What makes a great photograph

Casey Henderson


The more I am involved with this process the more I believe that the guiding principle for photographers is: Allow your own “voice & eye” to come through.

With traditional arts (painting, sculpture, architecture…) the general public was an observer or buyer (either way, an outsider).  The game changed when photography became an accessible art form… good or bad, we all became participants and critics.  In recent years we’ve gained image-related tools & processes that help us achieve consistency (same-ness) and/or impact (same-ness).  The stream of photos taken has become a raging torrent.

NOW what makes a great photograph is defined by the number of seconds viewed…


“Fascination” by ThomasM (Sept-2012)

This is what I wrote about “Fascination” in the autumn of 2012.  “It would not have worked as well if the individual in front right had his jacket off… his job was to darken the corner. The [finished] watch is the result of the underlying fascination, the physical point of focus… well captured… however for me it’s about the sub-context of the machine [rose turning engine / lathe]. One wants to understand not only the results but how it got that way… fascination and wonder.”  The photograph is very similar to the work of the old masters, where light and shadow are done to perfection.  The use of light to recreate classic beauty…  Plus all of the technical bits are in place (focus, exposure, composition, framing…)

At the same time, if you know the photographer you’re thinking ‘yes, that’s really him’… but is it a great photograph… well, it also depends on the viewer who is most likely saying in part ‘I could do that if I wanted to’… of course they could.  Let’s take a look at another example.


“Masa Waiting for the School Bus” by his mom (May 2016)

The photo is actually two photos, what’s called a diptych, and of course it requires both parts to make the sum total work.  It’s got overhead wires, diverging lines, unnecessary detail, bright sun/shadows, the ‘wrong’ focal length, Masa-kun overlapping with the small pillar, etc, etc, etc.  AND it’s a great photo !!!

We understand a bit about Masa, and even more about his mom… and their connection. If you can’t love this photo you’re a grinch from Whoville.  I laughed out loud when I saw this photo on my FB feed… the viewers resonate with this image.

More often than not the photographer who puts their work out into the public wants it to be the best that it can be…  It’s not a complicated process… but it does require planning, execution, editing, image processing, “an interest”, and repetition.

Planning” might be the most overlooked… this includes doing test shots, understanding your equipment, thinking about what you want out of the shoot, scheduling, etc, etc.

Execution” normally gets the most attention… let’s lay something to rest… equipment does make a difference, but the threshold is not that high.  You don’t have to have the best and most expensive, although it is fun to lean in that direction.  There never was a better time to be looking for a camera and there are many excellent, appropriate choices at reasonable prices.  For Macro work, lighting and controlling the light is important… for portraits, fill flash can be useful… each subject has their own requirements and guidelines to be pushed or ignored 😉

Editing” is misunderstood… it’s not image processing… it’s the process of selecting photos to be used in the final presentation and/or images to stockpile for later use.  It’s challenging to reject your own images… The process of taking photos vs. editing images requires a different mindset.  This is also the time when the photographer can see what works, why/why not, and what to try next time.  An honest editing workflow is value added 😉

Image Processing“… is not photoshopping, shopping, nor post-processing images.  TheOnLinePhotographer recently defined it as “CER” (correction, enhancement, and reworking), a term that most likely will not survive.  Whatever! It’s part of the workflow.


“Kurodake in Daisetsuzan National Park” by author (Feb-2016)



100% crop of the top of Mt. Kuro (from the previous photo)

I have to include a winter landscape, if only to show what’s possible with one of the newer mirrorless cameras.  This is the X100T with a fixed 35mm equivalent lens. The detail is kind of amazing.

The photo is technically good, but did it make the cut? Yes and No, depending on space in the final presentation. Well, to be honest, I can’t have it both ways. The photo did not make the cut. But the photo of Mt. Kuro is a fabulous ‘postcard’; it belongs on an anniversary card with a poem!

Interest” … insert yours here – food is good, watches, sunsets (although I prefer sunrises), etc.

Repetition” From June 1955 thru the spring of 1956 (a period of nine months) Robert Frank took an average of 100 photos per day…  27,000 in total, of which he short listed and printed 1,000 photos.  After four months he chose just 83 (0.3%) of them for his book, “The Americans”.

That’s what makes a Great Photograph.

Thank you for looking,


About Casey Henderson

Contributing Author on AlphaLuxe web magazine View all posts by Casey Henderson →

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