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Dissecting elements of a good photograph

John Enman column
John Enman photo.

What is a good photograph?

I was showing a friend pictures in an old 1935 photography magazine and had that thought.

I could start by suggesting that a good photograph includes proper composition, exposure, and an interesting perspective. A good photograph is one that makes us have a connection with the subject. It could help us understand what the photographer feels about that subject and can, if successful, evoke some kind of mood, whether good or bad.

When I see a photograph that I like I usually begin dissecting it to try to figure out how the photographer made it. (That’s mostly because I have been studying photography and other photographers for years).

When the photograph is good I am aware that the photographer had an understanding of his or her equipment and is creative with the subject. However, I sometimes have to stop dissecting and just enjoy the photograph.

As I mused about the question of a good photograph, I thought it might be of interest to include quotes from some of the great photographers. On the subject of a great photograph, Ansel Adams said, “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.”

He continues, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

And then he says, “Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Does this subject move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print - my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey - from the subject before me?” “

I also like his short quips, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it” and “a good photograph is knowing where to stand.”

Then he reminds us: “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”

The famous photographer, Elliott Porter, maker of spectacular scenic colour images, commented: “You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis; you get better the more you play. The more you look around at things, the more you see. The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed. You just have to keep doing it.”

Irving Penn, known for his editorial photographs in Vogue magazine, stated “a good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.

“Photographing a cake can be art.”

I read the words of these famous photographers and think how each one has inspired me to work harder at making photographs that go beyond just a documentary of a particular subject.

Like most photographers today I am tempted by the lure of manufacturers that more and newer camera equipment is the answer to the question of “what do I need to take better pictures?”

I will end the comments from these great landscape photographers with one from Galen Rowell: “I almost never set out to photograph a landscape, nor do I think of my camera as a means of recording a mountain or an animal unless I absolutely need a ‘record shot’. My first thought is always of light.”

What is a good photograph and how do you take it? As I said, that’s not so easy to answer.

My recommendation is to use the Internet or your local library to look at photographs and read the words of those photographers that have had such an impact on the medium of photography. If you are like me you will find inspiration that will help to make that good photograph.

Stay safe and be creative. These are my thoughts for this week. Contact me at or

The Pritchard Bridge (John Enman photo).