It's something we are all seeking. There is no doubt that some photographers are fantastic at what they do, but even the best won't create a great shot every time. So, is there a secret formula to creating one?
Perhaps we should start with the impossible task of trying to define what a great photograph is and what isn't. There is enormous subjectivity in the definition of greatness; it means many different things to different people. There is a difference between a great photo and a famous one, mainly because a photograph's fame is usually short-lived in the modern day. Photos have had a cultural impact by going viral, but soon are replaced by the following picture, and the first becomes a distant memory. Genuinely great photos, however, withstand the test of time.
There is also a vast difference between a great photograph and a technically perfect one. Although a photo's technical perfection may be great, it isn't a prerequisite of a great photo that it must be so. That doesn't mean that we should not learn the technical aspects of photography; we should. But many believe that technical perfection is the final word in creating great photographs. Indeed, many low-level photographic competitions are judged mainly on their technical merits instead of their more critical creative aspects. Consequently, judges often forget to look for the artistic messages that the photographer has conveyed.
There are, of course, photographs that achieved their greatness through their technical perfection. Ansel Adams, for example, shot and developed landscapes that had perfect exposure. One of the original prints of Moonrise Hernandez, New Mexico sold for $819,400 in 2021 at auction, and he made over 1,300 prints of that photograph during his lifetime. But I do wonder whether that image is held up as being great because of Adams' name. I suspect there will be those who have taken equally as technically perfect photos that don't get the same recognition.
Suppose we look at how well created so many photographs are today. In that case, it could be argued that Adams' image, if taken today, would pale to insignificance among the 1.7 trillion images captured this year alone. One could even say that photography has progressed so much and become so prolific that it would be considered commonplace. Yet, few would deny that it is a great photograph. So, maybe its place in history has added to its greatness. That coupled with Adam's celebrity within the photographic world. In other words, besides the technical perfection, the historical context of that photo and the fame of the photographer helps make that image great.
Then, there is peer pressure. Some photographers are treated with holy reverence. It seems blasphemous to suggest one photograph of theirs is flawed.
Composition is a complex subject, and there is much more to it than the simple ideas behind the obvious placement of subjects within a frame. Good positioning means that thought has gone into it. That thought can be conscious or subconscious, but it is rarely blindly following some formula, such as the rule of thirds, symmetry, or the golden section. A great photo often uses a compositional technique to achieve an effect that fits the subject matter. For instance, a diagonal layout will add tension and may be employed where that tension is wanted, whereas symmetry can be more calming in a picture.
Some photographers regularly use composition techniques that add continuity throughout their body of work. Cartier-Bresson, for example, pursued the golden ratio throughout his career, and his emphasis on this was far more important than precise exposure control. Unlike Adams, over time, he rejected the darkroom techniques and concentrated on pure photography, emphasizing the placement of subjects in the frame and the decisive moment.
Take as an example his most famous shot, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare. Most photographers today would not aim to show the main subject as slightly blurred. But that photo is about that decisive moment. It captures the fraction of a second before the man steps into the water. It shows that motion blur can work. More controversially, one could say it is a technical mistake, but it doesn't matter because that isn't what the photo is about; it's irrelevant.
One thing that both of those photographs have is a story. For me, Adams' picture is about the moonlight illuminating the snow, the town, and the graveyard, whereas Cartier-Bresson's photograph is about the man about to get a wet foot. I say "for me" because with every photographic story, the interpretation is personal, and you may read something very different between those two pictures. An important consideration for the photographer is that the viewer might not read the same story into the image initially conceived when the photographer released the shutter. Furthermore, we may be dictated to by photography or art critiques what an image means, but we don't have to agree, do we?
Many great photos elicit an emotional response. It is recognized in art that negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones, so a photograph that makes us sad or angry will be more potent than one that makes us joyful.
A great photo isn't a clone of other images, although I have seen great photos that deliberately parody different popular themes. But one drawback of contemporary photography is that it is challenging to shoot a unique image. However, there is an almost infinite combination of genres, camera positions, lighting conditions, subjects, exposure settings, focal lengths, and subjects. Great photographs manage to combine those elements uniquely.
Great photographs result from the hard work that goes into creating them. They don't just happen; they require learning and dedication to the art. Most photographs we consider great are the product of a lifetime of discovery. Adams and Cartier-Bresson spent their entire lives trying to accomplish perfection in their art. Like almost all great creators, they were generous with their knowledge, never selfish, and encouraged others.
One final thing that is entirely out of the photographer's control is the audience's subjectivity. A photograph cannot be labeled great by the photographer. It requires others to bestow that title.
Do I consider my photographs to be great? Not at all. One of the joys of photography is the journey of continuously improving one's work.