How to Define What Makes a Great Photograph Great

How to Define What Makes a Great Photograph Great

Photographers tend to bemoan that everyone's seeming belief that they are a photo critic. Event though the vast majority of people aren't really experienced enough or aware enough of what makes a good photo to be taken seriously. This position is often weakened by the fact that even top photographers generally can't agree on what makes a great photo. I'd propose the argument that the average viewer actually is quite aware of what makes a great photo while the nit picks of us pros more often than not have little to do with photographic greatness and more to do with photographic elitism.

I'd like to preface this post by mentioning that, yes, I did put several of my own photos throughout this post. I am not trying to imply that my work represents the end all, be all of photographic greatness, rather, a wall of text can be somewhat boring without some photos to liven it up. I will leave it to you to decide whether the images or crappy, good, or great. I suspect all three categories will have plenty of representation.


As humans, we instinctively want to rank the quality of everything. The easiest way to do so is by coming up with objective rules to define a linear ranking that is easy to build. With many things in life those sorts of objective rules are pretty straightforward, however, with photography there is such a strong subjective element that a purely objective ranking is functionally impossible. Yet, we still try. There are certain very obvious rules such as whether an image is in focus or not or if it is evenly exposed that are often used in conjunction with more fluid ones such as equitable use of the rule of thirds or some seemingly arbitrary law such as the golden ratio. Is the photo balanced? Are the colors accurate? Is the white balance correct? Has it been sharpened correctly? These are all examples of reasonably objective qualities that can be used to create some sort of, largely pointless, base ranking for each image we look at that we instantly form within our own mind.

More importantly, however, are the purely subjective traits of an image which can vary from genre, to expression, to story. These aspects ultimately hold much more influence on whether the image is compelling or not, which in turn is often a very strong indicator of an image that holds a degree of greatness or not. Hollywood posters are excellent examples of this sort of thing. A Hollywood poster needs, in a single image, to do justice to a film that may have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to create. When looking at film posters through an objective lens we can often be amazed by how sloppy some of them tend to be. Poorly cut out composites, inconsistent lighting, fuzzy sharpness, etc. There was one poster this year that looked like it was put through one of the old drawing filters that were all the rage in Photoshop circa 1995. Its easy to pick apart many of these images from a technical and objective point of view. On the flip side, Hollywood posters tend to be consistently very powerful images as their dogged pursuit of mood, story, and character create wonderfully compelling shots, even if they are sometimes technically sloppy. 

What Metric Actually Points To Great Imagery?

I'm going to fire up some controversy here and make the argument that when evaluating a photo, determine if it deserves the coveted description of "great" that looking at the photo itself is a poor metric. Instead the key lies in looking at the impact of the image. Confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance tend to ensure that a face value evaluation will always be skewed. In order to free oneself of said skewing we need to look to the free market as an indicator of the value of an image within its context.

Simply put, how successful is a given image at creating demand for its target currency within the scope of a free market. The form of said currency can change from photo to photo which is why it becomes equally important to examine correctly. Quite often the currency is actual money, how effectively does the image sell or help sell the services that it represents? A seemingly crappy piece of work that is incredibly lucrative is objectively great. The currency can also be social proof such as "likes" or interaction on social media platforms. If an image was designed to garnish the attention of social media users and it does so effectively one can define that image as both successful and great in its own right. Conversely, perhaps the goal of a photo is to win awards, thus making its currency the awards accumulated, and its measure of greatness becomes the number and prestige of said awards. 

The key point to consider is that all of the above examples require very different images to be successful. A great social media image often wouldn't have a prayer in a prestigious competition and vice versa. Yet, we tend to associate certain successful image category as strong signs of greatness while we condemn others for arbitrary reasons. This narrows our viewpoint and creates a situation where we struggle to actually make effective evaluations of image quality which could have a tremendous impact during culling of our own work. For example, a music scout must learn to effectively evaluate the quality of each musician within the context of that musician's chosen genre, regardless of the scout's individual taste for that music. As photographers, we often fail in this regard. Whether it is a hardened film shooter declaring a digital image terrible because it has no character, or someone else declaring the work of another photographer to be abysmal because it isn't appealing to them our ability to separate greatness and personal preference tends to be murky at best.


