What makes a good photo? Why do some photos succeed while others fail? What is a good photo versus a bad photo? I often look in awe at other photographers’ images from the places I’ve been and think, “how did they see that?”
I went out into the online world in search of answers. How did they see that, and can you and I see it too?
I asked some my favorite great photographers one question.
The format was completely open ended; these great photographers were free to include as much or as little as they wanted.
“What is the most important element of a good photo?”
The shooting styles and photographic resumes of these photographers vary greatly, but they all have one thing in common: their work inspires me. Their photographs are beautiful to look at, they’re deeply emotive, and they drive me to become better. I highly recommend taking a look at each of their sites and following them as I do. After all, who better to learn from than the people who inspire us?
Presenting the photographers and their answers:
“I always teach my workshop students you want someone to feel something, some sort of an emotion when they look at your images. That could be curiosity, anger, sadness, happiness, etc. The most important element of a photo to me is its ability to evoke emotion.”
Justin is an award winning photographer. He’s worked with The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Forbes, Conde Nast Traveler, and National Geographic Traveler, just to name a few. Read more about Justin and view his breathtaking work at https://www.justinmott.com/
“You have to really care about whatever you’re shooting. I know it sounds like a cliché but when I first started taking photos, like most amateur photographers, I would shoot everything in sight. Flowers. Doorknobs. Nascar. It didn’t matter that I didn’t care about pretty flowers, door knobs or cars going in circles, I just took photos of them because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re holding a big camera and something ‘cool’ is in front of you and you wanted to take a good photo.
“After the first million or whatever shots, I stopped my serial shooting spree. Now I don’t shoot as much but I’m always looking. One of my favorite parts about being a photographer is that it forces you to pay attention to things ordinary people may take for granted, or worse, not even notice. Light. Weather. Seasons. Most of my favorite shots were often taken at quick bursts — when inspiration struck and I was mentally and physically in a glorious state.”
Tanveer is a travel and wedding photographer who’s done work from the USA to Bangladesh and everywhere in between. See more of Tanveer’s stunning photography at https://www.tanveerbadal.com
“After spending 10 years hung up in the technicalities of photography, I’ve come to appreciate that a good photograph is one that causes some sort of emotional response. We’re bombarded with so much imagery that our most common response to photography is indifference whether they are good images or not. If an image surprises me through an unusual view, wows me through its sheer beauty or makes me angry by showing injustice, it is a good photograph. It could be technically terrible, poorly composed and horribly exposed, but if it causes an emotional response, it will be memorable and therefore successful.”
Jon and his wife Tina are freelance photographers based in London. Their professional work has been used in magazines, print, web advertisements, and designer look books. See more of Jon and Tina’s incredible photography at https://www.nomadicvision.com/, and view their fashion and lifestyle work here: https://jonreid.net/
“Good photographs put you in a particular moment in time, they tell a story, or they speak to your emotions. The most important element of a great photograph is that it does all of the above. That’s what makes great pictures, great pictures.”
Larissa does things with her iPhone that make me and my fancy DSLR envious. Her creativity permeates her photos through her beautiful editing style. View more of her moving images here: https://blonde-gypsy.com/
“The ability to capture a frame with some element of intrigue is highly important when making a good photograph. This is going to keep your audience captivated. The intriguing element will invite your viewer into your scene allowing them to create their own narrative. What makes a great photographer? The ability to visualize emotion through your lens.”
Colin has worked with AFAR Magazine, Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, Groove Magazine, and others. View more of his captivating photography here: https://www.colinroohanphotography.com/
“When you are talking to good photographers, you are going to get a lot of technical tips, but I think the most important aspect to make a good photograph would have to be: interesting and engaging subject matter. Even if certain technical aspects are not well executed such as focus and composition, there can still be a reason for finding the photo meaningful. Ideally, engaging subject matter, lighting, composition and a sharp focal point are the most important aspects, collaboratively. Interesting lighting in photography is most fundamental, composition contributes in giving impact and aesthetic merit, and a part of the photo in good focus to draw our attention to the subject are very important. But an uninteresting subject matter for me will still leave a photo with little appeal even if all the other technical aspects mentioned are well executed.
“Everybody finds different subjects in photography appealing to varying degrees, which is why photography is subjective. But if we can find subject matter that a large percentage of people will be drawn to and they find stimulating, then we are starting to achieve amazing photography.”
