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I don't know if this is a stupid question, this just came across my mind.

Imagine a photo of a dog yawning.

Someone could say that is a very good photo as it is taken just at the right moment, from a perfect angle (eg. level with the dog) and it has a shallow depth of field focusing on its face.

Someone else might dislike it because unfortunately the dog is ugly.

So from that example I could say people look at the following elements when judging a photo (but I could be wrong):

  • The timing (if it's taken at the right moment)
  • The angle it's taken from (composition?)
  • DOF (composition?)
  • The subject (eg. whether the dog is pretty)

I am interested to know what experts think the elements you look at when judging whether a photo is a good photo.

Thanks in advance for your comments.

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10 Answers 10

up vote 22 down vote accepted

First off, what makes a "good photo" is something ultimately subjective, and its hard to say exactly. There are some guidelines that you can follow help you determine what a good photo are:

A good photo:

  • Makes effective use of light
    • Photography is the art of "drawing with light"
      • Photos: Greek for light
      • Graphia: Greek for drawing
    • Flat, total illumination tends to be rather boring
    • Plays of shadow and light, warm or cool colors, alternative tints, etc. can make a photo better
  • Is properly composed
    • Shoot just a mountain solo, and even in good lighting, it might just be boring
    • Shoot a mountain in front of a lake during sunset, with a the husk of an ancient tree silhouetted in the foreground, and you have something considerably more interesting
  • Subtracts the unnecessary and enhances the key subject
    • DOF it is a powerful tool of simplification and can help you compose your shots and isolate your subject
    • Longer exposures can blur elements with motion, flattening and simplifying them, enhancing the more important aspects of an image
  • Is properly focused and appropriately sharp
    • Lack of focus deemphasizes the subject of your shot
    • Too much sharpness can hamper the viewers eye, overemphasizing details
  • Makes effective use of color, or the lack thereof
    • Color reflects the world we see and can be a powerful tool to show vision and tell stories
    • Black & White can bring forth and enhance aspects of an image that just can't be seen when color is present
    • Monochromatic and split-tone images other than B&W can bring an artistic element to an otherwise boring image
    • Removal of color can satisfy the "simplification" rule when nothing else can
  • Tells a story or depicts a artistic vision
    • A photograph thats just as photograph may be interesting
    • A photograph that tells a story has more substance
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There are two parts to what makes a good photo:

  1. Is the photo technically correct?
  2. Is the photo interesting?

The 2nd aspect can trump the 1st aspect, but the 1st will never trump the 2nd.

Is the photo technically correct?

Image Quality, Exposure, Focus, Sharpness, Contrast, (lack of) Distortion, (lack of) Aberrations all have to be correct.

Is the photo interesting?

Above all, the photo has to have something intriguing about it. Interesting is subjective, so it may vary from viewer to viewer, but in general images that we're not use to, appear more striking. It's why images of kids shot from their eye-level look so much better than images shot from an adults vantage point. Or often why we love candid shots over a posed image.

As I mentioned above, the photos uniqueness can override the technical aspects. An image shot that is purposefully distorted can produce an effect that supersedes the lack of technical "correctness." This is a very imperfect photo, but it's easily one of my favorites.

The flip side to this is, a technically perfect image that is "boring," will never be a good photograph. In this way, it's the 2nd part that gives the photo it's true meaning.

I'm fond of saying you should know the rules, so you can break them. I believe photography is the same way.

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A good photo is one that triggers an emotional response.

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I think this is best reason. Image quality or gear quality has nothing to do with the response a photo creates in its viewers. Technical "correctness" and image quality are not always the be all and end all. – Nick Bedford Mar 17 '11 at 2:14

For example you can see some guidelines on how to make technically correct and attractive photos..

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Let's be honest - I don't know what makes a good photo, I could only show some that I think are good.

I agree with most of the answers before, but I'd like to add that following the rules can improve the photo, not necessarily make it a good photo. Here's some anecdotal evidence against the rules.

I think that different skills are required to take a good photo and to recognize a good photo. Not everybody has one of these skills, having both is even more rare. Photo editors are usually not photographers and vice versa.

Goodness of a photo depends on the context where the photo is judged - you'll probably never hang a legendary press photo on your wall, still that doesn't make it a bad photo. Every category has it's own rules - in wildlife just not being wild can make a huge difference.

Photos have different value for different people depending mostly on whether it triggers emotions and associations, whether it will "make a connection". War photos are perceived differently by people who have been in the war and those who haven't. The best one's just make the most connections.

One can judge the photo on the scale of technical quality, how much money it makes (hey, popular stock photos are easily the most boring ones), how hard it was to get the shot (Antarctica vs my backyard), how rare is the documented event, etc. There's no universal formula for a good photo.

One common mistake made when judging photos is that "positive emotion = good photo, negative emotion = bad photo" (portraiture variant of this is "beautiful model = good photo, not so perfect model = bad photo"). That's certainly not true.

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This article compiled 11.4 million opinions of photo attractiveness of a list of photos. Those opinions were then associated to the exif data of each photo, like what camera brand was used for the photo, the camera class, using flash or not, depth of field, time of day etc. Then they could use this data to determine the optimal value for each of those variables.

This is a statistical analysis of what people actually think is beautiful. This is the kind of things that is good to know.

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lol that's interesting – Aximili Aug 12 '10 at 7:20

The eye of the beholder.

[filler to 30 characters]

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A good photo has three essential elements:

a) the photographer has a special insight into the scene. He has seen something unique and meaningful that is not normally visible or obvious to the casual observer.

b) through technical means he has captured and made that special insight visible to any viewer of the photograph.

c) the captured version of his special insight provokes a strong emotional reaction in the observer, an 'Aha' experience, as the observer suddenly perceives the photographer's special insight.

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To add some balance, ask what is the purpose of the photo? I think everyone here is answering from a more or less artistic perspective, which is what I care about too.

But let's be complete: sometimes you need a mug shot. Or a shot of a hotel room for a website. Or 27 8x10 color glossy pictures of the "scene of the crime"; the approach, the getaway, and that's not to mention the aerial photography (GUTH1967). Some purpose that is by nature more objective (not that it can't be artistic and evoke an emotion reaction in some contexts!).

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That is like asking what makes a person attractive.. it is not a set science, although following the rules of composition etc, you can make it appealing. A person, who just had a kid, will always like a bad, poorly composed picture of a baby yawning than a great landscape picture (by say Ansel Adams)..

So as Jin said, it has to trigger an emotional response.

Your question should be what differentiates 2 similar pictures (say 2 different ppl took the photograph of the same yawning baby).. in which case answers by Jrista and Alan are a good start to get a set of criteria..

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