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, late 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 what it is that makes a photo good.

«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 [or her] interest. It must say something, give something, make the viewer think and somehow enrich the 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.


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

  1. >> 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.

    >> Stopping power is that quality which makes a photograph visually unusual – “outstanding” insofar as it stands out among other pictures.


    Take care

  2. For me the emotional impact of this pictures are the people, their laughing faces, despite their, maybe, not easy life situation and the colour; it’s just great. Thank you very much, Otto.:) Very best regards Martina

  3. If I feel something it’s good for me. I don’t care about techniques nor rules. You can shot with the brain but picture speaks to the heart.

    1. Yes, to be able to get all four elements incorporated in a photo is indeed difficult. But that is one of the driving forces behind the art of photography, I believe. 🙂

  4. i like the first and the last… as i scroll through my pictures to decide which to process and post, a picture has to have stopping power for ME. and the emotional bit, i totally concur, that’s why for a few years i got made fun of for taking so many pictures of my dog and husband cuddling on the couch… it’s coz that is what drove MY heart. and hopefully that was transmitted.

  5. These are thoughtful perspectives thank you! I also enjoyed the photo of all the smiling folks you included – made me want to look carefully at each face.

  6. It is the emotional impact of some photography that I so admire. I wouldn’t have recognized Feininger by name, but when you mention Life Magazine I immediately think of many photos I’ve never forgotten from that magazine, memorable because the photos told a story and I connected emotionally.

    A funny little story of my own, Otto. In 1971 I was on my college campus when Jane Fonda visited with her anti-Vietnam war message. I was in the small student union listening when a Life photographer snapped a photo and with that I’m forever 19 years old captured in a Life Magazine story. The photo is now a Getty image and I’ve seen it on posters and other exhibits. That’s about as famous as I’ll ever be. 🙂

    1. Seems like you got you 15 minutes, then. Thanks for sharing this fun story. As for recalling Life photos, I am sure you will remember some of Feininger’s too, even if you don’t recognize his name. 🙂

  7. Otto, thank you for another informative and instructive post. To describe and analyze what we do is often what drives us forward and makes us better.

  8. Hi Otto,
    Another great post. With all the millions of cell phone pix and selfies so few people appreciate a good photo. I’m so glad you’re still here sending your message.

    Andreas Feininger’s name is familiar but I don’t know where I saw it. Most probably from my time at the Getty Museum.

    I love your picture in this post. Where did you take it?

    1. Very nice to have you back visiting my blog, Rosie. 🙂 And thank you for the encouraging words. The photo was taken in Eastern Congo and is the reunion of two children and their family after having been split up for two years as a result of the war there.

  9. As always, there are threads of commonality with writing. “Stopping power” makes me think of the importance of titles, and their accompanying images. I’ve read that two or three seconds is all we have to pull people in, as they scan the internet offerings. That’s not much time.

    As for emotional impact, I agree wholeheartedly that the photographer (or writer, or artist) has to be interested and involved in the subject at hand. More than once, I’ve told someone, “If you’re bored by a topic, the reader is going to be bored.” The poet Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Ditto, for a photographer, I’d think.

    1. I think you analysis is correct. And the same mechanisms goes for writing as for photographing. Nothing is every going to touch anyone else if it doesn’t touch the creator.

  10. I like the fact that the definitions here concern impact (emotional and intellectual) rather more than technical competence. Too often in photography too much attention is given to the ‘handwriting’ rather than the ‘message’.

    1. I totally agree with. The technical part is important, but only to some extent. In the end it’s the message that counts, the message and its impact. Thank you for this comment, Louis.

  11. Thank you for this post Otto ~ it is good in that it caused me to sit back and think first what I find most important in a good photograph and define it myself, and then to read through the list so well defined by Andreas Feininger. Photos with stopping power and emotional impact are often what can transport me to another dimension and those are the photos I hold dear.

    1. What makes Feininger’s list so interesting, is that it forces you to think about photography in more than just a superficial way. For me if a photo lacks emotional impact it doesn’t do much good for me. But then if I don’t notice it in the first place, it’s all in way anyway, so it needs to have the other qualities as well. Thank you for your comment, Randall.

  12. Thank you for another interesting and thought-provoking post, Otto. The image you paired with it certainly has those qualities. I was thinking as I looked at it that your images frequently make me want to sit and let my eyes roam over it to see all there is to see.

  13. A really educational post Otto that has had me reading it over and over again. It has made me and I am sure others re-evaluate their thoughts in regard to photography and how we approach our own methodologies.

  14. Very astute quotes.

    To truly achieve just one of these values in a single shot is a considerable challenge. To capture more than one of these attributes; especially all of them, in one shot is a major success.

  15. A great read, Otto. And a perfect photograph to go with it. It has pretty much all the attributes that you mentioned which go into the making of a good photograph.

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