What makes a good photo

Ansel Adams apparently once noted: “the single most important component to a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” I say apparently because I don’t know where he wrote it or if there is any proof that he said it, so let’s take that with a grain of salt. It is quite a popular quote and I tend to think it could be real.

I have to say I don’t completely agree with that quote. I would personally go further and say that what matters in photography is what is in front of the camera –– and only then, what is behind the camera. The camera itself just has to exist and be good enough in a certain situation. But we live in times when that’s a given.

Nikon Z6 II + Nikkor 28mm f1.4

We could talk a lot about what is a good photo. I would define it as a photo that has some peculiar features that make it interesting, charming. Photos that we go back to and watch again, because we want. Photos that have something that connects with our curiosity and that can intrigue our need for aesthetic pleasure.

Another definition of good photo could be: a photo that satisfies definite technical requirements. But that’s as you can guess a different topic.

So, I think what makes a good photo –– or even a great one –– solely depends on what is being pictured and on who’s taking the photo. This mirrors what I consider to be the two levels of complexity that’s necessary solving, in the pursuit of good photography.

The first level.

It may sound cynical but I think it’s not far from truth to say that a mediocre photographer can take a beautiful photos, if the subject is intriguing and charming –– while the best photographer would struggle to make a good photo using a subject that is lacking these features.

I will be even more cynical. Let’s talk of portraiture: think of a beautiful model or actor and have them posing for a mediocre photographer. The resulting photo will still probably be good, because, let’s say, a photo with Di Caprio or Kate Moss inside is bound to be interesting. And they are beautiful people, so they lend some of their beauty to the picture.

Nikon Z6 II + Nikkor 28mm f1.4

Now take a person whose look is unpleasant or simply not interesting, and have him posing for a very skilled photographer: the resulting pictures will probably not be as captivating as the ones with Di Caprio and Kate Moss, because our mind is hungry for beauty and for inspiring content. It is also hungry for symbols and bent to marketing messages and cult of personalities, but that’s another story!

This also applies to landscape photography: I live in Sardinia, a wonderful island in the Mediterranean sea, and I could make a living taking “beautiful colorful pictures” of the blue and emerald sea, the wild nature, and so on. But would these pictures be “beautiful” because of me, or because of the subject?

Ricoh GR II

And again: I can take a photo of a Ferrari in a sunset or of an unsipired Fiat model in a parking lot: which picture will capture the minds of viewers and make them say “wow, cool picture!”?

The bottom line of this reasoning is that looking for a good subject is in my opinion what matters the most in photography –– and it surely is much more important than looking for a better camera. To find a good subject we need to develop a set of skills: we need to learn to see better –– and we learn to build social situations that could bring us to the subjects we want to take photos of. This requires time, passion, luck –– so we can understand why it is much simpler to focus on which gear to buy. Buying a new toy is infinitely easier than learning social and artistic skills.

Ricoh GR II

My examples dealt with the obvious and the glamourous, but that’s just for the sake of exposition. There are incredible photos showing the nightmarish claustrophobia of some Chinese cities, where thousands live in poverty, breathing poisons, the light of the sun a neglected privilege –– and yet that ugliness can be a good photo subject, much more than a trivial angle of european city, similar to 1000 more. And what about Koudelka’s photos of gypsies? Surely there is no beauty there. And yet they are amazing photos.

Finding a good subject doesn’t mean looking for idealised beauty –– it means looking for what can bring interest to a photo –– something that can give the photo a purpose, and capture our imagination. It means looking for the right subjects and lights, something that works and lets us use reality for projecting ourselves on it.

Nikon Z6 II + Nikkor 28mm f1.4

The second level.

What is behind the camera is also important. I say also because I personally think it is less important than what is in front of it. As much as I love Jeanloup Sieff (probably my personal favorite), I know his photography is superb because it features Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling and other wonderful humans. Yes, his talent and skills where important because he knew how to take these timeless photos, he had the culture and vision that let him think and capture these photos –– but what was more important was that he managed to have the chance of shooting these people in these situations. And he had the chance because he went for it and he knew how to put the right subject in front of the camera.

