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What makes a good photograph


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#1 loftus

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Posted 29 January 2008 - 04:55 AM

What makes a good photograph?
A guide to critiquing images.

What makes a good or great photograph is a subject of much debate. There is however some general agreement on things that one should consider when viewing and evaluating a photograph. For experienced photographers most of these considerations have become second nature; for less experienced photographers I think it can be valuable, particularly when submitting photographs, to do some self-evaluation according to some of these generally agreed upon principles. I have started with a list of some principles applied to topside photographs, which can usually be applied underwater, and then I will add some ideas that I have learned regarding underwater photographs. I hope that we can generate some constructive comments to add to this list, particularly from the pros. As always, rules in art and photography, can be broken at will, but it is still valuable in my opinion to evaluate a photograph from this perspective, even if only to see where a rule may have been broken with good effect. The following list is a summary of things I have read and learned from others. There is nothing new or original here.

Hopefully this list and any discussion that follows, will be helpful, especially to beginners and new posters, particularly in the image galleries. I think it will also be helpful when regular members critique other peoples images, particularly newcomers, to refer them to these guidelines and critique accordingly.


1. FOCUS

Most of the time the main subject at least should be in focus and sharp even if the background and other components may not be. Notice the depth of field and see if it is working well for the image. Evaluate the depth of field, is the depth of focus effectively controlled with aperture and lens angle of view to have the desired areas sharp, and others out of focus?
There may be times where the photographer is purposely trying to create an out of focus or softer effect, or trying to create the effect of movement.

2. CLEAR SUBJECT IN THE PHOTOGRAPH

Does the photograph have a purpose. Is it clear what the main subject or subjects of the photograph are? If one has to look for it or the photographer has to explain it, this may be a problem. On the other hand the photographer may be trying to create some mystery within the photograph, though generally the photograph should have a purpose.

3. COMPOSITION


Again is it clear what the main subject is? Are there areas or parts of the photograph that do not contribute to the overall visual effect of the image.Is the subject lost in a distracting background? Consider vertical versus horizontal orientation of the image. How do the lines of the subject lead into or out of the photograph? Should one get closer, does the photograph need to be cropped preferably at the time the photograph is taken. Consider Rules of composition like 'Rule of Thirds', 'Bottom right or left'. Does your eye move easily within the photograph or do they jump around?

4. LIGHTING AND EXPOSURE.

Is the lighting well balanced, and does it support the elements of the composition to create the desired effect. Are there good shadow and highlight details with good range of shades in between? No 'blown' highlights except for some desired specular highlights. Does the lighting direction fit with the composition, are any of the lighting elements creating a distraction? Does the image have adequate contrast, is it a high key or low key image, and does this contribute or detract from the image. Is the use of ambient and strobe used to good effect?

5. COLOUR.

Particularly in underwater photography is the colour well balanced, are there any colour casts that detract from the image or do they genuinely help create mood or effect.

6. WHAT MAKES THIS PHOTOGRAPH DIFFERENT OR SPECIAL?

Is it an interesting compositioin, does one see an interesting perspective. Look for dramatic angles, lines, colors, textures, and shapes

7. EMOTION AND MOOD?

How does this shot make you fee? Does it create a mood or generate an emotional response? After all the technical discussion, good or great photographs usually evoke an emotional response at some level.

I think this is a good start that can apply to most photographs, there are other elements particularly for underwater photography like in a fish portrait the main subject should not be swimming away from the photograph etc. I invite others to contribute their ideas, particularly for specific types of photographs like close-focus wide angle, Macro, Fish Portraits, Reefscapes, Use of models and lights etc. This is obviously a huge subject, and books have been written about it.

[edited by moderator -- type and look only]

Edited by echeng, 30 January 2008 - 12:05 AM.

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#2 ornate_wrasse

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Posted 29 January 2008 - 07:25 AM

Bravo!

You've done a great job in describing what makes a great photograph.

This should be very helpful to lots of uw photographers.

