What Makes Great Photography? (Part 2)

My fiancee, Caitlin, standing in a field at sunset

Caitlin (2010)

Do you ever have a great idea, one that consumes you and eats at you and makes you so excited that you can’t wait to get started on it, but then when you do, you realize you never really figured out what the plan was to make the idea come to life? That’s how this series of blog posts has been. When I came up with the idea to share my thoughts on “What Makes Great Photography?”, I had a few general guidelines in my head that I wanted to touch on.

But, as any great author can tell you, general guidelines only take you so far. So every time I went to dive into this post and write a follow-up to the first element of great photography, the element of “story,” I was at a loss and my ideas fell short.

When I sat down to finally get this thing out, I wrote a few notes on a pad to truly outline what I was wanting to say, but I had that nagging feeling that I was missing something. So, I asked the one person that has no trouble giving me her opinion: the fiancée.

I asked her right out… “What makes a great photograph for you?” She brought up the recent viral image of Champ, the world’s happiest dog, and said how a great image makes you want to know more about the subject. That’s when it hit me: I shared the importance of “story” and had “emotion,” the topic of this second part, but that nagging feeling was because I missed one of the most important pieces to the great photography puzzle: character. We will save that for another time, but I thought it would be good to understand the three parts as we start to dive into the topic of “emotion” this time.

Turn on Your Heart Light

Toddler flower girl in a cute pink dress walking with her mother during a 2012 wedding

“Step by Step” (2012)

Not only is it a great song by Neil Diamond, but it should be the goal of every photograph. In order for an image to go above and beyond the average, we know that it needs to tell a story first, but how do we guarantee that the story is told and those who see it are truly connecting with it? Emotion.

Whether it causes someone to laugh or shed a tear, emotion is the driving force behind any great story, and in that same regard, great photography. Take the image here of the toddler with her mother. I captured this during a wedding that the fiancée and I were at last summer. I recently posted this same image on Facebook and asked my fans to “like” the post if this was an “awww” moment to them. As expected, there were a number of “likes” on the post.

So what is the emotion here? Why do we immediately see a cute toddler in an adorable pink dress, holding mom’s hands, and say “awww?” That’s right… emotion. We obviously know what the story is here without me having to say it, but it’s truly the emotion that we feel, happiness, that truly makes this a great photograph from that day.

Good Emotion vs. Bad Emotion

Here’s a question to ponder for a moment – if you can’t stand looking at a particular photograph, does that mean it can’t be great photography? In my mind, absolutely not.

Row of tombstones from the U.S.S. Maine Memorial at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, DC

“Remember the Maine” (2012)

It’s been said countless times before, but let’s remind ourselves once again: all art is subjective! Personally, I find Whistler’s Mother extremely boring to look at (I’ve actually seen it in person), but I can’t argue with its place in the canon of American fine art.

What does this mean for your photography? It means you shouldn’t be afraid to explore every type of emotion when capturing an image. The images we saw from Darfur, Cambodia, Somalia, and others can be extremely upsetting to look at, but they have brought about an awareness of issues that needed to be addressed and both stories and emotions that had to be told and experienced. That’s the key to great photography.

Great photography isn’t always about smiles and rainbows and it definitely isn’t about getting as many people as possible to love your images (even if it can be a nice side effect); truly great images aim to create an emotional response of any kind in the viewer.

If someone were to pass by one of my photographs hanging in an art gallery and spent a few minutes explaining to a friend how much they don’t like the photograph or the elements that turn them off from it, I’d be happier than ever. Fine art isn’t about pleasing the masses, but to make them question, analyze, explore, and, inevitably, decide.

Shooting for Emotion

So if emotion is one of the fundamentals of great photography, but how do we capture it? Luck, patience, and experience, as happens in all great photographs. Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time; sometimes it’s knowing exactly what you want to capture and planning meticulously to get it done.

All I can say for certain is that every image, every single pixel or ounce of light you expose on film, should be looked at from the emotional angle. In fact, if you got into a shoot, whether it be a portrait session or a photojournalism assignment or even your daughter’s Sweet 16 party, you should have the stories that you want to capture already “sketched” out in your mind and the emotions you are hoping to share with the world playing on your mind as you put the viewfinder to your eye. This will get you as close as possible to the “great photography zone” so when a truly human moment arises, you’re already there with the shutter release clicked.

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