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Looking at (and Taking) Photographs




Much about photography is subjective – one person’s interest will not be another’s. We have a tendency to specialism – ‘people or landscapes’; ‘wildlife or sport’;  ‘realism (sharply focused) or art (impressionistic)’ and so on. What moves one person will not move another. There can only be broad guidelines when establishing any criteria for the ‘good’ or the  ‘great’ image.


The joy of photography is that we have our own very different interpretations of what is a powerful image – demonstrated at every camera club throughout the country on a weekly basis no doubt. I’m also sceptical of thinking in terms of individual images because I believe that the essential context for  ‘serious’ photography is the project over time and the production of a set of images – in effect, a  photo essay.


Nevertheless, I think that there is something to be said on the issue of what makes a competent image or set of images – and what makes a powerful image or set.


See also sections relating to RPS criteria.



Looking at Photographs : Guidelines


1.         To what extent does the image illustrate command of basic camera technique – exposure, focus, depth of field?


2.         How well framed is the image? (How ‘well seen’ ?)


3.         How strong is the composition?


4.         Does the image produce an ‘emotional response’ in viewers – curiosity, amusement, dismay, a sense of beauty?


5.         Does the image suggest a personal style or approach - an interpretation not just a record ?


6.         What is the level of craftsmanship in the production and presentation of images ? This may be images on screen/ projected images,  as an AV presentation, in book form – ‘self-publishing is now so widely available but – in my personal view – the committed photographer should aspire to produce properly mounted and matted prints as the ultimate end-product. 


Put most simplistically, I would say that a ‘good image’ needs certain characteristics relating to 1-3 and at least a competent level in 6 above whereas an image which is special (beyond good) needs to answer positively 4-5 above and is of a very high standard in 6 as well.


In relation to both, in practice, the viewer tends to make his/her mind up very quickly – the more images you make (and see) the more one instinctively builds up an intuitive ‘feel’  for photography.


Reflecting a bit more analytically is one way to improve the practical activity of image making – the end product is what matters – and pretty much only the end product because an image should stand without words.


A Good Image


1. Know Your Camera


The production of consistently competent images, illustrates that the photographer has a command of his or her camera – for example, images are sharp where they should be, well exposed with no blown out highlights or ‘informationless’  shadows (unless intended).


Shutter speeds, apertures and iso ratings are co-ordinated according to circumstance and purpose.


The concept of depth of field is understood and applied.


The ideas surrounding the concept of focal length is understood in relation to lenses – and appropriate use is made of different lenses (and/or different properties in a ‘zoom’ lens). With ‘automatic’ settings on modern cameras it is tempting  to be lazy (and indeed, it is better to use this setting as an insurance policy – getting an image on ‘auto’ setting is better than not getting an image at all).  But  the photographer – and their images - will always be limited if the basic ‘controls’ are not mastered and many images of enthusiasts tend to stumble a little  at this first hurdle. 


Therefore, ‘Know your camera’ is the first piece of advice any enthusiast needs - read the manual, read books, ask a friend, search the web but above all get out and make images and show them to others.


In my experience of leading groups working towards RPS distinctions, at least 50% of images presented by keen and often quite experienced camera club members - at the start of the process - fall down on these basics.



2. Framing (or seeing)


A good image is well framed or ‘well seen’ – the photographer isolates, simplifies and highlights a part of the real world (both in-camera and in later cropping) and says ‘this is interesting’. 


Framing is a combination of subject content and the boundaries (of the image frame) the photographer defines the subject by .


The photographer has to actively create the image – just because the eyes see and the other senses feel the beauty of a Dartmoor Tor or the excitement of seeing the migration of the wildebeest does not mean that any image will be an effective photograph – other than a record of what the photographer saw through the camera viewfinder .


The photographer  must ‘translate’ what he/she sees (and feels) into  photographic form. The subject ‘lion attacking a zebra’ does not in itself mean that a photograph will be well-seen – it just has great potential as a subject. It is just as possible to take a ‘good’ image of a tin of baked beans as it is a bad picture of a glorious landscape vista.  A good image is defined not only by what is in it, but by excluding elements that distract from the point of the image. Framing is the way that the photographer  ‘tells us’ (implies) what the image is about.


