What Makes a Great Photograph?

In looking at some of Stanley Kubrick's photos of New York and its people from the 1940s (see here), it reminded me of the ways photographers sometimes try to capture movement. Often this is because it's felt that photography is restricted to the present moment, that it's stuck in the instant. Cinema on the other hand is thought to capture movement, and therefore time as well as space.

One of the most common techniques is to shoot with a slower shutter speed, allowing for a longer exposure time, which will mean capturing more of the movement in a scene during the time the shutter is open. That movement will then tend to look blurred in the final image, which can be a nice effect. When contrasted with those parts of the scene that were relatively still and therefore sharp, it gives a nice effect of adding 'life' to the image - of stretching the instant. Here's a nice example (from WikiCommons, Fir0002/Flagstaffotos):

Of course simply adding movement to a photo in this way doesn't make it a good photo. Often the blurring destroys any chance of the photo being great. But it led me to wonder about why photographers can feel so frustrated with that snapshot 'instant' that is the standard for much photography. Based only on my own experience, it can be because being physically present in the scene of the photograph and then looking at it afterwards, there's a feeling of not having captured something of the magic of that scene. Something that being there gives you which the photograph doesn't.

Many other techniques are used to alter images, particularly in this digital age. Photographs are touched up and myriad effects added, and most professional photographers today spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer manipulating their images in creative ways, with Photoshop and other programs. There's nothing wrong with that, I know there will be some making arguments about the artificiality of this process, just as some still make claims about studio production of music and multi-tracking being 'cheating', but it's all an integral part of the creative process.

Before finally getting to what might make a great as opposed to mediocre photo, this is also a time when cameras are of superb quality, and it can be difficult to take shots that look bad, judged on criteria of sharpness and saturation and exposure etc. Every man and woman and their dog is setting themselves up as a photographer for hire, because so much of the essential skill and knowledge required in the past is now embodied within the camera and software, automatically. And again from my way of seeing things, there's nothing wrong with that. It's wrong to oppose the creative and the technical. At this point it'd be possible to make another tired argument along the lines of "cameras don't take good pictures, people take good pictures." I'm sorry, cameras do help to take good pictures, there's no need to get all hair-shirted about it and pretend the technology is nothing next to our magnificent creativity, blah blah. To borrow the same phrases often heard in gun control, people don't take good pictures, smart people with good cameras take good pictures.

So what makes a great photo? Well sometimes it will depend on the context; documenting dragonflies for taxonomic purposes will require a different sort of photo than trying to document a birthday party. But for me most often a great photo is one that captures an event. And to understand what that means it's necessary to drop the idea that a photograph is frozen in time - that it only captures an instant. That may seem bonkers, surely the photograph was snapped in a fraction of a second, so by definition it has only captured an instant in time? Well, firstly the picture above shows that there are instants, and there are instants. You can wrap quite a bit of movement and other activity into even a fraction of a second. But more profoundly, just because you snap something in a fraction of a second, it doesn't follow at all that what you've captured is itself confined to that fraction of a second.

You don't need to master slow-speed photography to get some life and movement into your shots. The essence of what's going in in the scene you're shooting will just about always be unrelated to how many seconds or fractions of a second are elapsing. An example might help. Look at this photo (by D Sharon Pruitt).

It's a powerful image. Taken in a fraction of a second. But looking at it there's really no sense of something frozen in an instant. There's a whole story in this image, that scared face draws you in, as you contemplate the scene or situation the young girl is witnessing. Say she's watching somebody being beaten - the photographer could have photographed that in some matter of fact way. But the horror of that scene, of living that scene, wouldn't be captured in the same way as photographing the girl's scared face has done. There's something about the whole situation the girl is witnessing that has been embodied in this fraction of a second, in one look.

That's an event. Event is just another way of describing the essence of what's happening in a given situation. If you watch the assassination of JFK, you could describe it as a car driving along, and somebody shooting, and the car driving off. But the essence of all of that matter-of-fact movement of cars and people is "the death of the president". A photo of the reaction of his wife as she realises what has happened would be far more effective at capturing the essence of that moment than the film of what happened.

Emotions and feelings function largely to do this summary-in-an-instant of an entire state of affairs, which is why great photographers so often focus on them, and on faces in particular. Often the face of somebody at the scene is used to frame the scene itself, in some way - both may be in shot, but the face acts as a sort of guide to the scene, as a pointer to how to 'read' it. That reading will be instantaneous, a great photo will give you an immediate feeling of being there, and feeling what the people there are feeling. But it doesn't have to be faces, only a way of framing a shot that doesn't just try to take a snapshot of something there, but of getting a viewpoint that brings together the essence of what's going on there. JFK junior's salute at his father's funeral would be a good example.

This is why getting the right exposure, focal length, shutter speed, saturation, and all of the other more technical things, won't in itself produce a great photo. The brilliant cameras you can buy today are why we're increasingly seeing a lot of photos that look fabulous in terms of these parameters, lovely and sharp and with beautiful colors, and with high definition, and why people can make a living taking shots that tick all of those boxes. The technical details matter, they're not second to creativity. But lots of these photos don't stop you in your tracks and draw you into the scene. The great thing about great cameras is that you can focus on finding that small thing which beautifully wraps up an entire event, to photograph, and let the camera take care of the rest almost automatically.

It might seem like I'm talking about composition, a standard term in discussing photography and art in general. And in a way it is about composing your photograph. But that can become as formulaic as setting shutter speeds and exposures and other camera-based or software-based parameters. What you need to take a great photo is more the ability to creatively sense what it is in a given situation that defines it and draws it together into some whole, into an event - often some tiny thing. Photojournalists can be brilliant at this, and other types of documentary photography, although these can be dry and barren as well if they try to impose some overarching narrative on what's being photographed, rather than extracting that tiny essence that makes a situation an event, an alive thing.

Looking at Kubrick's photos, there's often not anything remarkable about them technically. But nearly all of them feel alive, like he's extracted the essence of each scene, what it is that made living in that moment feel the way it did. And when we look at those photographs again now, decades later, we can feel like we're there again, in New York in the 1940s.

Comments

  1. Some of the most magical and haunting photos, especially those from photographic journalists, such as the Vietnamese girl following the Napalm attack, or those deep, stunning, world beaten Afghan Eyes from the June 1985 National Geographic have an impact, and an ability to make up travel in time, or across the globe. To make us feel. Some of the other great photos must stand by themselves without the weight of fueled emotion or historical gravity, and for that aspect the blessay at http://www.petapixel.com/2012/03/20/why-this-photograph-is-worth-578500/ is a great read.

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  2. That is a great read, thanks. I think that's the same thing - in those situations those photographs are still events, in that they show us new ways of perceiving and feeling something - they extract the event from the mundane. People and faces help to do that for 'human' things, but it's just as valid for something without a human in it.

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