What Makes a Good Photograph?

Photo by Neil Sjoblom

Each year, Life in the Finger Lakes receives over 500 entries for its photo contest. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what judges look for in a winner, although they know it when they see it. To give amateur photographers some specific tips on how to select the photos they enter in contests, we turned to our local Professional Photographers Society. They recommended an article by Connecticut photographer Roland Laramie that was featured in their recent newsletter. “The Making of a Merit Image” provides practical insight into what makes a good photograph. We think you’ll find the information helpful whether you’re a potential contest entrant, a “just-for-fun” photographer, or a shopper looking for good art.

Roland Laramie is the competition jury chairman of the 2007 Professional Photographers Association of Massachusetts, and executive director of the Professional Photographers Association of New England. Here are 12 factors he considers when judging a photograph.

1. Impact. It’s what commands you to look at a picture, the “thing” that creates that all-important first impression. A good photograph has strong, lasting impact.

2. Creativity. How fresh is the approach to the subject matter? Photo judges look for originality, creative cropping, invention and design. Creativity is the feeling and imagination that lift a photograph into the realm of art.

3. Style. Style sets your work apart from the rest and can be achieved in many different ways. Maybe your photographs look more experimental, or very real as opposed to contrived, or brand new and innovative.

4. Composition. How well is the subject matter placed and how is the photography divided and organized? Harmonious proportions and dynamic symmetry for the placement of the most important objects work best. Good rhythm can be achieved through repetition, whether it’s of color, spaces or moods.

5. Print presentation. Is the photograph enhanced by the way it is presented? Good cropping and good color for the mat or mount can add to the composition. Do you dare to be different by using a dramatic presentation, or does very traditional work best?

6. Color balance. Have interpretive colors (maybe not normal at all) or creative uses of color, like dark against light, strong against weak, or complementary colors been used? Judges are intrigued by the colors photographers select for their subject matter.

7. Center of interest. Does one object dominate, or is there an arrangement of objects so that one center-of-interest prevails? Does the subject matter hold the eye with no distractions? Secondary points are very important to the photograph, but the viewer must always be able to come back to the center of interest. Does the subject have strength and definition? Is the composition moody or misty?

8. Lighting. Lighting creates mood, and judges look for a good statement of light, especially with portraits. Dynamic lighting and a pattern of light can enhance a photograph.

9. Subject matter. Selection of the photographic model or object is key. Contrasting subjects like old and young or warm and cool show creativity. Judges are looking for an outstanding interpretation and a good camera angle.

10. Print quality. The simplest statements are the strongest, like a good angle on a building, or a background in key with the subject matter. Judges look for good, strong contrast using the middle tones, plus good color balance, expressions and artistic lighting.

11. Technique. Technique is the foundation of photography, but knowledge of art principles is a necessity. Using a creative and abstract approach helps to make a successful photograph. Good design brings abstract ideas into concrete form.

12. Storytelling. A good photograph tells a complete story or makes a strong statement. It achieves a purpose. The first glance at a photograph should create meaning, a strong mood, a powerful emotion or all three. It helps to use strong complementary colors next to each other.