Again, in my experience with many camera club members the basic concept of translation is often missing - the camera 'snaps' but has not been used as a creative tool.



3. Composition


A good image displays at least a basic understanding of compositional principles – such as the ‘rule of thirds’ , ‘figure and ground’ , ‘visual balance and tension’.


Design elements like line, shape and texture are not difficult to understand and Michael Freeman’s ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ is a very accessible introduction. 


Understanding the quality and direction of light – and the concept of contrast  – is a factor that penetrates every aspect of photography.  To define photography itself, a good photograph has effectively ‘painted with light’.


These are the three elements photographers need to work towards as a challenging series of first – essential - steps.


What matters is that the individual can consistently take  well-seen, technically efficient and soundly composed images and this is as much a thinking process as a practical one.



4. Production and Presentation


Images which are competent in all 3 elements above can still fall down if the editing - usually in Photoshop in the digital age - is weak. There are common faults - over-sharpening for example - in the editing phase but as well as sins of commission there are sins of omission for example not using available tools to (for example) ensure that there are details in the shadows or that horizons are straight or that dust spots are reduced.  The step from computer monitor to physical print is also a less than straightforward exercise - with brightness and colour accuracy being just two issues.



Making A Good Image Even Better 


Defining what makes a great/inspiring/arresting  image is even more difficult than defining a good one.


It’s worth saying to start with that most professional photographers and experienced amateurs (whose work is often exceptionally good - and often more creative than 'jobbing' professionals) will say that the number of ‘great’ images they get is small in relation to the hundreds and the thousands of good, competent images they make each year - partly because ‘everything coming together’ is a matter of luck as well as judgement.  Ansel Adams talked about getting a ‘crop’ of 12 such images a year.   Great images will be a matter of viewer’s perception but – in addition to the three elements of ‘competent’ images, powerful ones possess a combination of the following.


1. Interpretation


The very strongest images are more than a record – they are an interpretation – they ‘say something’  about their subject whether it is the nature of farming life in mid Devon or the landscape beauty of an isolated valley or the atmosphere at a rock concert or the Englishness of the English.  There is something of the individual in the photograph – they say something about the photographer as well as the subject.  They have a style. So the monochrome photographs of James Ravillious capture the character of the farming community in mid Devon in the 1970s and 1980s.


2. Simplicity


The strongest images tend to be very simple in their structure and uncluttered by distracting detail. They are strongly composed, (often instinctively) illustrating a creative use of design elements relating to visual harmony, tension, and balance; contrast; sharpness and unsharpness of focus; subtle us of graphic elements of line and shape etc. ‘Capturing the light’ is often a key element – not just for landscape photographers.


3. Eliciting a Response


The very strongest images produce an emotional response – they arouse curiosity, interest, puzzlement, laughter, amazement, concern  – they inform, they challenge, they stimulate discussion, they tell a story; they linger in the mind.


4. Surprise


The very strongest images surprise us – they show something unusual or something familiar in an unusual way. A great photograph (or set) stands on it’s own – it needs no words to describe or explain it. 



5. Timing


The strongest photographs have a great sense of timing – the ‘moment’ is captured, whether when the light is just right or the gesture of the guitarist or surfer or the dynamics of a group of marching soldiers  is just right.


6. Craft


The strongest images show great craftsmanship in the production of the image – in terms of camera skills, editing skills, and production techniques. Little details – either included or excluded – can make a great deal of difference.   All images need editing. 




George Barr’s discussion (‘Take your photography to the Next Level’, p20) inspired the idea of trying to distill my thinking about photographic  evaluation into a simplified list or two – especially in the light of activities at Exeter Camera Club. I started by pretty much plagiarising his list  but by the end – while some common ground remains – my lists looked pretty different. Nevertheless, along with Michael Freeman’s book I mentioned in the text, George Barr’s book is well worth reading. 


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