Alias: 'Disco Dude'

High Definition Professional Photography
By Photographer Dan Harris

~ located in the historic San Marco district ~
1124 Riviera St.  Jacksonville, FL  32207 (904) 398-7668

What makes a good photograph? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!
(when good photography goes bad) by Jacksonville Florida Photographer Dan Harris

Maybe you're new to photography or have just recently been put in a position where you have to choose photographs and determine which ones are better than others or maybe you just need a quick refresher course. You've come to the right place. This free online instructional lesson is provided as a public service to help assist the novice at being able to determine the basics of what separates a GOOD photograph from a BAD one.

With the advent of affordable digital cameras, cell phones and printers, general interest in photography has risen dramatically. Today most anyone with a basic digital camera (or cell phone), computer and printer can create a website, post a blog, send images, publish a local newsletter or even print a magazine or newsletter. The good news is communication is quicker, easier and not as cost prohibitive as it once was. The bad news: the market is being flooded by unprofessional, inferior-quality images, we see them daily. The sad part: many people don't know the difference. Our purpose today is to go through some of the basics so at the end of this lesson you will be able to easily recognize poor-quality photography. (Even if it is printed as an impressive ad in an expensive magazine) The subtle differences between good photography and great photography will take a lifetime of education and experience to learn, so we won't cover that in this lesson.

What makes a good photograph? Just like your favorite artwork, a good photograph is one that YOU like! Art that the critics would label as 'good' typically follows the traditional rules that contribute to the visual cohesiveness of the piece. The basic elements and quantifiable characteristics which are easy to grasp and use to evaluate an image or work of art are the same as you learned in fifth grade: the basic 5 elements of art: Line, Shape, Color, Pattern and Composition. These same elements apply to the 'rules' of photography.

Very few people argue about the 'rules' in math or science but when it comes to art many people argue that the 'rules' don't apply. I propose that in the visual arts there are basic rules that have applied for thousands of years and still apply today. These 'rules', when followed, will make a work more visually pleasing than one that doesn't follow the rules. A piece of artwork or a photograph that follows every rule still doesn't necessarily make it a masterpiece, although most masterpieces follow most rules. There are always exceptions to the rules and in art, the work that really shines may break some rules in one area but may make-up for it in others.

Photography is both an art and a science. If you break the science rules you won't have a photograph. If you break the art rules you may have a photograph and even a cool piece of art, but it may not be as good as it could have been. If you learn the art rules and then apply them to the best advantage and sacrifice some for the sake of others to communicate your message in a meaningful and universal way you may create a masterpiece. If you never learn the rules you won't know how to apply them and when to break them and your successful works will only be by accident rather than with purpose.

In photography the 'Elements of Art' are more further described as: Light; Color, Tone and Contrast; Texture (pattern); Focus and Depth of Field; Viewpoint; Space and Perspective (shape); Line; Balance and Composition.

The basic 'trick' of photography is to take a 2-dimensional medium (flat piece of paper or computer screen) and make it look 3-dimensional (more like the eye sees). A photograph that succeeds at this first objective is worthy of further consideration. If it fails on this point, it probably won't do well on many others.

Let's say I were a corporate buyer of photography or a bride looking for a good photographer comparing lots of different images, before I got too emotionally involved in the images, I would first evaluate the technical aspects of the photography. Evaluating images on a quantitative, scientific, rational level is much easier than an emotional or personal preference (taste) level. (That's also why the favorite picture you took may not be 'technically sound' from a 'rules' standpoint but does the most for you on an emotional level based on the time, place, people, etc. and it may not do the same emotionally for someone else --remember uncle Ed's vacation photos?) I would quickly view images looking for 'unintentional' technical problems; no detail in the highlights or shadows, too dark, too light, bad-harsh lighting, strange shadows, un-natural looking poses, strange color casts i.e. blue, purple or orange wedding dresses or skin-tones, etc. Every photographer will have some good images and some bad ones, if they are showing you the 'best of their best' and there are a lot with technical problems you will quickly recognize that the one or two 'cool images' in their portfolio are accidents and may never be repeated again

More often in photography than in art, there is a specific purpose for which the photography was produced. When good photography goes bad is when the image is appealing but then later delivers disappointment when you discover you can't do with it what was hoped for. i.e. cool picture on your camera phone doesn't print well and can't be enjoyed on display. So often the same problem happens when an image looks great on that small computer screen on the back of your digital camera but looks blurry when enlarged and useless for print or commercial purposes.

Because photography is the 'recording of light' a good starting point in photography is the light, without it --there is no image. If I were looking at images to determine the best I would first look for the light --which really means you would look at the reflections of light in the image and the shadows that the light casts in the image. Is the light adding to or distracting from the image? Is it consistent with what the image is trying to convey? (harsh light on soft skin is unflattering) Does the light call attention to itself? Does the light add depth and dimension? or is it flat (straight on) creating a one-dimensional image? Too often a harsh on-camera flash creates ugly and un-natural looking shadows behind and to the side of the subject. Is this what the photographer wanted to create? OR does their choice and use of light tell you they really weren't paying attention? (still writing . . . more to follow)


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