What Makes a Good Photograph?

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

Literally.

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, then, if it's so inclined,

  3. Assemble these pieces within our imaginations — think about what might have come before or follow after, ponder the philosophical questions a certain juxtaposition of symbols might raise.

Emotional Feedback

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, a more holistic visual image maker, 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 Aspects of an Image

Based on these stages of perception, then, perhaps we can begin to think about what might go into building a successful image, working our way up from the foundational to the inspirational. It might help to think about each image as having five layers, five perspectives, from which to view, assess, and interpret it:

  • I) Technical: The basic technical skills required to support the process of bringing one's vision for an image to concrete realization;

  • II) Abstract Composition: The structure of an image from the perspective of nothing more than the lines, shapes, and colors of which its composed;

  • III) Subject Matter/Perspective: The objects, moments, and perspectives these abstract features collectively represent;

  • IV) Story: How these subjects and perspectives come together to provide context, tell a story, pose a question, or spark the imagination; and

  • V) Integration: The ways in which these different layers — these perspectives on an image — work together to strengthen one another.

Not all of these layers are necessary for a good image. In fact, different genres of photography often put more weight on some than others (though a healthy dose of V will improve all). A good landscape image, for example, might focus most heavily on composition (II), subject (III), and technique (I); while a photojournalistic image might place the story (IV) as the top priority.

is the subject interesting, important, enlightening