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OK, so that's a very broad title & is going to be to some extent 'opinion-based' but bear with me.

I don't often do 'city' shots, so when I do I have less experience & less guidance as to what makes one 'good' & another 'bad', assuming both are sharp in the right places & reasonably well-framed, to my own mind.

I have these two shots [intentionally quite small because I'm not interested in pixel-peeping for this]. The only thing they really have in common is that they were taken in the same city on the same day.

A dark & gloomy victorian market backed by heavy cloud and some sunlight breaking through.

enter image description here

and this magnificent sculpture of a pack-horse, with a shopping-mall skyline behind it.

enter image description here

I really, really like the horse, no-one else does.

I've tested this theory with anonymous voting on online photo sites & competitions. The results are remarkably similar in each test.

I think the horse has a story. I think it's looking into frame just nicely, offsetting its placement. I like the sharp horse against the softened industrial architecture.

The market I feel is a bit ordinary, bordering on too dark, except for getting that sun lined up in the right place. Maybe people see some kind of 'Hogwarts' in the roof, I really don't know.

What am I missing?

Could it be because I know the two original locations quite well & know that the market really doesn't look quite so cinematic as that when you can see the whole surrounding? The horse is 20ft or so in the air on a tall slim pillar, it has all four feet on a plinth maybe only 2ft square, adding to its sense of balance in that situation.
No-one else can know that, so only see the end result.

  • Does this answer your question? What makes a photo a good photo? – Please Read My Profile Feb 28 at 20:14
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    The problem with the sculpture is it takes too much effort to figure out what it is. The defining characterisrics of horses are all layered over each other. People might like it better as a stereogram or from a different angle. – xiota Feb 29 at 0:33
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    I like the angle of the horse photo. It emphasises the struggle the horse has with carrying the burden on its back. Maybe that's why people do not like it. They do not like suffering or even being reminded that life is full of toil. – Michael C Feb 29 at 2:13
  • Personally, I don't like photographs of pre-existing art. This includes photographs of statues, but also of, for example, graffiti. I can appreciate art as an addition to the photo, but no as its main subject, like in your horse photo. You may want to factor this into your assessment of why people don't like the second photo as much. – timvrhn Feb 29 at 12:57
  • @timvrhn - that feels like an odd thing to dislike. How would most people see Michelangelo's David, or the Mona Lisa etc etc without photographs? That aside, the view of the horse is one no-one would ever see without a 200mm lens. Most people see it from almost directly below, as a dot in the distance. – Tetsujin Feb 29 at 13:03
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I think you are stuck on the difference between technical qualities and aesthetic/emotional qualities.

The first image is "dark and gloomy;" and that automatically invokes an emotional response... it's basically instinctual, and the viewer will create "a story" to go with that (however abstract/unconscious).

The second image has more technical qualities; sharper details, off centered composition, looking into the frame, etc. And those things are easier to appreciate/critique because they are not as subjective. They are the things one tends to focus on when they are new to photography, or a particular photographic genre.

But what emotion does it evoke? What is "the story" it tells?

For me, the horse image is a bit lacking in context to convey a complete story/emotion. For me the BG is too indistinct and minimal to really convey a juxtaposition well... for me it's more-or-less just "busy." I think it probably shows/conveys that juxtaposition better for you, because you know it exists to a much greater extent than the image shows.

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The market image is dark and gloomy, but that is to its benefit. The sun in the background evokes sunrise or sunset. Beginnings, endings, and transitions are hardwired emotional triggers in humans. We also respond to the sun. It's hard to tell which end of the day it's on, but both have significant meaning.

The size of the windows in the cupolas provide a sense of grand scale (even if they are only small decorative openings), so we see this as just a slice of a much larger city, and connect with that scale in our minds.

We couple the image with our experience. If we interpret it as sunrise, we relate to and actually experience that quiet, sleepy anticipation of a city before the hustle and bustle of the day gets underway. If we interpret it as sunset we see the opposite, and we feel the relief of a day winding down and revel in the peace of it.

Something about the horse image strikes me as unnatural, like you cut out the horse and blur the background behind it?

It also lacks a clear sense of scale and there is little to connect our experience with. It could easily be a bookend that you plopped down on a shop's counter and snapped a picture of to send a friend to ask if they thought it would look good on your bookshelf.

