What Makes a Great Photo?

A quick search of the web will give you no shortage of answers to this question, things like: subject matter, composition, color, light, story, detail, uniqueness, moment... seem to come up over and over. But, while these answers aren't wrong, they're a bit unsatisfying. 

Why are these things important? And how do they all fit together?

 The fynbos, near Botrivier, South Africa

The fynbos, near Botrivier, South Africa

It's All in Your Head


To understand what goes into a great photo, it might help to think a little about how an image — nothing more, initially, than a spatial arrangement of colors and intensities — is perceived by stages in the human brain. For when an image first falls upon our retinas, it's nothing more than a mass of disparate signals from our photoreceptor cells: "Lots of green here!", "I got some blue!", "Whoa, that's a lotta red..." There's nothing in that initial data that says this green is related to that green; certainly nothing that says those two greens are part of a blade of grass; and most definitely nothing indicating that that grass blade is sun-dappled and that that should make us happy! That stuff all comes later.

The Stages of Perception

To perceive an image the brain (verrrry broadly) needs to do three types of task, each building upon the one before:

  1. Identify the structural features within the image — the lines and shapes, their colors and brightness;
  2. Interpret these structural features as symbolic representations of things in the world around us — hills draped in shimmering grasses, a golden sun, a path basking in evening blue leading off into a valley; and, if it's so inclined,
  3. Assemble these pieces within our imaginations — think about what might have come before or follow after, ponder questions a certain juxtaposition of symbols might raise.

Feedback Along the Way

This process doesn't happen within some isolated black box that simply spits out a number upon completion: 42! Our visual systems provide feedback at each stage of the process in the form of subconscious emotions or nagging demands for our attention. Ever wonder why you like some abstract artworks and not others? In part, its that your brain's sending you subliminal messages even about things as simple as `I like that arrangement of lines', `those colors make me a little nauseous when they're next to one another', etc. A big part of becoming a better photographer is learning to consciously pay attention to your brain's own subconscious responses to an image at the different stages of perception.

 Wailea Beach, Maui

Wailea Beach, Maui

The Many Layers of a Great Image

Based on these stages of perception, then, we can begin to think about what might go into building a great image, working our way up from the foundational to the inspirational. I normally think about this as a construction of sorts involving five layers (though, all five aren't always necessary):

  • Technical: Basic skills required to bring one's vision for an image to fruition;
  • Composition: The abstract structure of an image from the perspective of nothing more than lines, shapes, and color;
  • Subject: The concrete objects or concepts these forms symbolically represent;
  • Story: How these objects come together to provide context, tell a story, pose a question, or spark the imagination; and 
  • Integration: The ways in which these different layers work together to strengthen one another.

In subsequent pages we'll provide a bit more detailed overview and discussion of each of these.