David’s expert use of color and light draws his viewers in and keeps them there. In 2012 he won the travel category of the Smithsonian Photography Competition, and his work is frequently published in travel and photography magazines. David hails from Brisbane, Australia, and he has been traveling annually since 2004. View more of David’s masterful work: https://davidlazarphoto.com/
“The most important element to me is not necessarily tangible. A good photograph must make the viewer care, engaged. How it makes a viewer engaged can be achieved in different ways, composition, light, the choice of subject – any or all of these — all of these help answer the question “what makes a great photographer?”
Mitchell is a professional photographer and author who’s been published in a wide variety of books and magazines including the NY Institute of Photography Book “Top Travel Photo Tips” and Lonely Planet Traveler. View more of his powerful images: https://www.mitchellkphotos.com/ and check out his current project here: Eyevoyage
“The most important element of a good photo is the ability of the photograph to communicate with the viewer. It should be able to tell a story through its composition, lighting, and most importantly its subject matter.”
Dario is an American photographer living in the Netherlands. He shoots a wide variety of genres including travel, wedding, portrait, and underwater scenes. His goal is to cover as much of the globe as possible, and he’s well on his way having visited more than 30 countries. Read Dario’s stories and see more of his brilliant photographs at his website: https://www.darioendara.com/
“The most important element of good images is the story that it tells. I don’t believe that you need to be a professional to take a great photograph; as long as you have a grasp of composition and lighting you should be ok. My favourite photographs are always the ones that evoke a feeling or a memory, transporting you to another place and time. Often this means avoiding the obvious shot, and instead trying to capture the images that reflect the story of your individual experience to create something unique.”
Clare primarily shoots digital and she edits her photos to a classical perfection that’d be easy to mistake for film. Her photography style had me hooked as soon as I came upon her website. She’s embarking on a round the world trip later this year.
The most important element of a good photograph is, “to capture the energy of the subject. Too many people think the question is — what makes a good photographer — when the real question is how you watch and observe a scene before you even click your camera lens. Great photographers are all great observers first.”
Mark photographs patterns and movements in natural light. He sometimes blurs the images to take away the hard edges, and he looks within his subjects to capture the core energy. See more of his beautiful imagery at his website: www.marktimothystudios.com/
“If you survey great photographers, the answer is subjective to the type of photograph and we are talking about. There is a big difference between a newsworthy photograph, fashion photographs, travel photographs, food photographs, and so forth.
“Even breaking it down within one genre like travel can be difficult. For the type of travel photography that I do, the most important element would have to be the sense of awe that the photograph conveys to the viewer. If the reaction to one of my photographs is that the viewer wishes he or she could visit that location then I’m doing something right.”
Over the last ten years Ken has been shooting commercial lifestyle images with stock photography agencies including Alamy, Jupiterimages, Corbis and Getty Images. His travels are extensive and ongoing, and he has been making good photos and sharing his experiences on popular travel photography websites on the internet over all that time.
“If we are talking about a portrait of a human, then I think the emotional element will trump all others. That is not to say that composition, the technical side of the image shouldn’t be there i.e. correct exposure, focus, and so forth. But I think history remembers the emotional images as the good photos more than the technically perfect ones. Mind you, not every portrait has such great emotion, but even in the stoic face we must feel something, a connection with the subject. To me this trumps everything else and I think great photographers would universally agree.”
Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian, travel photographer, and author who collaborates with NGOs to tell their stories and train their field staff to do the same. His images have been used by clients such as Partner Aid International, NeighborWorks, the BBC, Honda Motor Corporation, and Bombadier Transport Corporation, Asian Geographic, KLM Airlines and others. View more of Matt’s spectacular work at his website: https://www.thedigitaltrekker.com/
“Light! The ability of light to transform a subject or scene from the ordinary to the extraordinary is one of the most powerful tools at the photographer’s disposal in order to produce a good photo. Given all other things are equal: it is the light that a photographer shoots in that sets images apart and takes a bad photo to a great photo quickly.”
Richard literally wrote the book on travel photography, having authored Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography. He’s been traveling for over 30 years, and he’s visited 85 countries and all 7 continents. He’s published a total of 10 books, and when he’s not traveling he lives at home in Sydney, Australia. View more of his amazing work at his website: https://richardianson.com/
What I learned
This project is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, and I’m really honored that each of these supremely talented photographers wanted to participate. Despite having such varied shooting styles and backgrounds, each of these great photographers are focused on very similar fundamentals. By extension then, anyone who wants to take better pictures should focus on these fundamentals as well.
Also worth noting is that none of these photographers mentioned their camera gear when answering this question. I don’t know what kind of cameras were used to make these images, but does it matter? The photographers created the images you see here, and gaining insight into what they were thinking is far more valuable than knowing what kind of gear was used.
