A Good Photograph, What is that?

What is that makes a photograph good? Photographers through all times have pondered over this question as have artists in any other creative fields about their kind work. There isn’t really a simple answer to the question, and the opinions are definitely divided. But some time ago I came across a book by the renowned, now pasted away, photographer Andreas Feininger. The Complete Colour Photographer from 1969 is quite a thorough and remarkable book, and despite the title of the book it only has a handful of colour plates. Mostly the book consists of Feininger’s thoughts about photography, and he is expressing them very clearly and with sincerity.

One place he writes about what makes a photograph good. For him it comes down to four components: Stopping power, purpose and meaning, emotional impact and graphic quality. Let me quote a few phrases from the books, since I think Andreas Feininger has a very profound understanding and a useful perspective on the issue.

«Stopping power: To produce any kind of an effect, a photograph must first of all be noticed. Unfortunately, today, people are so satiated with photographs that a picture must have some rather unusual qualities to receive attention. To command it, a photograph must have stopping power.

Stopping power is that quality which makes a photograph visually unusual – “outstanding” insofar as it stands out among other pictures. Its essence is surprise or shock effect. Without stopping power, photographs easily go unnoticed – and an unnoticed photograph is a wasted statement.

Purpose and Meaning: To make a photograph good, more is needed than stopping power which, in essence, is merely the equivalent of a blinker light – a device to attract attention. Having caught the observer’s eye, a photograph must have something to hold his interest. It must say something, give something, make the viewer think and somehow enrich his experience. It must have purpose and meaning.

Although the terms “purpose” and “meaning” are often used interchangeably, their connotations are subtly different, and I feel that this fine distinction can be of help to the photographer. As I see it, in photography, purpose is equivalent to the intent of the photographer – the “why” of the photograph; meaning is equivalent to the content of the picture – the “what” of the photograph.

Emotional impact: In a similar way that a photograph’s purpose and meaning are aimed at the viewer’s intellectual faculties, a picture’s emotional impact is directed towards the heart.

In order to create pictures with emotional impact it is essential that the photographer himself feels the emotions which he wishes to convey to others through his work. It is for this reason that I consider genuine interest in a subject the first condition for making good photographs.

Graphic Quality: In order to communicate, a photographer must express his intent with graphic means – the lines, forms, colors, and other marks which form the picture, the instruments of visual representation indispensable to expressing ideas, concepts, and images through the medium of photography which in combination give a photograph its graphic quality.»

Andreas Feininger’s work has delighted millions of people all over the world. His pictures appeared in many European and American magazines – notably in Life, for which he was a staff photographer for nearly twenty years.


56 thoughts on “A Good Photograph, What is that?

  1. So true! For me, I would have to say that a good photograph is one that makes me truly feel something emotionally the moment that I set eyes on it. There is no delay – the feeling is immediate. Great post!

  2. As a beginner, experimenting in photography, this post is invaluable. I head out to Hawaii next weekend, and this has really given me food for thought; in fact I’m printing it out to put in my journal to take with me. Thank you!

  3. I enjoyed this post. It was especially timely for me, since believe it or not, I’m currently reading The Creative Photographer by none other than Andreas Feininger. I found the old book at an antique mall.

    1. Isn’t it always fun to find old books like that? I just checked Amazon for The Creative Photographer – and it’s available second hand, so I just ordered it myself. Thanks for the tip.

  4. That was interesting read. I agree with all of what you have mentioned… purpose and meaning and emotional connect to me are corner stones of good photograph. Without these there is little that a photograph does to me.

  5. Another excellent post Otto. I will quote, if I may, the words of Elliott Erwitt, below.

    “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
    Elliott Erwitt
    The camera always captures that single moment in time. Landscapes are beautiful, we know, but people are the subjects we notice with a passionate eye. The one you have above here, expresses what I mean, beautifully. We, the viewer, is seeing it, as you saw it, you have captured that moment.
    Thank you again, for an excellent post Otto.

  6. Hi,
    I’m not a photographer at all, but when I like a photo there is usually something in that photo that has caught my attention, something that stands out from a lot of other photos.
    I agree a very informative post.

  7. A real Informative post.
    For me a good photograph is something, which helps me to get connected with it within some moments. It is just a judgement made on the basis of some moments. Great post.

  8. Well said. I don’t consider myself a photographer, but appreciate a good photograph. Then again, what appeals to one varies from person to person … yet the four points you mentioned captured the framework behind personal preferences.

  9. This is another wonderful post dear Otto, how nice you shared with us too. Photography has been always in my life , but I never interested with photography, as today… “Andreas Feininger”, once I heard but to be honest I haven’t met with his books yet… I have met especially with some of his black and white photographs, how fascinated me. But I learn that he has books too. It seems that should be read… I noted and added to my list, I really wish to have this book. I never thought of myself as a photographer, but in times I can see camera dragging me into a new fields… To learn more makes me excited too. Thank you, with my love, nia

  10. When browsing through hundreds of thumbprints on blogs such as this, it is indeed the stopping power that has to be no.1 in photo quality. It is something that makes you want to enlarge and look for the other mentioned qualities. Excellent post.

  11. Hi, How come you didn’t put this incredible blog entry on your FB page so I can share it with my friends. Your insights help me gain such clarity on what is important. Thanks, Linda

  12. I think my brain must be wired wrong or something. I do not expressly relate to the whole “emotion” thing so much, sometimes, but not always. For me, it’s more about visual interest and the ability to draw in and mandate observation. As far as what is felt, for me it’s more base; warm, cold, etc.

    Love the write up today though. Very interesting read.