Thanks for doing this!

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#3 dhaas

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Posted 29 January 2008 - 03:21 PM

Jeff,

Great post! While you described the basics for most shooters I'm really glad you tempered the "rules" with exceptions and descriptions of them, also.

Having shooters simply copying each other can get pretty boring. The hardest part for photographers to learn after getting a well exposed image (allowing for any "mood" the photographer wants to impart in their image) is to EDIT!!!!!

If you have several shots of the same scene, critter or whatever, there HAS to be one or two that stand out due to the curve on an animal's tail, the lighting or ???????

Those will be the stunning images to post process for maximum impact.

Great topic :D

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#4 drsteve

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Posted 29 January 2008 - 04:37 PM

An oldie, but goodie, is Jim Church's book on underwater composition. It is a bit dated, but good composition is timeless.

Jim Church Essential Guide to Composition

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#5 rtrski

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Posted 29 January 2008 - 07:15 PM

Interesting discussion, and good list loftus. I can't help thinking of that old quote though about pornography: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." Good photography (no, I'm NOT implying one is the other! :D ) is the same way. Something just grabs your attention...but I don't always know what it is.

Similarly slavish attention to the rules can be sterile and uninteresting. A lot of fish portraits or macro shots, although technically amazing (how did they even SEE that little thing much less shoot it?) leave me cold. They seem...I guess 'clinical' is the best word, like a shot I'd expect to see in one of the Reef ID books. I think focus is one of those specifics. I don't know why, but I'm usually even more enthralled by the macro shots with very shallow depth of field as opposed to those that have everything in hyperrealistic detail. Although it has nothing to do with UW photography I was really close to buying one of those "lens babies" to play around with selective focus...too much of that sort of thing gets gimmicky (too blatantly 'artsy' is the opposite of clinical, in my twisted aesthetic scale) but looked like it took some pretty fun shots.

One thing's for sure. Looking through my own shots (few as they are), I haven't found "it" yet, whatever "it" is. But hopefully your list will help, and I'll know it when I see it. :lol:

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#6 JackConnick

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Posted 29 January 2008 - 11:46 PM

Great Thread.

#6 & 7, I think are the hardest to accomplish. I struggle with them.

I'd add within them "interaction & involvement"; whether it's by seeing the animal's eyes, placement of another human in the wide angle - what draws you into the picture, makes you want to be part of the frame?

Of course any time you make a rule somebody breaks it and shows you a whole new perspective.

It really pisses me off... ;-)

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#7 echeng

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Posted 30 January 2008 - 12:10 AM

Thanks, Jeff! Fantastic guide, and must-read for anyone wanting to participate more in this forum area.

I've pinned and highlighted this article on front page.
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#8 ilanbt

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Posted 30 January 2008 - 04:23 AM

Hi Jeff thanks!
Fantastic guide, can I translate it into hebrew and put it on our local hebrew forum with crediting you?
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#9 kathymm

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Posted 30 January 2008 - 07:39 AM

Great guide!

It was created to help critique, but I think those points are also great to think about to help improve one's own photography. I hope it's OK, I sent a link to Wetpixel to the NCUPS list suggesting everyone read it.

Thanks,
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#10 nudibranch

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Posted 30 January 2008 - 03:42 PM

Thanks very much for this concise version of what it is we try to teach. May I add it to my webpage as well?
As previously mentioned there are times when the rules need to be bent or broken, but newbie photographers, especially those taking classes,should be aware of the basics. As Pros or instructors one should try to steer them past "dive-by-shootings" and to do the 3 c's (compose, consider and construct) the image.
I do hope some of the (old sea dogs) pros will add to his thread, as there is much to be leaned by all of us still.

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#11 loftus

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Posted 30 January 2008 - 06:03 PM

Hi Jeff thanks!
Fantastic guide, can I translate it into hebrew and put it on our local hebrew forum with crediting you?