What an excellent article and a great source of inspiration. I’m sure I’ll be referring back to this on a regular basis. Thanks for putting in all the research and collating this.
Thank you Jon for being a part of this; truly incredible shots on your website.
Cheers for including me, Graham! Was interesting to read what everyone else had to say and not surprised emotion/reaction were brought up quite a bit. I’m going to have to check out some of these photographers I’m not yet familiar with, great stuff here!
Cheers for participating Olenicoff 🙂
Thanks so much for including me Graham 🙂 and for the inspiration from so many amazing photographers! Such a great article, and as Larissa says – interesting to see several people talk about emotions and responses rather than gear or specific technique.
It was great to have your participation Clare. Can’t wait to see more of your work especially once you start your RTW trip!
Thanks for the write-up. I couldn’t agree more with your ‘What I Learned’ conclusion. A sure way to insult a photographer is to look at one of their images and say, “wow, your camera’s amazing!”. The comment is well-intended but it completely dismisses the person behind the lens. Yes, I have expensive equipment, but I also travel with a compact camera. The last time someone made that comment about one of my photos, I replied that it was shot with a waterproof point-and-shoot (which is the truth).
Good stuff Helen! I always take it as a compliment, albeit an uninformed one.
Amazing photos! I personally like the one capture by an iphone.. I realized that a great photo can also be captured by a non-dslr camera. I’m inspired… Thanks!
Yeah I really like that one as well. Olenicoff’s work is truly inspiring.
Thanks for the inclusion, there is some serious talent above and to be included in their ranks is an honor.
It’s an honor to have so many amazing photographers participating, thanks a lot for being a part of this Colin.
Great post, it inspired me to go out right now and get some shots! Also, although I do agree that it’s not about the gear, you have to take into account the quality of image a better camera and lens will produce. Take the same image with a point and shoot as you do with a dslr and you will have two different pictures.
You also get to play with the light and have more control over what you can capture. Before I upgraded cameras there where a lot of shots I simply couldn’t take because of features my camera was lacking.
Thanks Gabriel. I’d like to fully explore the question of how much to spend on a travel camera, and what minimum quality will suffice in my next post here.
As a regular person who loves to travel, I learned that taking less photos with more emotion is the key. Thanks
Sounds like a good recipe Gay.
Great post and great work. I love looking at (and taking) travel photography. I also love looking at work that inspires me to travel 😀
Thanks for the comment Chanel. I totally agree; can’t wait to go to some of these places!
I like your end conclusion – the equipment and technical aspects are not the most important thing by any means – it is the subject, the lighting, the emotion, the mood… all things that come from a creative and artistic mind – not a technical one.
Thanks David, it was really great to have your input on this. Nobody asks a painter what kind of paintbrush they used.
“Nobody asks a painter what kind of paintbrush they used.”
That’s a good one!
Great advice from some of the best!
Totally agree Morgan – the photographers here are the best!
So many amazing shots in this post! I wish I could take photos like these. That woman’s teeth suggest she’s had a few too many cigars don’t they?! Use her in the no smoking campaigns and it could save the NHS millions!
Not a bad idea! I hear there’s another big cigar aficionado around Go See Write… (!)
Love love loved this! It is so true when you first get a big fancy camera you shoot anything and everything. I have taken a lot from this article, its motivated me to search for what most people don’t see, capture emotion and tell a story. Thanks for the incredible article and cheers to the super talented photographers for their words of wisdom.
Thanks for the comment Jaryd.
These photographers’ comments and their photos are most definitely print-worthy for inspiration.
““The most important element of a good photograph is the ability of the photo to communicate with the viewer.” – I have to agree with Dario on this one, I usually look at pictures and try to decipher what they telling me. Thanks for sharing all these wonderful outlooks on photography.
these are all so amazing! Love the one with the lady smoking the cigar
Hard to pick a favorite among so many different and incredible shots isn’t it!
What a great post and yes it did influence the way I will think about taking better photos in the future. I enjoyed each of the photos and the photographers thoughts on what makes a good photograph. I will definitely be referring to their suggestions in the future. Thanks for this very informative post.
Great story…just goes to show it’s all in the mind and eye of the photographer…there’s just no single answer,cookbook receipe, or even a great photo button on a camera…(at least not yet)….
Beautiful shots these. But pray tell me why the fascination with old people lighting up?! Dario’s portrait of that old woman with a cigar in her mouth does seem striking. Would you happen to know if the makeup and the embellishments were put on specially for the shot? Quite a feisty lady, must say.
Nice photos even if some are pushing too much HDR