Making Good Photos Isn’t About Following the Rules

I still remember the first time a photograph really affected me. I was 9 years old and reading a Life Magazine book on the history of World War II. It contained hundreds of pictures by Life photographers — but the one that grabbed me was Robert Capa’s blurred image of soldiers landing on the beach at Normandy.

As a child, I had no idea why the picture had such an emotional impact on me. I later learned that it was a very famous image, considered one of Capa’s best — so it must have had the same effect on others, too.

What Makes a Great Photograph?

Today, many years later, I still can’t say exactly what makes a great picture — why one picture resonates with me and another one doesn’t.

If you were to read a book on photography, it would tell you the importance of composition, exposure, building interest, and so forth. But that’s not really what it’s about. If photography were about following rules, we could all agree on which images were great based on specific, objective criteria.

Of course, we don’t usually agree, do we?

How many wedding or portrait photographers have shown their clients photographs they thought were outstanding, only to have them dismissed as “boring”? Or even worse, criticized because the client doesn’t like how their hair or smile looks in the picture?

How many news photographers have had their “gems” dismissed by editors in favor of other, less interesting images – or even worse, cropped so that the initial impact of an image is lost?

I recently showed a gallery owner an image of mine that has been a favorite for years. I took it over 20 years ago, and I still consider it one of my best.

The gallery owner instantly discarded it because it “reminded her” of a newspaper ad she had once seen.

Reminded her!

It’s all very subjective and personal, isn’t it? Everyone has their own reality.

Blending Random Notes into Art

Since my teen years, I have enjoyed listening to jazz. I am fascinated by the way the musicians blend a series of seemingly random notes into music, and it just flows.

I love what jazz does to my head. For me, it’s magic. But I could never explain why it has such an impact on me. I just know that it does.

The best photography is like jazz. It doesn’t overly concern itself with rules. It reveals the passion of the artist.

All photographers have opinions about which of our images are the best ones. Sometimes editors or clients or gallery owners have other ideas. We all have to deal with that.

But if we’re fortunate, every once in a while one of our photos just clicks with people. That’s when the real magic of photography occurs. It’s when the random notes come together, and we make music.

13 Responses to “Making Good Photos Isn’t About Following the Rules”

  1. The Jazz analogy is good. For me a photograph has to have a soul.. Then it works. Focus, composition and exposure and secondary

  2. Nice post and a wonderful reminder ... thank you.

  3. Like John M said, photojournalism is one of the reasons why photography differs from picture to picture. The technical side of things is key but it's creativity that makes photography an art.

  4. Absolutely, I agree, art forms don't need to have straight rules. The emotional appeal is what its worth!

  5. It's all true! Every word you wrote. Thanks for a great post! I liked the comments, too. I also like the jazz analogy. It's got me thinking. (Which is good.)

  6. Great read. It's is all about what emotion a photograph can evoke, and to what degree it will strike a chord with the viewer, to make it memorable.

  7. The most important thing, at least with personal photography, is that the photographer himself is happy with his photos. Positive feedback is always nice but never as vital as your own gut instinct.
    Sometimes it can even be a bad influence when it leads you to produce slick crowd pleasers rather than work that sincerely resonates with yourself.

    Other peoples' reactions are sometimes very hard to predict and ultimately can't be controlled anyway. A good photo is a photo that you say is good. It's vital to develop that self knowledge and confidence with your art.

  8. I agree with Barbara, I make my shots for self pleasure...

  9. Excellent post. As others have said, the jazz analogy is a great one. However ...

    ... I believe that a photographer needs the rules, and needs to learn them well as a solid foundation.

    I'll bet you a million bucks to a dime that every single one of those great jazz musicians has played scales, and arpeggios, and formal practice pieces until their fingers were raw.

    Don't abandon the rules before you know them.

  10. This is a great read!

  11. So very true, well written...

    A Junior Photographer I took under my wing a couple of years ago because of her work started to worry too much about the 'Technical' aspects of photography once she started her Degree... I told her to forget the technical and to remember why she picked up a camera in the first place and started taking pictures.. within a month or two I started to see the 'eye' of her photographs return..

    Yes the techical aspects help pay the bills, but a powerful photograph taken because the photographer felt it was 'right' when they pressed the shutter button is worth a whole lot more!

  12. The Jazz analogy is a very good one. My background is jazz music and I agree that the great players and improvisers have a freedom we can all learn from.

    But, that freedom is not the same as an absence of rules. It's a freedom that comes through having internalised many, many, patterns, progressions, scales and arpeggios. What may sound random is often a pattern played with graceful inventiveness.

    The following animation, for example, shows how John Coltrane's Giant Steps follows some clear patterns, as it weaves in and out of three key centres.

    Amazing, but not random.

  13. Learn the technical stuff at college. Then you have to move on to real photography.

    When I first started out doing weddings I was amazed that the clients never selected the technically perfect images. So I stopped doing them. 🙂

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