Wednesday, February 19, 2020

What Makes a Great Photograph?

[This is not a great photograph.]

A while ago my friend Harvey posted a photo challenge: 10 favorite travel photos, no comments from the photographer. The one above did not make the cut.

What makes a great photograph is up to the photographer, except . . . it does depend on the plans for the photo. If it's just for you, that's one thing. If it is for publication, that's another. What publication, what audience, what's the message? Is it for art, for the wall or in a magazine or coffee table book? Are you photographing a friend, a wedding, someone's pet? Is it for a contest?

My grizzly bear brothers photo is not great, but it has some of the elements of greatness. Here's my shot at a list of traits that might combine to create something very, very special:

1. Does the person behind the lens want to create a particular feeling ? You do, or should. What feeling? Love? Breathlessness from the beauty? Shock, horror, surprise, outrage, irony? Harvey and many others have said great photos come from the heart. So many photos are "I saw this thing and I took a picture of it. Isn't it cool? (Aren't I cool?)" Ugh. Some data wonk tabulated that 3 BILLION photos were taken in 2019. I think that's low, but it's still more than all the photos ever taken since before the events of 9/11, which is about when the digital shift took off. There were stories of photographers flying off to cover the ensuing war in Afghanistan with new camera bodies and a user's manual to read on the plane. . . How many of those 3 billion were great?

[I rather like this Spruce Grouse, even though it has that "I saw this cool thing. . ." going on. It's a beautiful subject, sometimes hard to find, and it shows the bird where it lives. It doesn't descend into what my friend Scott calls "bird porn," perfect photos of preferably adult males in breeding plumage with the sun behind you and the background is blurred and I don't care how beautiful the bird is, that photo is dead to me. I'm not saying it doesn't have a purpose, it's just dead.]

2. Is the subject interesting? You know: kids, pets, sexy, beautiful, rare, ugly, death, mayhem, that bit. Part of this equation is access, meaning great photos sometimes require getting to a place other photographers can't or don't go. I have no Grizzly Bear photos from New Jersey. However, there are certain wildlife photos that you can look at, once you've travelled around a bit, and know what park and what road and even what bend in the road where the photographer was sitting in their rental car. Bleck. And, also however, access could me around the corner. Crawl out into a marsh and lay down. Get in a kayak. Go to a Trump rally. Do some street photography in your hometown (if you don't know what that is, check out Natalie Merchant's music video of her song Carnival.] ALWAYS carry your camera.

3. Does it pop as a mere thumbnail on the screen? If it does, you can probably hang it on the wall.

[These Desert Bighorns are part of what I think is a great photo. Awesome subject, awesome place, compelling contrast and colors, it was a bitch and a bunch of skill to get to them at sunrise, curves, why is that one looking that direction, on and on.]

4. Does it tell a story, or capture a place, or both? (By the way, I don't care for calling most photos "captures," as in "nice capture." The photographer didn't capture the subject. Goshawks capture snowshoe hares. Capture means you told a story and your photo could give that story to the viewer.  It can be done.

[I was section hiking the AT, halfway and 75 miles through this section. Drought summer, and it was looking like I'd finish the last of my skanky double-aquamira'd beaver pond water that night and then either hike 'til I died or blue blaze it to a town. My ancient point-and shoot was moved from my shoulder strap to my pack, everything to be efficient. Then, somewhere in Appalachia, in one of those less pristine AT places, I walked past this. I walked a half mile thinking about it, and knew I had to take this picture. Either you get it or you don't (it will help if you're a gearhead guy or gal). Southern Appalachia. Jacked up, running bars, fender guards (handcrafted!), cattle guard, replaced door. broken hood, somebody thought it was worth building and still worth something. This photo isn't a story, it's a book. Good writers write with words and sentences. Great writers write with ideas. So do great photographers.]

5. Is it hard to look away, or does it make you look away and force you to look again and again and again? Everybody reading this knows the photo of the Napalm girl in Vietnam.

6. Does it give thought to composition? Do your eyes wander around and around and go back and go to a particular point and does it have that feng shui?

[Composition. I almost deleted this one, then went, waaaait a minute."]

7. Does it show action without awkwardly freezing it? People ooh and ah about flight shots of birds with alulas flared, wings and tails spread, everything crisp. Fine if that's what you like. I delete them. I want to see what I saw.


8. Was it the right camera, lens, filter, flash, settings, post-processing? This is the least important factor to creating a great photo, yet every photographer knows that the first question a new photographer asks is about equipment. It's not about the camera. The one exception is probably birds and wildlife, because you pretty much have to have a long lens (though you can get remarkably close to critters with skill; before the $12,000 lens, buy the $150 chest waders.) For most photography, your smartphone is fine. I used to carry a point-and-shoot for what I now use the phone for.

I could not have photographed the grizzly brothers above any better. Right camera, right lens, right settings. But it falls short, because I could have handed my rig to someone else on the Denali bus, told them to switch it to full auto (a.k.a. the "dumb" setting, which is not fair) and they would have gotten something at least close to as good as mine. The only hang up would be the exposure was tricky, dark subjects on a white background, but the engineers are so good at dealing with that it might have been fine without going to manual, which is what I did (spot metering the bears would have worked, too.) But here's a photo where I had to make it all happen, from subject to tech:

[All you needed to get this photo was get to Alaska, get on a boat, say screw what spray does to the camera, set for manual with a high shutter speed to freeze the water drops, time the breaching hump-backed whales, see the shot and background you wanted, freeze your bare hands, wait, aim, and shoot. This is one rare exception where skill and equipment was very important, but so was heart.]

A couple nights ago I was on the Delaware Bay, and struck up a conversation with a guy who commented he could see my camera a mile away (by the way, I have a good rig but nowhere close to the top end stuff). I said I was mad I didn't bring my iPhone, because that is better than my wildlife rig for sunsets. The gentleman then commented about a NASCAR race he went to with a friend, who was a pro photographer and could go places he couldn't. When they compared shots, she told him, "you're standing back here and your smartphone photos are better than mine!." There you go. It's what's behind the camera.

[Misquoting Crocodile Dundee: "That's not a sunset."]

[This is a sunset.]

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