I had an interesting chat with a friend of Nick‘s on Saturday evening, which brewed into quite a heated discussion about the perennial photographic question of what makes a successful picture. Clive questioned my point of view that I am able to achieve perhaps five or more good photographic images out of every 100 taken during a day’s shooting. It was interesting to get another experienced photographer’s point of view and he made the point that if you were put on the spot and had to select your very best images for a portfolio, how many photographs would you select? I suggested a dozen but I feel that those dozen photographs would be the absolute pinnacle of your achievement, not a collection of the only “good” images you’ve taken.
What makes A Good Photograph?
The definition of what makes a good image varies from photographer to photographer, indeed from person to person. One person’s absolutely perfect image is another’s dull representation of uninteresting subject matter. One person’s snap can be lifted to the highest levels of popularity based on the populist view or by a random set of immeasurable criteria. Take the photograph above, for example. It’s a sunset, viewed from the lake shore opposite my current office in Brienz, which is my all-time most “[Interesting](http://flickr.com/explore/)” photograph according to the Flickr machines. This rating is based on a mystic combination of views, comments and the number of times the image has been marked by Flickr users as a favourite. I won’t deny that it’s a good photograph but is it _A Good Photograph_? I’d say no: pretty much anyone with a camera on the lakeside on that evening would’ve come away with a picture just as good. The weather conditions are what makes the photograph special but it doesn’t stand out for me as a photograph to be especially proud of. The four photographs below (click on each one to view the larger size at Flickr) are photographs of which I am much prouder, and which you will either like, appreciate or dislike for different reasons.
Take the last of the four images as an example. It’s just a shot of some guys walking through a crowded market, that’s all. What makes the image for me is that they are in perfect – and I mean perfect – juxtaposition with the old ladies at the windows behind them. They are dark-skinned, young, cool and on the move, where the women are pale, old and immobile at their windows. The picture is perfectly balanced, separated into three lines. The women are in the perfect positions at their windows and are looking in exactly the right directions. The picture is perfectly exposed (which is comparatively easy these days, with the advent of digital photography) and sharp. On top of that, the image brings happy memories of putting smiles on passing people’s faces, as they saw what I was photographing. All those criteria make this one of my best images from the past few years and would definitely be in my photographic portfolio. “So what”, you’ll say, “that just proves that you took a good photograph”. Well, yes, but then look at the other pictures. Other photographs from the same day, all of which are – in my opinion – “Good Photographs” and ones which I would be proud to hang in an exhibition or include in a portfolio. There are probably six or seven photographs from that day which I’d add to a portfolio of my best photographs, though perhaps not to an “all-time” portfolio.
Rates of success
Shooting lots and lots of photographs doesn’t always mean that you have a higher chance of achieving great images. It almost means that you’ll take less great photographs because you’ll be shooting so many, that you won’t have the presence of mind to pay so much attention to each one. I think that I’ve found a good balance for my own style. I shoot if I see a good picture; I try not to shoot excessive amounts of photos; I weed my photographs ruthlessly; I only print up photos which either mean something to me (if it’s a personal project) or which are my top images, if it’s a public project.
If I take 200 photographs during a day out, I will have deleted almost half of them (including all the obviously sub-standard images) before I get home. More will be culled when I go through them on the computer: either selecting the right shot from a series of very similar ones shot close together, or deleting the ones which aren’t sharp or which are plainly no good. That’ll probably bring me down to around 30-40 pictures, of which only a handful will make the grade. Sometimes, a good half of the shots will be good and sometimes, it’ll be just one. But on average, I will have perhaps 5 or 6 images which I’ll be proud to show and which people will react well to.
This flies in the face of many who claim that if you come away with one very good photograph from such a set, you’re doing very well. I think, based on my own criteria for success, that I can exceed that on pretty much any of my photo shoots I can think of from the past two or three years. It may sound arrogant to say myself that my pictures are good, but perhaps I should close by extending that opinion.
I think my success rate is much higher than many people because I achieve the image I saw in my mind a lot of the time. I compose the picture in my mind, I shoot it and I know, through many years of experience and through a confidence in knowing right away when the picture is “right”, whether it’s successful. If it’s not, and I can re-shoot it, then I do. If I can’t, then I either discard the image and put it down as being “one of those things”, from which I learn, or I work on it in the “darkroom” (digital or otherwise) to get it closer to what I intended. When I take a Good Photograph, I know straight away and this is usually re-inforced later, as the image requires practically no editing.