There are some Peter Lindbergh’s photos that are out of focus, blurred, oddly composed, and still lauded as masterpieces, and that is because the subjects were on their own already amazing and surrounded by charme, culture, symbols –– and Lindbergh himself was extremely successful at creating his own charming persona. There is skill in this. It is not a shallow act and it deserves attention and praise.

What I am trying to say is that finding the right subjects and putting them in front of the camera is an important skill on its own, in my opinion the most important, and something we hear very few about.

Ricoh GR II

Many photographers are taking good photos but failing to make the breakthrough they long for, and that’s because they focus only on taking photos and not enough on creating a social structure for propelling their craft.

It goes without saying that a photographer still has to know how to do his/her job –– how to see, modify and create the light, how to play with perspective and tones, how to operate the tools –– software and hardware –– and for achieving all this, study and practice are needed.

Nikon Z6 II + Nikkor 28mm f1.4

I am not sure about the need for talent. I think talent exists, even in photography, but it is not as important as study and practice. In my point of view, having talent means being able of learning and applying knowledge faster –– so it is a matter of timing. With enough dedication I believe we can all take photos as good as the best photographers out there.

There is something I call social talent, and that’s something different: some of us are more at ease with people and can interact better. Social interaction is important for photography, even if we take photos of empty landscapes, because for finding and reaching good and unique places we still have to be good with people. I think it’s possible to also improve on this kind of talent, starting with a good understanding of emotional intelligence for instance. Empathy goes a long way in most situations.

So when I say that what is behind the camera is also important, I mean that a photographer has to show skills in finding the right subjects just as much as when taking the actual photos.

What makes a good photo

We live under constant exposure to marketing messages, and these messages are intended at making us spend as much money as frequently as possible. That’s why there are lots of camera gear reviews websites, but not so many about photo books: a book is a small financial investment that needs time to be absorbed, and that lasts a lifetime.

Camera gear on the contrary becomes obsolete the moment is being put on the market. While they sell you the latest and greatest, they are already working on what will make it look not enough next year.

Nikon Z6 II + Nikkor 28mm f1.4

In this situation it’s understandable how people interested in photography end up desiring what is not essential for that activity.

We are being told to desire new gear –– and acquiring new gear is immensely easier than working on the two levels I briefly described (finding what to put in front of the camera, and acquiring the knowledge for doing good behind the camera).

Nikon Z6 II + Nikkor 28mm f1.4

Focusing on gear makes it easy, when in front of failure, to blame the lack of financial means, because we can’t buy that specific tool we think would make our photography finally express all we’re worth.

This is a lie we say to ourselves.

There are some specific situations that require dedicate tools, but they are rare and part of definite work endeavours. Wanting the latest camera, the highest resolution, the better performing lens… this is all a way for our brains to deviate from what matters and pretend to be dealing with what is easily obtainable –– or financially irrealistic –– and thus justifying our lack of results.

Ricoh GR II, Positive Film straight out of camera

The beauty of photography is that it’s something we can all practice and where we can all achieve a high quality of output –– if we just study and practice enough. Our passion became hostage of marketing departments, that stripped it from its values and used it for selling us stuff.

But this is not such a strong spell we can’t break.

Spending less time on gear websites and more on real life photo books is a start.

Spending more time taking photos than glancing at them on Instagram is also a good idea.

Nikon Z6 II + Nikkor 28mm f1.4, Standard color profile, straight out of camera

After that, it’s all about being curious, learning new stuff, exploring, failing, trying again. I know, I keep repeating this in most of my posts, and I think this may very well be the core message of this blog!

I occasionally post reviews or opinions about gear, because I think someone may find them interesting –– they are the tools of our craft, after all –– but they are nothing but a small wave in the sea of curiosity and exploration that is photography –– at least that’s what they are for me.

Nikon Z6 II + Nikkor 28mm f1.4

In conclusion I think that for taking good photos and growing as photographers we should concentrate on finding the right subjects, on creating the chance of reaching the right subjects for our vision, learning to see the possibilities offered us by this incredible world we live in. We also need to study and learn what’s necessary on the other side of the camera –– improving our knowledge and culture, becoming good at using our tools, learning to see, create and change light.

