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What makes a photograph?

Having recently been asked to participate in a talk around the subject of what constitutes a great photograph, I felt I’d better start putting some thought into my take on this question. 

I guess it’s a question every photographer should have an answer to. But of course, everyone is a photographer now – just like everyone became a designer with the advent of affordable PCs and printers in the early 1990s.

Now you don’t have to concern yourself with shutter speeds and aperture settings, or know what hyperfocal distance means. You don’t even have to own a camera. Your mobile phone will let you take ‘better’ photos than most point-and-shoot cameras. And under the right conditions your shots will be hard to distinguish from those coming out of an SLR.

The definition of what constitutes a professional camera – or indeed a professional photographer – is gradually changing. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult to draw a clean line between what is professional or amateur, social or journalistic, artistic photography or just a random snapshot.

I might be stating the obvious here, but I think all this is worth mentioning again as the development in technology, the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and the fact that we ourselves are constantly creating images, also have a big impact on how we judge a photograph.

If you google the phrase ‘What makes a good photograph?’ – which I have just done – you will find countless points of view, tackling the question from every possible angle. It’s an impossible question to start with and it’s further complicated by the fact that there are many different types of photography – reportage, still life, documentary, fashion, sports, portrait, landscape – the list goes on. And that isn’t even touching on the question if photography can or should be considered art.

When photography was first invented, these different genres didn’t exist. It was simply seen as a means to depict ‘reality’. Technical limitations also meant its areas of use were very limited. It was the fact that it was suddenly possible to capture someone’s likeness or a landscape with the press of a button that counted. If a photo was also in focus and well exposed, it was regarded as an added bonus. Interestingly, many pictures that survive from that period are now considered great photographs. The early photographers must have instinctively done something right – or we judge and perceive these pictures differently than contemporary photographs.

Subject matter, composition, light conditions, focus or correct exposure have long been key factors when assessing the quality of photography. But technical aspects aside, it’s becoming much more difficult to define the parameters to determine what makes one photograph more successful than another. Taste always plays a role, of course, and it matters in which context we are looking at a picture – whether it’s in a gallery, on a newspaper page, in a travel advert or our Facebook feed.

Asking what makes a photograph good or special, though, is a bit like asking what makes a good book or song. It’s very subjective and it’s also hard to put into words. The only way I feel I can respond to this question is by thinking about how I approach making photos myself. I say making instead of taking, because there usually is more to it than just pressing the shutter release at the right moment (although it’s probably the most important bit!).

I like taking pictures of people and what I do can best be described as documentary photography. The following points might therefore be less relevant for some other kinds of photography. But here’s what makes a photograph in my book:

1. A good photograph shows the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

I can take a picture of an exotic-looking place or person while on holiday and when I show it to friends back home they might (hopefully) consider it a fascinating photo. But would it also appear interesting to someone from the place where I took the image, for whom it might just depict an everyday scene or occurrence? Could I take an equally interesting photo in my usual surroundings, in my everyday life?

Some of the best feedback I ever received was probably when I put a set of images online that depicted people living and working in the Mekong Delta. A man living in the Vietnamese town where I took the pictures, whom I didn’t know and I had never met, saw and commented on the photos. He said what I photographed were really ordinary people and events, the likes he was seeing everyday. But through my pictures they suddenly appeared to him in a completely new light.

2. A good photograph is intriguing.

When asked what he was looking for in an image when judging photography competitions, Martin Parr recently said that “a moment of revelation or an element of surprise is the key to a memorable photo.”

I like pictures that tell a story but leave the ending open. This might be the facial expression in a portrait or the suggestion that something is happening just outside the frame that cannot be seen but impacts what’s going on in the picture. Sometimes it’s just a little detail that, when you spot it, alters the whole narrative of the photo.

Street photography, where framing and timing are crucial, often functions on that premise. But of course intriguing images can also be constructed. An element of intrigue provokes the viewer to really engage with an image and to question what they are seeing.

3. A good photograph shows things from a different perspective.

When I’m say perspective, I mean both the physical point of view, but also finding a different way of approaching a subject that might have been covered many times before.

A lot of people are taking photographs at Speakers’ Corner. It’s one of the few places in London where you can practise people photography without being constantly hassled by security personnel – or the people you are trying to photograph. It’s also a tourist attraction.

I don’t claim that the photos I have been taking there are in any way unique or necessarily better than anyone else’s. When you come across pictures taken at Speakers’ Corner, however, they are often presented in black and white. It’s the expected mode of expression of street photography. It’s a cliché. But what it also does is alluding to Speakers’ Corner as this historical place. As if to say, these black-and-white photos could have been taken at any time in the last 50 years. With my pictures, I’m interested in portraying the people that are frequenting Speakers’ Corner in 2015, and that’s why I stick to colour.

I also like to focus on small details to tell a story – in this case, the ladders and boxes that speakers stand on or the props they are using to get their messages across. To capture these, I might have to lie on the ground or borrow a stepladder from one of the orators – to physically look at the scene from a different angle. At a place like Speakers’ Corner it also helps to get close-up and use a wide-angle lens, where others might keep a distance and shoot with a telephoto lens.

4. A good photograph is the best one you have taken.

It’s surprisingly difficult to judge your own photographs. It’s even harder to let go of them. When you come back from a shoot with hundreds of photos, it’s quite a task to decide which ones to keep and which ones to delete. It’s even harder to find the one defining image among the ones you decided to keep.

Editing is as much as an art as taking photos. Deciding which image from a series is the strongest shot can be hard. I might prefer one photo over another because it’s perfectly sharp or because I consider the light to be just right. But someone else will look at it differently and prefer another shot as they apply very different criteria: the subject’s expression or the presence of some little detail that I might have thought insignificant.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to judge your own images, but when it comes to selecting photographs for an exhibition or publication, it might be a good idea to involve someone else. They might be able to see something in your pictures that you will not be able to because you are just too close to them.

So is following these rules the holy grail for creating a great photograph? Getting them right might well give me a winner. But my shot might be a bit blurry or have a wonky horizon, and in someone else’s book, that will destroy it at the first hurdle.