What is “The Thing” That Makes a Great Photograph?

Family PortraitGreat Photographs Aren’t Accidents, They are Created

As I started with that first Leica 35mm rangefinder camera and a roll of B&W film, honestly, I felt like I had found something intimidating and overwhelming- for about 5 minutes. I felt that learning to load the film, set the shutter speed and f-stop was going to be a task I could perhaps learn to do, and if the film was still “good”, it would allow me to snap a few photographs of family and friends that I would want to see and share with others. Little did I know that those early photographs were going to be some of the most cherished ones I ever took.

As soon as the “pictures” came back from the Lab, I was hooked! I managed to overcome the overwhelmed feeling since I actually had managed to “take a picture” with a camera that only “advanced” photographers could master. Well, I was FAR from a master, but I managed to get through Step One of a lifetime of learning and change. Film is almost non-existent and Digital is the present and the mass of people today can photographs almost at will these days.

“The Thing” We Seek to Achieve

So what makes a really GREAT photograph? This is the $64,000 question that many people ask and never seem to find the answer to.

For me, it was a journey to find the answer. Technically I was spot on in my photography. Composition was within all of the “rules”, exposure was excellent, quality was precise and price was well within the budget of most people. But what was it that made some people just look at my photographs and go “nice picture” and others place orders larger than I could imagine. Heck, ALL of the photographs were technically good, yet some people fell in love, and others fell in “like”. I wanted people to LOVE everything I did, yet that wasn’t always the case.

The Family Photo Album

Have you ever sat down with your infamous “family photo album”. Or perhaps you have one of those boxes that you know “someday” you will get all the photos in there IN an actual album. You open it up, start looking at the photographs and some make you laugh and some make you cry. And if you are Professional, you too have your “favorites”- the ones you look at over and over and show to clients as they too bring something that touches you that only that 1 in a few thousand do. What is it that makes YOU know why that photograph is important or not?

Why do some husbands and wives look through their wedding photographs and are all excited and happy over those photographs and others “wish they had better photographs of our wedding”? Why is it that a bride can see that ONE photograph that brings her to tears every time she sees it and with others, there isn’t even an emotion inside that can be stirred when she looks at ALL of hers?

Why is it that the old photograph of someone in your family- perhaps your Mom or Uncle Charlie- that has half their head chopped off, is poorly exposed, is fuzzy and out of focus , and overall very BAD from a photography standpoint, but every time you see it, you want to shed tears? How can that “worst picture” you have be so important that if it was to get lost or destroyed, it would be a real loss in your life?

The Last Portrait

When I was first starting out as a photographer, I was fortunate enough to actually have a set of studio strobes when I was 18. Now THAT was a treat back “in the day” if you will. Only the school photographer or the Studio in town had those. But to have them in your HOME studio, well THAT was almost unheard of. I made a LOT of portraits with those lights. They were big, bulky, had a 30 lb slave unit and none of the modifiers we have today. But they made great portrait lighting and I was well on my way! I even used them in weddings since they threw out so much light you could light a cathedral, and with film, that was important.

I only knew my maternal Grandparents as my Dad’s parents passed when he was a kid. My “Pawpaw and Mawmaw” were as important in my life as my parents were. They were hard working people and taught me a lot over their years here. Both are gone now and I miss them dearly.

Soon after I had really learned how those studio strobes worked, I had my grandparents over at my “studio”- which was in Mom and Dad’s basement- and sat them down for a B&W portrait. I later “colorized” it with some oil paints you could get at the time, made for photographs. Now if you saw that photograph, you wouldn’t see a darn thing special about it. It’s your usual fair for “family portraits”. It’s a simple 11×14 portrait with a traditional pose and mounted in a plain wooden frame. Its displayed on a wall in my Mom’s home to this day.

Every time I see this photograph, I am reminded that it is truly special. It’s special to my Mom, because it is one that I took and because it is of her Mother and Dad. It is special to me, because it was the last portrait made of my Grandparents and one that someday, I will have displayed in my home too. It is one that I will pass on to my daughter and hopefully she will pass it on to my grand kids.

But it’s JUST A PHOTOGRAPH! And your “average”, standard fare, standard pose, and done “in an era” that wasn’t special or anything. But that portrait means more to me than perhaps the OTHER half a million or so photographs I have ever taken. It had NOTHING to do with the fact I took it, processed the film, made the print or anything like that either!

Telling the Story

When someone gets that first DSLR camera, one of the first things they usually ask is how can I make my photographs better. They really DO want to know and like a lot of photographers, we’ll start talking about composition, f-stops and exposure and lighting. Each of those elements ARE important, but NONE quite as important as this.

Have you ever looked at a painting OR a photograph and something inside begins to stir and move you in a way that you can’t really explain? If you do, then that image did what it was supposed to do- it TOLD THE STORY of something that you instantly connect with. So why is it that if you showed your “family photo’s” to someone else, they see “pictures” that have no meaning and are well, “just pictures”? But to YOU they are priceless. One of the first things you hear from people who have had a fire or flood of their homes is “We lost all our photos”.

Now here is the reason great photographs are CREATED and no accident. Every photograph ever made will have a connection to the people, places or things in our lives that bring back memories. Some may be good, others great, and others not either. But they MUST tell a story in that photograph of something that means more than “it’s just a picture”. This is what separates a GREAT photographer from an average photographer. We tend to get “hung up” on the mechanics and fail to connect with the REAL reason people love their photographs and it’s that EMOTIONAL CONNECTION people feel when they see a “picture” that drives them to keep it forever. Every photograph you take needs to tell a story of a brief moment in time that someone, somewhere is going to see it and instantly have a connection OR if they don’t, then YOU as a photographer didn’t find that EMOTIONAL REASON that people will see it and instantly shed a tear or laugh uncontrollably.

And THAT is how you create a great photograph and why there are few great ones created “accidentally”. It’s perhaps the one thing we as photographers forget the most and often times why that horribly composed, under exposed, and out of focus photograph means more to people than the one that is perfect in every way. We must find that emotional reason we are taking that photograph BEFORE we press the shutter and when we do, we have made that connection in that one image that stirs things inside people in a way that no other form of “art” or “science” can possibly do.

This is why I hear photographers often asked by their spouses, “did you make a photograph today?”. Often times the answer is no. Because we didn’t make one today that when everyone sees it, that emotional stir begins inside. But if we made a photograph that the ones we made it of have that stir, then we accomplished that goal fully and with pride. That’s what makes what we do rewarding and keeps up constantly trying to improve and take another step in achieving excellence. It’s the way some of the greatest photographers past and present did things and did so in a way we often recognize their photographs before we know who took is. It is “the thing” we each strive for and can achieve.

 

 

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