What Makes a Good Photograph

This blog was prompted by a discussion my friend, photographer and writer, Guy Tal were having about what goes into the making of a good photograph. I think it’s best to read Guy’s description here, before continuing with this post because this entry is mostly a response to his post. Here’s a link to Guy’s post.

Thank you Guy for such a clear exposition of your thinking. I think it all comes down to our different definitions if seeing. To me seeing is not a passive act. Seeing is everything. The artist’s vision starts with seeing.

From my point of view, composition, exposure, print quality, etc can all be learned. What can’t be learned is how to See. I explicitly used a capital ‘S’ there because we all have eyes and we see. I’m talking about a different kind of seeing.

We’ve all had the experience of being in beautiful places, but because our minds are preoccupied with other things, we hardly react to our surroundings. We may see them, but we don’t See them. There are all sorts of techniques taught to photographers like meditation to help them to See. Seeing requires a quiet mind. In that quietness we can see much more. It’s in that quietness that we can recognize scenes that might make a good photograph. In that space, we’re not looking for a specific format or style of image. We have no mind to give us that information. We’re just emotionally reacting to what’s in front of us. It is seeing from that quiet place that our own unique vision becomes manifest.

So, Guy you may have thought you were just in the right place at the right time when you made those photographs. However, I don’t expect that the weather patterns they captured were very rare and I’m sure that other photographers on the Colorado Plateau have seen those kind weather patterns. However, they didn’t look at them and think this might make an interesting photograph. Most of them probably thought a storm was brewing and figured that they better head back to their cars. You reacted differently. Because of your unique vision, you saw the possibility of art and not just weather.

Whatever compositional and technical skills one might have are only crafts that can be learned. Being that they’re crafts, some of us may be better at them than others. But, they’re only crafts. It’s Seeing that makes the artist.

The photograph below was taken in Yosemite National Park at a turn-off called Gates of the Valley. One has probably seen hundreds of photographs from that place. On any day you have probably hundreds of photographers taking this same shot. You have El Capitan on the left, the Merced River in the middle and Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall on the right.

I have never seen anyone show this view. It was and is there for all of them to see. However this view is my vision.

~ by danbaumbach on January 7, 2014.

9 Responses to “What Makes a Good Photograph”

  1. […] may read Dan’s response on his own blog. In fact, while you’re there, take some time to appreciate his wonderful work, […]

  2. I agree; the ability to “see” what is worth photographing is, to me, the definition of talent. I think those who have this talent often take it for granted. I teach a beginning photography course and after my students learn the fundamentals of f-stop and shutter speed usage, the basics of lighting and composition the best photographs come from those who have that innate ability that can’t be taught: the ability to “see.”

  3. ‘Seeing’ implies you are doing something, when what is happening is that ‘you’ are getting out of the way and are receiving what is there, in a moment of grace , to hear the whisper.

  4. I’ve also posted my thoughts on Guy Tal’s blog, so forgive my redundancy.
    I believe that seeing is a very important element of photography and that seeing can be learned. Among the Buddhist contemplative arts are calligraphy, ichebana (Japanese flower arrangement) and archery. Each of these teach/encourage mindfulness and presence. To these I would add photography. In my experience, making photographs has taught to be mindful and present in the moment and to see patterns, lines, light and shadow, in a way I would never did before I made photographs. So, I don’t know whether or not seeing can be taught, but in my experience, it can be learned.

    • Seeing is not a skill or craft like composition, photoshop or how to use your camera. There are techniques that one can learn to help one to be still and therefore see what’s in front of you without prior conception. But seeing is something that you just have to be open to, like being in love. It’s not a technique.

    • I forgot to thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to comment.

      Thank you.

      – Dan

  5. What is a good picture to someone, it may be not (as usually is) to somebody else. It happens because we leave different realities. In fact it doesn’t matter what others think of my picture, the most important one to be happy with the picture is the photographer it self. I agree, composition, camera settings can be learned. See (with big S,) is something else.

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