With that in mind, where does that leave you, a photographer with likes, opinions, desires, and all the rest? It is a call to expand self knowledge so that you can better build an understanding of your own biases that are preventing you from understanding that it is possible for you to accept that an photo is simultaneously great while also being an image you dislike. This will indubitably broaden the awareness that the same phenomena exists in all other viewers. Just because someone doesn't like your work, doesn't mean your work is bad. It merely means that your photography is not appropriate for the demand of this given consumer. The only reason to be worried would be if that given consumer is actually your target audience. In which case you must either adjust the quality of your work or your target market. Regardless, never let an accusation that your work is bad negatively impact your work while also being careful to avoid letting accusations of greatness stifle your hunger to improve. Your work today is what it is, but your work tomorrow can always be greater than it is now. Never forget, if you are only shooting for yourself then nothing matters other than your own satisfaction with what you have created.

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Richard Keeling's picture

"our ability to separate greatness and personal preference tends to be murky at best" - a good point, not least because personal preference is usually a cumulative concept based on our experiences, education and exposure to art. As such, it can differ wildly between individuals and I think it inevitably colors our view of what is a great photograph. Personally, as one who has spent a lot of time in art museums, studied and read about what one might call the established 'art' way of doing things, I find my preferences lean that way and against much that does not fit those criteria, but does that necessarily mean I know what a 'great' photograph is? What I do know is the type of photograph that is judged great by the art critic and most often it appeals to me too. But not always. Sometimes it's best just to let an emotional response be the best judge. Interesting article.

Andrew Ashley's picture

What you like is all that should matter when considering the artistic merits of the art in front of you. But when we talk about the "art in front of you" think of what went into that... Like the "Featured" photos below, we can only judge against what we have seen. There are hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of artists out there vying for attention, and sometimes by some confluence of a surge of likes, the right critic seeing an image when they felt really good after that mocha frappa coffee drink, any number of things can propel your art into the attention of others which then becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. In an age when we have trouble determining the meaning of the word "is", something as personal as art and what makes it great is usually determined in hindsight. Why are most "Great Artists" dead? Because it is only after many decades that we see who rose to the top, who's art is still relevant or still captures your eye after so many years. In my opinion, a good photograph might move you, a great photograph moves a generation, and great photographer in hindsight produces a body of work that shapes and moves the way we view art during his/her time and into the future where art historians define their look and feel as unique and a turning point. A better question may be, who today, when you look at their images do you feel defines this moment in history?

David Mawson's picture

>> Photographers tend to bemoan that everyone's seeming belief that they are a photo critic. Event though the vast majority of people aren't really experienced enough or aware enough of what makes a good photo to be taken seriously. <<

Only very stupid ones. Experience in using a DSLR is not the same as developing an aesthetic sensibility. Anyone who regularly reads Vogue will have more experience of looking at and understanding interesting images than the the average amateur or professional photographer.

stir photos's picture

We get some rules to follow, that and this, these and those- no one knows... #QOTSA

Michael Yearout's picture

Ryan: some very good thoughts to ponder. For me it has always be about the composition first, even if I initially don't like the image. Does it draw me in? Does it speak to me? Does it make me think? Does it make me question? Everything else is secondary. Thanks for the post - it made me think, it made me question.

Ralph Hightower's picture

A great photograph holds the test of time.

Leonid Farbman's picture

Nice photos. Really excellent work

Tom Martin's picture

You lost me the moment you drew a line from marketability to quality. Popularity is never a useful gauge of aesthetic value. I am not suggesting that a great image cannot be popular, but popularity alone is a poor standard.
Imagine if all the great artists of history strove only to please the marketplace. We would have museums full of mass produced sofa paintings.