Putting these two levels together is in my opinion what helps making good photos, and it’s the ticket for a wonderful lifetime of curiosity and exploration.

The judgement on our photos comes both from us and from the others, and what is good today could be bad tomorrow. What really matters is not to create some utopic good photos –– that’s just a useful direction. The beauty and meaning is all in the path we walk to get there, the never-ending path of learning and living –– because photography is indeed such a precious tool for exploring life.

8 comments

  1. As always a great article. Very on point with me at the moment. I have finally broken away from the gear chasing and gone back to film. It has slowed me down and made me consider the subject. More enjoyable and better keep rate as well. Keep up the great posts.

  2. Hi, Andrea,
    Thank you, I enjoy reading your thoughts. I agree, mostly, with everything you said. Some of my personal observations:
    – subject – yes, it matters a lot. Although, most photographers have a tendency to get stuck on their subject/environment of choice, so tend to produce same pictures. Probably, this is their favorite subject or the only subject available.
    – social – absolutely. No man is an island, or can be an island even if he wants it.
    – gear – mostly, agree. From my painting days I know the quality of materials matters a lot. It’s really hard to have a relationship with a brush, or an oil pastel; but, the quality and quantity of pigment matters. With cameras, sure, they are all the same now. That’s why the focus is on subtle differences. There are subtle differences in sensors, sometimes big differences in lenses. Some people say that postprocessing fixes all. Well, one has to keep in mind that most people cannot tell a difference between a cell phone picture and a camera pic. I care a lot about subtleties. I also know that people might not be able to notice or explain the subtleties, but on a subconscious level – they do feel them. And beauty is all about the feeling. Anyhow, that’s my humble opinion. But, like I said, I agree with you 99.9%.

    1. Hi Andrei, I also agree with the concepts you expressed.

      It is true that some photographers build their own comfort zone and operate inside of it for a lifetime. I am a strong believer of going out of the comfort zone whenever possible, because that stress can be a propeller for unexpected surprises and for really improving our knowledge!

      I would like to point out that I definitely don’t mean that “gear doesn’t matter”: I always found that sentence to be a sensationalitic simplification, made for stirring controversy. What I am saying is that, in my opinion, gear is much less important than what is in front of it and behind it, when we consider the photo as a whole. Different gear can definitely bring different results –– let’s think of the optical properties of some special lenses, for instance –– but this is still secondary to me. As you rightly said, the perception of nuances differs from one person to another, so how important gear is for final results also depends on that, absolutely.

      Post production can help in many cases but it has its limits. If we don’t use a polarizing filter when shooting, there is no way we can really simulate it or fix the issues it could have prevented. If we shoot with a lens that resolves very few detail, we can’t create it in post (even if the whole AI software scam would liek to make us think the opposite). And so on. Picking the right tools for the photo is indeed also important. I just put it much lower in a scale of importance 🙂

      Thank you very much for your comment!

  3. Hi, Referring to the previous article, you’re doing great writing. This article is inspiring and necessary. Beautiful portraits, I see in them the relationship between the photographer and the model. I promise not to ask you about the equipment anymore, and I have just bought a book by Matt Black “American Geography” 🙂 In my country, in Poland, a great photographer Tomasz Tomaszewski said at one of the workshops, provoking a bit: “You cannot take good photos yet, you are too young “:) That’s how I remember and I agree that your photography is the sum of your experiences, read literature, music, travels, conversations with people … And what you write about, how you build a relationship with whom you photograph. Have a good day!!!

    1. Thank you very much for your comment Pawel, it makes me happy to know you appreciate what I write and agree with these concepts. Asking about equipment is absolutely fine though 🙂
      I also wish you a good day!

  4. Dam it, now you make me want get Z6 11 w 28, go w Leica q, and my Ricoh. I having hard time pulling trigger on Q2 because MP, I LOVE THE 24 mp on the Q, maybe I get gr111 (CARDINAL SIN) just for the 24mp. Aren’t choices grand! Ha!

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