Todah rabah. You guys are welcome to use this; but as I said, there's nothing new or oringinal here, just a summary of stuff I've read.

Edited by loftus, 30 January 2008 - 06:09 PM.

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#12 Alex_Mustard

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Posted 30 January 2008 - 06:23 PM

I would add direction. Know why you are taking a photo. What you are trying to achieve and communicate - and this then dictates choices on lighting, exposure, focus, composition etc.

Alex

p.s. But sometimes a photo is just a great memory. The viz is crap, the photo is fairly standard, but it captures a moment you'll remember for a long time.
fl08_am_11495.jpg
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#13 seagrant

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Posted 30 January 2008 - 06:49 PM

p.s. But sometimes a photo is just a great memory. The viz is crap, the photo is fairly standard, but it captures a moment you'll remember for a long time.

Loftus, this morning.


I agree - a good photo is one that communicates:

Ba - Da - Bing...... B)

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#14 rtrski

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Posted 30 January 2008 - 07:17 PM

...Loftus, this morning.


Who's the diver he's kissing? :)

Current rig: Sony SLT-alpha55 in Ikelite housing, Sigma 105mm f2.8 DC Macro w/ Ike 5505.58 flat port or Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM behind UWCamStuff custom 5" mini-dome. Dual INON z240 Type IVs triggered with DS51 for TTL mimicry, or DS51 alone with home-made ringflash assy for macro.

 

Topside, unhoused: Sony SLT-alpha99, Sigma 150-500mm + 1.4TC (Saving for Sony 70-400 G2), Sigma 15mm diagonal fish, Sony 24-70mm f2.8 CZ, Tamron 180mm f2.8 Macro...all the gear and nary a clue...


#15 loftus

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Posted 31 January 2008 - 03:54 AM

I would add direction. Know why you are taking a photo. What you are trying to achieve and communicate - and this then dictates choices on lighting, exposure, focus, composition etc.

Alex

p.s. But sometimes a photo is just a great memory. The viz is crap, the photo is fairly standard, but it captures a moment you'll remember for a long time.
fl08_am_11495.jpg
Loftus, this morning.

And then you can capture love in the eyes of our fearless leader occasionally

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Edited by loftus, 31 January 2008 - 04:00 AM.

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#16 Cathy

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Posted 15 April 2009 - 03:48 PM

A good photo can be documentary or artistic. To be artistic, you need to make it clear to the viewer what he should be looking at or feeling. In many images, you want to identify your main point of interest. The five characteristics that draw our eyes to the main point of interest are the 1) brightest, 2) most colorful, 3) sharp, 4) contrasty area, and if the subject has eyes, then the 5) eyes will draw your attention to the point of interest. When all or most of these five characteristics occur together, it makes the main point quite obvious, but when are scattered, then there is confusion and we say that the photo is not very good. For example, if the brightest area is a blurry foreground, and the most colorful area is something along the side, and the eyes are actually the main point of interest but are not exposed properly, then there is confusion. Using these five characteristics to asses the main point of interest helps when critiqueing a photo. Try one, and we can compare ideas.

How about the one of the diver and the manatee? It is a great documentary of a wonderful event. But how would you make that also an artistic photo? What is the brightest area--the cheeks. Wouldn't it have been nice if the mask were more open and we could see the diver's eyes. Also, the manatee happens to have a very dark eye or maybe a shadow over the eye. Your eye wanders from the bright face area and then sort of around the back of the manatee's head. Feel your eyes move as you look at the photo. If the diver were not wearing a black hood and the entire head were lighter, then the bright cheeks would not be such a contrast. Then the implied eye contact may over power the conflict of rightness and contrast.

Just my opinion, of course.
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#17 diggy

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Posted 15 April 2009 - 09:32 PM

Excellent post.thanks Jeff and others also Alex, I liked your point. My daughter has just taken up photography (she is 13) and i have been going through the basics with a film camera. This post is going to make life much easier for me as also my daughter as i can take up each point and exponate on the same. :good:

Cheers,

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