting:  Ever feel like you could walk into a photograph?

Composition:  Particularly black and white (since I’m color challenged).

You might notice that I didn’t include technical excellence (exposure, perfect focus, etc.).  Correct technique helps but, for me, it is down the list somewhere.

In my way of thinking, any one (maybe even JUST one) of the above personal measurements can make an excellent image.  And let us not forget that the viewer decides whether or not a photograph is good.  If it is good in the viewer’s perception, then…well, it is good.

Formal judging (as in club competitions) can be a little different. 

As mentioned above, I’ve just completed the Photographic Society of America’s Image Analysis course.  I took the course so that I could judge club and other competitions and so that I could improve my photography.  I am very, very glad that I took the course.  (If you are a PSA member I highly recommend it.  Jon Fishback is a thorough and patient instructor.  And, it you are not a PSA member, I recommend you join so that you can take the course and enjoy the other benefits that come with membership.)

Formal judging examines the elements of a photograph against accepted, competitive norms.  And, I think, that is as it should be.  If a photograph is to be submitted to a competitive environment it will be judged in that community.  I believe that the uniformity of those accepted norms is what makes the competitive arena fair.

Now, there is one more thing to consider — and this is big.  The trained, formal judge will not make unequivocal statements.  If he knows his business he will never say that this is a good photograph, that the contrast is not great enough, or that the white balance is off.  He will offer an opinion.

And take ownership of it.  For example, “In my opinion you get high marks for creativity.  The initial impact of your image really works for me.”  Or he may say, “I like the way you used shallow depth of field to direct the viewer’s eyes.” 

Nor do we need to forget that judges are human persons with different backgrounds, skills, and biases.   A photo can be judged exceptional by one judge and only good by another.  The accepted norms, however, will even out these differences in the long run.

So…Dear Reader, where does that leave us?

It leaves us with the flexibility — and responsibility — to make the “good” or “not good” decision on the bases of place and purpose .  Suppose I am judging competition entries at a camera club.  I will put on my competitive hat and, possibly, give a very high score to an image of a flower.  Against the standards established by the formal community, this image deserves very high marks.  If, on the other hand, that same image were hanging in a gallery I might give the flower picture a nod but my eyes would drift — in real admiration — to the adjacent image of a seascape.  I’ve applied competitive standards to the flower at a club competition and personal (admittedly biased) standards to the flower and seascape in another space.

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Donna Larschan - As a club “B” worker I have improved my photographs by constructive critiquing that a judge such as yourself may offer. I totally appreciate that you try to put on the competition hat when judging. I wish more would. Thank for your insights. The are very helpful.

skeeter - You know, Donna, that is exactly the purpose of competitions — LEARNING from the critiques. There are, of course, other benefits (some of them have to do with pride) but, I think, that teaching is the greatest thing a judge can bring to the image producer. Thanks for your comment.

Dick Burry - Thanks for the comments on judging competitions at photo clubs. Watching many judges it is clear that some have an insight that makes their comments meaningful. I must take exception to your comments about technical excellence. Photography by its nature requires an ability to handle the medium. Photos with major exposure problems should not be winners and held as models, even if they have good composition. Judges select photos that serve as bench marks for people to strive for. If you just started learning photography, understanding the technique is important, just like mixing paints and selecting a brush is important for painters. So I make a strong case for technical strength in all winning photos.

skeeter - Hello, Dick. I think you may have miss-read the article — or I wasn’t clear. My point was that competitions should be (and are) judged by competitive standards — including technical excellence — but that my personal evaluation of a photograph may disregard technical flaws in favor other things. Thanks for your comment!

Stephanie - Your article has inspired me to take a look at Photographic Society of America. And, Congratulations on taking your photography to the next level by becoming a judge!

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