Master the Craft Step Two – What Makes a Great Photograph

In Part One of this series of articles on Mastering the Craft we talked about getting past the camera and mastering the tool you already own. We talked about the importance of freeing up your brain to create instead of being bogged down being a technician and we also discussed why you should not update your camera all the time; specifically, the benefit of using muscle memory to control your camera. If you have not as yet read Part One I strongly encourage you to go back and give it a read. Of even great importance though is that you put it into practice (if you are not already). Not only will it save you money, but I guarantee your photography will improve.

In step two of this series of articles we are going to look at the importance of educating yourself on what is a  great photograph. This is something I have touched on briefly before but I believe its worth taking a deeper dive on this topic as understanding what makes a great photograph is an absolutely critical skill to taking better photographs. Perhaps even more so, its an essential skill to master if you want to take your own photography taken to the next level. On the surface it sounds such an incredibly simple thing to recognise the ‘great’ from the ‘good’. The truth is though, its a learned skill and not an innate talent. You would be surprised how many photographers have little to no idea how to differentiate between the good and the great when it comes to their own work.

Before we get too far into what makes a great photograph I want to take a moment and share a fascinating observation that recurs time and time again whenever I watch someone who is relatively new to photography. Almost without exception those new to serious photography universally believe that their photographs are excellent (Canon actually did a survey on this in the USA a couple of years ago and found that more than 95% of people out there believe they take great photographs!). The truth is of course the complete opposite. Henri Cartier-Bresson perhaps said it best “Your first 10,000 photographs are your Worst“. It has been my experience that there does seems to be a lengthy period of time in which beginning photographers have little to no insight into their own work. Its not because they lack the intelligence. Rather, I believe that this  phenomena is due in large because they lack the education and knowledge to understand what it is that makes a great photograph. New photographers seem to be on the whole, far more interested in taking photographs than in acquiring the knowledge to understand the difference between a competent photograph and a great one. The cart is unfortunately very much before the horse in this instance. To use an analogy, they are trying to bake the cake without a recipe. They might get it right from time to time but they are unlikely to realise when without the recipe to tell them what it is supposed to look and taste like.

There is a very important distinction between a good photograph and a great one. A competent photograph is just that. Its ‘good’, but not great. As a good photograph it will likely be of an interesting subject, have been well exposed, hopefully well composed and will be sharp where it needs to be. It will be appropriately cropped, suitably processed and likely well presented. So why is this photograph only good and not great?  The short answer is because it (and most photographs) fails to fully engage the viewer and because it lacks the ability to convey or provoke a meaningful emotional response. It likely also fails to say something worthwhile about the subject or fully engage the viewer in a meaningful, thoughtful and intellectual capacity. In other words it fails to communicate with the viewer. A great photograph is much more than a pretty picture; a great photograph transcends the 2-dimensional medium of photography. As Ansel Adams said, “A great photograph is about depth of telling, not depth of field“. When we stop and closely analyse these very high requirements for a truly great photograph we quickly realise why the greats are so few and far between. In Paul Nicklen’s book Photographing Wild he talks briefly about one in ten thousand being truly outstanding. It has been my experience that  this is generally a pretty accurate ratio. [Addendum – if you want to read more about getting Emotion into your photographs be sure to check out the series of Articles I penned on this topic HERE.]

Realising that only one in ten thousand is truly great is the first step to understanding the difference between a good photograph and a great one.  You have to realise the truly greats are a very rare commodity and reset your expectations accordingly. The next step is a bit trickier and thats knowing which photograph amongst the many thousands is the one that transcends all others. The only way to achieve this is through education (it can be self education) because it is highly unlikely to be the photograph you have most emotional investment in (See Part Three of this series of Master the Craft to be published shortly).

I believe the best way to learn the distinction between a good photograph and a truly great one is to study art and to study the works of the great photographic masters – both historical and contemporary. In short, education is the key and there is no shortcut on this journey. You have to carefully study the work of great photographers (and artists). You have to read and study photography books from photographers in your chosen genre and learn from their compositions, techniques and styles (and not just emulate them). You have to understand how and why they approach their subject like they do. You also have to take the time to understand what it actually is about their photographs that make them great. You have to have insight into their work which means you have to connect with it not only from a technical perspective, but on an emotional level as well. The process of acquiring this knowledge is going to be different for everybody. In my case I like to sit down late in the evening when all is quiet with a good photography book and spend some quality time fully digesting the photographs. Its not about flicking through the book in a haphazard fashion (there is no benefit in doing that). Rather it is about taking the time to properly absorb and internally process the photographs. For me this usually means spending an hour or so with a book; during which time I can probably take in no more than around sixty photographs (and that is quite a lot). After that, I need a break or a change of pace (or bed).

I would like to give an example of a well known photographer friend of mine (their name doesn’t matter) who I know for a fact has spent many hours studying the intimate landscape work of Elliot Porter along with several other contemporary masters of the intimate landscape.  I have watched quietly from the sidelines over a period of perhaps five years as he put into practice what he learned from studying the work of these accomplished photographers. He worked hard in the field putting into practice what he learned and as a direct result I have watched his photography not only improve significantly, but arguably transcend his chosen mentors. In summary, this person made the effort to educate themselves in their preferred genre and style and to teach themselves what it was that differentiated the good from the great. They are now a master of the intimate landscape in their own right.

Perhaps the best way to sum up Part Two of this series is with a quote (although I cannot remember who first said it or exactly how it went) that I feel perfectly sums up the great divide between the good and the great photographs; “You don’t take a great photograph with just a camera. You bring to the act of great photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have listened to and the people you have loved.”

In Part Three of this series of articles on Master the Craft we are going to take a look at how and why you need to divest yourself of your own emotional investment in your photography. This critical ability to self analyse (and thus edit) is one of the biggest factors that holds back a great many photographers.

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