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.

3 responses to ““Good” photography”

  1. Nick Yoon avatar

    My feeling is that it comes down to how you define “good”:

    1. Best 20 of all time?
    2. Best 100 of all time?
    3. Best 25 to exhibit on a theme?
    4. Best 12 to illustrate a story for web or print publication?

    Personally, a few years ago I reached a point where I felt I could make really good shots from time to time, but I wasn’t doing it consistently. And there was little commonality in terms of style or subject matter. So I decided to take a photo workshop on making photographic stories. Part of what I learned in this workshop (and in others since then) was how to critically look at your pictures and quickly edit (make selections).

    David Alan Harvey writes on his blog that:

    “i have what i call an “A”, “B” and “C” edit of any subject…the “C” edit is loose..has “everything” that i ever want to look at again for whatever reason…much of this “C” edit will be good for archive sales for example, but will not make the “final cut” for book , exhibit, magazine or whatever…the “B” edit includes what i may think are the best of the best even though i know that at some point this “B” edit is going to get cut in half at least!! from my “B” edit i could probably do a totally different “Cuba” book or “Divided Soul” book…these “B’s” should be just as “good” as what will become your “A” edit, but maybe just not as good for a unified “whole”..”


    “for me anyway, the “A” edit is a precious few…and it changes with time as per described above…for example, i showed at Look3 a few beginning “A” edit pictures for my family project…if i were to do an “A” edit slide show today of this very same project, maybe only two of the ten i showed would now be in the “A” edit…i have done a lot more work since, so things have changed….when i am about 75% finished with this project it will become increasingly difficult to add to this “A” edit even though right at this moment the “A” edit is building faster than it ever will again….”

    Page 5 of http://davidalanharvey.typepad.com/road_trip/2008/07/how-the-west-wa.html

    With reference to my Cuban pictures (taken over 2 weeks) the pictures selected for my book (49 pictures) could be said to be a “B” edit and the pictures selected for the exhibition (25 pictures) are my “A” edit, while an “A+” edit for a (so far) hypothetical magazine feature might be 12-15 pictures.

    Out of those 12-15, I might consider 5 to include in a lifetime portfolio – but that will change as I keep taking pictures.

    Whose opinion you should take on board in deciding which photo is “good” is another topic entirely…

  2. Mark Howells-Mead avatar

    I think that you’re absolutely correct, Nick. I define “good” in relationship to a single image, as my work at the moment focuses on such photography instead of sets of images or documentaries. Whether I class an image to be successful has little impact on how that same image would be included in a book, exhibition or retrospective. Some photos which hit higher than 8/10 on the individual scale – probably a few dozen per year – aren’t “good” for a particular subject or theme, but can be “good” in their own right.

    In short, I agree totally that “good” can be a subjective term and can be on a different scale according to intended use.

    Regarding your question: yes, I would’ve chosen those listed in the final selection. There are small reasons why I would’ve put a couple more to one side if I’d had to be ruthless, as there are elements in each image on which your eye concentrates and which shouldn’t be the central focus of the image.

    Thanks for the comment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of Google’s reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.