All that being said, I suspect that there are two disconnects in how you see the images and how others perceive them.

First is an awareness of your own effort. The market image probably came out of the camera almost exactly as it is. The way you talk about the image, you seem not to have planned the sun being directly behind that cupola. I expect you shot this image almost on pure instinct, so the perceived effort expended on this image is minimal in your mind. The horse on the other hand appears to have required a lot of work. Getting to a vantage point to shoot the image, contemplating how to frame it, probably spending a fair bit of time in post-processing trying to perfect it. Your perceived effort for this image is high.

Second is context. You clearly have a special connection with this horse, even if only a brief one. You find it beautiful and meaningful. You have little or no connection with the roofs above the market. It is far to easy to appreciate the subject of an image more than the image itself. This is why everyone thinks all photographs of their children are beautiful. No matter how bad the actual photograph is, they love that they can hold a moment of their child's life, so they love the photograph.

As artists we must frequently divorce ourselves from the process and our own context and learn to see the images with fresh eyes. This is an immensely hard skill to learn.

The most practical advice I can give on this matter is to put time between when you shoot and when you review the image. This was easier back in the days when we had to process the film than in our modern instant-feedback loop.

  1. Turn off instant preview and resist the temptation to look at each image as you shoot. I generally peak at the first image to ensure everything is set up correctly, then shoot the rest without so much as a glance.
  2. Sleep before you review them. This gives you a chance to clear the expectations from your mind and lets you look at the work with more objectivity. Wait a day at least, or a week or two if you can.
  3. Imagine you are evaluating another photographer's work when you do review them. I find it useful to speak aloud as though I am discussing the image in an art gallery showing, and I don't allow myself to say anything that I can't directly see in the image itself. (Your talk of 20 foot tall pillars would be right out.)
  4. Use post processing time as a guide. It is frequently—though not always—an excellent way to tell if am image is tremendously flawed. My rule is that if I wouldn't sell the image to the client as shot, there is probably no reason to spend time editing it. I wish I could remember who originally said it, but "Photoshop is not there to make bad photos good, but to make good photos great."
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  • Interesting & very useful observations. There is a slight irony, which no-one could be expected to know. The horse & mall - first time I'd ever seen it, it was new to the city since I was last there. The market, however - that entire roof's leadwork was done by my father & brother-in-law in the mid 80s; a two-year undertaking, so it actually has quite a family connection. – Tetsujin Mar 2 at 10:21
  • @Tetsujin That makes a lot of sense actually. So it sounds like to you the subject of the image is the roofs, to others the subject is the sun. That distinction would greatly affect perception of the image. – LightBender Mar 2 at 13:17
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"Good" is a fairly nebulous term, particularly when speaking of the aesthetic value of something. What one person likes, another may not.

Which is a better entre, filet mignon or foie gras? (Assuming both are excellently prepared) Which is a better novel? East of Eden or The Great Gatsby? Which is the best symphony? Beethoven's 9th, Mahler's 2nd, Tchaikovsky's 6th, Dvorak's 9th, Shostakovich's 5th, or Mozart's 41st?

Ultimately, a "good" photo is one that communicates the photographer's intent in a technically competent enough way that the emotional or intellectual response(s) the photographer desires to communicate is invoked in the consciousness of the viewer.

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  • Agreed, it's nebulous - the question itself tends towards that, unfortunately. I guess I'm really asking why the horse doesn't work - because clearly it doesn't for many people. The background is busy, sure. The horse & building refused to turn round a bit so I could get a cleaner shot; the market has open sky from that angle [though not from almost any other, so that was lucky ;) – Tetsujin Feb 29 at 12:33
  • At an abstract level I think that your first and last paragraphs are in conflict because the artist has no control over what emotional response is elicited in the viewer. Hence the desires of the artist (or how well they convey those desires) become irrelevant – Peter M Feb 29 at 17:34
  • @PeterM I would disagree that the artist has no control over what emotional response is elicited in the viewer. Aesthetics can work in much the same way that language does. We don't say a speaker has no control over what words a listeners hears, do we? While it may be true that there can be "errors in translation", what the artist chooses to include and exclude in a work can have a profound effect on the response of the viewer. – Michael C Mar 2 at 0:35
  • I understand what you are saying, but I think that by using "can" you are actually supporting my position :D And while this is all very philosophical, I'll just leave it with a simple analogy. Not matter how fancy, or how masterful the practitioner is, some forms of jazz just grate my ears and sound horrible to me. Yet I am listening to exactly the same sounds to which other listeners applaud as genius. How can there be such a different reaction if the artist is in control? – Peter M Mar 2 at 14:16
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I often wonder if the question lies in how the pictures are being assessed. If it is a case of swipe left, like, swipe left, like, on a mobile phone I can see the roof-scape doing better. It is easier to read, the shapes are well defined. My only obvious negative, and this is a personal thing, is the graduated filter darkening the tower to the right of frame. How many 2 second swiped views would pick up on that, how many people would care?

