How do you know if a photo is good?

I’ve Tweeted under one guise or another now for about a year but recently I dropped it as a socialising tool and more of a marketing tool.  It is however impossible, in my opinion, to Tweet without meeting like minded individuals that express a passion on a subject with little effort, that is in this case, photography.

It is one such individual that set me the mother of all questions.  Now I’m not totally convinced that I am the best person to answer this question, so I’ll set the ball rolling and by way of Tweeting, Commenting or even blogging about this post, let’s see if we can’t answer the following!


To make sure everyone understand’s, I am no art critic, nor am I a photography impresario, I just know what I like and I guess the basis of that lies in the basic principles of photography.  When I look at a photograph I ask myself, is the subject appropriately lit (i.e is it exposed correctly)?  It’s important that I try and understand what the photographer is trying to do with the photograph in all aspects but it’s the lighting that provides focus to a subject and mood or emotion to the frame.

Low Light Portrait by Justin Mclean

Now I blog about my own work in general, I certainly don’t do tutorials, I don’t have the patience and there are a hundred and one blogs and websites out there that you’ll find ramblings on the principles of photography so I’ll gloss over things like focus, colour etc because they are all equally important in the context of the photograph.

Actually that last point is key in my opinion, is everything in context?  There are rules but once you know them and understand them, breaking them can add extra dynamic to the end results.  If a photograph is completely out of focus it doesn’t make it bad as long as it’s in context.

Blurred Erasmusbrug by f-l-e-x

There is a reason behind every photograph that was ever taken, I challenge anybody to say otherwise but when you ask if a photograph should have meaning, to me it’s in the eye of the beholder.  Take a picture of a mother holding a new born child.  To the mother, father, the family it freezes a very special moment in time for all posterity and can be incredibly personal.  Post the same photo on Flickr and everyone will experience something different, just check out the comments people make.  I think you can take a photograph and it mean nothing to you, I think with some types of photography its important that you feel something or else the photograph won’t convey the appropriate meaning (i.e. Wedding photography).

Is there such thing as a bad photograph?  Well sorry to end this article on a bum note, or have I?  Even the worst photograph in the world can’t get it all wrong.  Never delete a photograph until you have learnt what it is that went wrong or your client didn’t like.  Every click provides potential learning material, OK you might not post it on Flickr or your blog but take time to review your photographs, check the histogram, RAW data here you will find invaluable information!

Thanks to @al2615 for the inspiration for the article, please take time to click his name and follow him.  You can also see his photostream here on Flickr!


6 responses to “How do you know if a photo is good?

  1. May All Beings Be Happy.

  2. IMO whether a photo is good or not somewhat depends on its purpose (like where it’s going to be used and what for).

    If it’s a so-called fine art photograph, then all that matters for me is that the subject is good – meaning it either tells a story well or is emotionally and/or intellectually stimulating, or both.

    If it’s going to be used for, say, advertising – then it needs to tell the story as effectively as possible while also being of high technical quality.

    If it’s going to be used as an illustrative photo for an editorial or something similar, then it needs to at the very least complement the text – preferably be able to tell the same story on its own (that would be a truly *great* photo).

    So, to sum it up: It depends.

  3. Cheers for this blog post, its really helped me clarify a few things. Like Joe I think its all about the context. You can only say a photo is ‘good’ if you know what the photographer set out to accomplish. You can of course critique a photo based on your personal preferences however I don’t think that your comments would add much value for the photographer.

    So based on this if you want people to comment on your work, surely you need to tell them why you took the photo and what you hoped to achieve with it?

  4. Joe, Alan, many thanks for your comments and you raise some valid points.

    I agree with Joe that (and if I’m right in saying) if a picture connects to the viewer in anyway, whether it be conveying an emotion or providing an impulse to buy a product, that the photograph simply : works.

    On the other hand Alan also touches on something I have only recently started to touch on. I photographer friend of mine tweeted the other day – “take pictures of things you want to take pictures of” – and to extend on this – “and not of things you think you ought to”. As I wander around with my digital camera I find it incredibly easy to take the shot at every opportunity. What I have ended up with is a LOT of digital snap shots but no meaningful photographs.

    So I’ve started to take pictures with a little more planning involved, not weeks and months in advance, I just take an extra second and think “is this the shot I want”. If the answer is yes, I take it, if not I wait.

    Further to that I have also started to describe my shots to my potential viewers so as Alan says, their critique is not wasted – see my last post on a photograph from my Flickr collection, Trouble

  5. It’s definitely way too easy to take a shot just for the hell of it now that we’re all digital. That’s partly why I love digital cameras, but it’s also their curse.

    Just to elaborate on one point: The subject. The most important part of any photograph is the subject. Whether that subject is considered good or not is, of course, entirely subjective. However, the one absolute criteria for a good photo is that you can clearly and succinctly say what it is a photo of. Without that, the photo is useless. From that one could then express one’s opinion on how well the photo communicates what it is a photo of. A great photo shouldn’t leave any doubt, and it should immediately be obvious (unless it’s an abstract and thus completely up to each person to make up his/her own mind what the photo represents).

    Different photographers have different philosophies. Some prefer to carefully consider every aspect of a shot before finally attempting it, while others try many, many variations of most of their shots and pick the best ones later. I’m of the latter type. If I have the time I try to take many shots of the same subject, from various angels and with various exposures and lighting. When I get the photos into Adobe Bridge later I look through them all, and I don’t think “is this a great shot?” – I think “how can I make this shot work?”. For most of the shots I just can’t get it to work at all, but this way of working allows me to discover new ways of looking at any subject, after the fact. Sometimes I just have a vague idea of what the photo could end up like when I take the shot. If I think it has potential, I take the shot. This is, of course, partly because I really love fidling around with photos in Adobe Camera RAW and Photoshop :O) The people who carefully plan each shot they take tend to be the ones who hate spending time in front of the computer.

    Um… That was somewhat of a tangent.

    Anyway… I think we’ve managed to point out a few useful ideas to consider when photographing. Looking forward to seeing more people join in on the discussion :O)

  6. Hello! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I truly enjoy reading through your posts.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same topics?
    Thank you so much!

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