    1. You have so many good pictures on your blog and web. What makes you think a subject is visually interesting? I don’t think it’s only about colours, graphics, light and composition, or? As for myself I started out being very graphically oriented, but it was only when I went into myself so to speak and get connected with my own emotions that my pictures started to relate to others, too.

  13. Good post, very clear. I agree with all the points and personally I think specially today, with so many photos everywhere and even more in the net the”stopping power” is the first important step. It is the same when I’m in a bookshop and I have a book in my hands, give a look at a few pages and if nothing “stop” me I do not buy it, usually.

  14. Thank you, Otto. To me, Mr. Feininger has described what any art needs to contain in order to draw appropriate attention and accolades. I really appreciate you sharing this succinct and invaluable summary.

  15. A good read. Many years ago I got quite involved in speaking, exhibiting and doing some judging for camera clubs (and on two occasions) National exhibitions. The first time I had to work with others to select print images for a major exhibition, I was stunned at the speed at which we were required to work. Images were put up on the stand for viewing at the rate of one every 5 seconds!. Sounds crazy that the hard work put into a print can be assessed so rapidly. But actually for an image to ‘work’ it has to have that special quality that I could term ‘connection’. It’s either there or it isn’t and it’s a component that is critical. It’s an amalgam of the other four components you mention. Sometimes it may be mainly about the graphic quality, sometimes mainly the emotional impact etc – it varies, but it’s that ‘je ne sais quoi’ quality. Not so easy applying that to one’s own work – subjectivity then gets in the way!

    1. I took part in a workshop years ago (predigital era) with a photographer from National Geographic and he told us exactly the same thing: selection from the photo editors were done looking at the slides very quick.One after the other. Almost like a gun machine. In this way they only stop by photos which really hit the observer.

  16. I don’t consider myself much of a photographer, but I’m amazed at how every once in awhile my modest camera still captures a lovely photo of my granddaughters. I’m always both surprised and grateful. I am captivated by the middle photo in the banner at the top of your page. The warmth and smile of the older woman captivated me from the first time I opened your blog–you captured her spirit beautifully! You inspire me to take a little more time and to think a little more about my own creative process! Thank you! Debra

  17. Otto,

    I have just included your blog in my nomination list for The Versatile Blogger Award. Because you have been nominated for this one or more times before, I included the following in my announcement:

    “Some of the following bloggers may have been nominated for this award in the past and might not feel they have anything more to share, but my list would not be complete without them.”

    See the details at http://thedailygraff.com/2011/11/25/the-versatile-blogger-award/

    Keep up those great posts! –John

    1. Thank your very much for the nomination J. A. Robinson. I am very honoured to be nominated again. It will have to take some time for me to putt together another list of 15 blogs. For me this is the most important feature about the award.

  18. Thank you everybody for your responses. Since Feininger wrote those word more than 40 years ago the whole concept of photography has changed completely. Back then there was no such thing as digital photography. Still the creative process of actually producing interesting and catching photographs – in seeing, visualising, understanding and transforming the idea into a picture, hasn’t changed a bit. That’s why Andreas Feininger’s words from then still stand strong.

  19. Thank you for this piece of work, it is well presented, logical and palatable. Pictures that tell stories are the essence of photo journalism. My Dad used to say that out of a roll we will get three good pics, all the rest went in the bin. Once in a while we get ONE brilliant one. This one we would enlarge. He would never let us publish let alone print the ordinary. But now I fear i have fallen into the trap of allowing ordinary into my blog. Keeping the good work for the walls. Thank you for the timely reminder to up my game. Digital makes us so lazy!

  20. Spot on again. And again, it doesn’t have to be the perfect photo that connects with the viewer, it’s more about something in the photo that reaches out and speaks to someone looking at it.

  21. I love your words and work. As a recent newbie to photography, I am learning often the hard way what pleases me in a photo. It’s such a fine line between good and great and simply awful…so much rides on the intent when taking the photo I think. So much to learn….

  22. What a superb post. Thank you for this. I first became interested in photography late in life—joining in just as digital was taking off big time. Thus, I am still a newbie. These are lessons that resonate deeply with me, by now; but, they certainly weren’t evident a few short years ago.

  23. The secret to a timeless photo that captures both the heart and mind of the subject as well as the viewer. Surprise… Meaning…Emotinal impact…. Graphics all sum up to photo that captivates. Invaluable tips that comes from a man of experienced. For me on top of everything, I would like to add love and passion for the craft. Professional or not, beginner or master, how we feel about what we do will reflect in our work. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, experiences and amazing works. Happy Holidays to you and your family.

  24. great post! I’m going to refer back to this one, I’m sure. I often take photos simply as reference for artwork, but deep inside , there’s the urge to take a really powerful “prize-winner”!

  25. hello, munchow,

    reading through your posts, am picking up bits and pieces of technical info, or knowledge, if you will… am not good at all in taking photos but i follow through several sites related to photography. your site is different because you have discussions here. i think that’s cool… warm regards! 🙂

  26. “Stopping power.”
    I once told a class of 7 year olds that their painting needed to say, ‘LOOK AT ME’ from across the room to capture the judges’ attention and hold it. Several of the students were drawing minute little benign designs, which would never be noticed. Dear sweet Thomas had a great bold design with zebras and mountains… I made the round to other students, and when I reached Thomas again, he had scrawled with black marker, “LOOK AT ME!” in a huge cloud circle above the zebra! He’s all grown now, and I wonder if he remembers that moment!

  27. There is so much in photography, and the talented “just get it”. You see a photograph and distinctly feel, or not. That’s it.

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