For me the horse suffers from the background being too busy, you have to work harder to find it amongst the roof structure. The arching steelwork exiting the horses backside is a slightly odd distraction. Once you see the sculpture though, and I imagine on a monitor which effectively shows the image at the size of an A3 print, you have a different view, the picture begins to work.

My biggest concern about the composition is that all the negative space is to the right and western tradition has us reading text and images left to right. Although I almost never do this (as more I'm interested in the scene as a record of what was there) flipping the image creates quite a difference for me.

flipped image

I've also tried a fairly quick Gimp vignette reducing saturation and luminance, but I'm less sure about this. I do feel cropping out the plinth helps, even if it means chopping off the poor horses hoof.

flipped and vignetted image

I think for me, with the picture flipped, the lines of the roof structure behind lead us into the sculpture rather than away. Looking at it now the block of colour bottom right becomes a distraction. The narrative I then get is that the pack horse is grimly plodding past our right shoulder, but has been distracted by something to our left which it can't quite motivate itself to raise it's head fully for through weariness.

Having said all that, the more I've played with the photo the more I like it, so maybe you can just look too long at an image you want to like...

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  • I love having the negative space to the right, it feels like the subject may move to fill it, to the left it feels like they're just about to leave the frame. Watched Jojo Rabbit last night & the director does it really well, keeping images such as this static for 10 seconds, with only the characters moving slightly in that corner. i.stack.imgur.com/ODvxu.jpg Of course, in a movie, you're given establishing shots to set up the scene & subsequent close ups… but I just loved that shot. [& yes, the colour is really that punchy] – Tetsujin Feb 29 at 12:22
  • Interesting image breaking the "rules" but drawing your eye straight to the two figures. You could say it reads unconventionally (left to right) and the green coat on a green grass background lack colour contrast but those lead in lines are so strong, and I'm guessing as humans we are naturally drawn to representations of people. – dmkonlinux Mar 1 at 6:47
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A good thing about both pictures is that they are well free of strong distractions, and that there are layers. If one wanted to be really picky about small distractions, there is the sharp square corner in the clouds, and the plinth - but these are really minor.

The problem with the horse is likely one of perspective - it is shot nearly dead on, too convoluted with the yoke-like object on top of it, and telephoto compression is making it look too short to be a horse.

The metal texture also is slightly irritating... it kind of appears vexing due to the eye being unable to really decide if it is sharp... also, there seem to be some kind of sharpening artifacts surrounding the horse...

What is right about it, though: The gaze of the horse meets the negative space.

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Most people will evaluate images subjectively, by how they react to them, without trying to go any deeper than that. They'll say "I'll like it" or "I don't like it" and they would have trouble expressing why - they'll probably even get annoyed and hostile if you you'll ask them for a better reason. A deeper analysis of their reactions may be more related to psychology/psychiatry/psychoanalysis than to art/photography/aesthetics.

Then you'll have some people that want to go deeper and will identify elements and relationships that influence their appreciation of an image. You have examples of this group in the other answers. But these people will usually represent a minority, so you cannot expect to find them forming the majority of an Internet audience unless you go to some forum with very strict admission rules.

Because of this, the random opinions of the first group will overwhelm the judgments of the second, with the result that the answer to your original question of "why do people love this image better than this other one" is going to be very speculative if you don't want to settle for the obvious "who knows what goes through people's minds?" Or, to put this in the same terms as your question: "who knows what goes through one's mind?" :)

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