#562. What makes a good photograph? Emotional connection.
This is a photograph made with my 2 year-old soon to be last-but-two generation Samsung Galaxy S6 Smartphone camera. I wasn’t sitting next to the window and asked to reach in front of the passenger who was, for a quick snap of these salt marshes near Marseilles. It isn’t even straight, I didn’t choose the cleanest patch of window and nothing is perfect about the execution of this shot.
And yet I consider this to be a good photograph.
You might not agree. But, before I take objections, let me restate “good photograph”. Not great photograph. Not one in a lifetime photograph. Not something you’d see on a gallery wall. But a good photograph nonetheless.
It shows something unusual and slightly exotic in nice light, with the bright and colourful foreground context of an Easyjet engine (the best airline in the world now that they’ve recruited my son to fly their lovely planes 🙂 ) Then, there’s the large expanse of water, the distant hills, the wispy blue sky …
It shows something that grabbed my attention strongly enough to get me out of Han Solo’s youth novels and that many others can connect to instantly. No one will buy it at an auction for historical value but many will stare at for a couple of seconds and think “nice 🙂 ” before moving on to something else.
Same thing below.
A rather gloomy view out of my hotel window in Bordeaux, but one in which the blue windows lighten up the generally grey frame just enough to create interest and one in which the (chance) alignment of buildings gives the shot a poor man’s Burtinsky feel.
Again, no prize winner here. No million buck capture. No proof of eternal genius. Not even really level …
But a photograph good enough to make most look and connect. It’s not going to change anyone’s life but it certainly isn’t boring and, in ways completely opposite to the first, it can grab attention enough to relate and feel something.
This isn’t one of these articles in which I get all worked up about the power of the Smartphone, don’t go 😉 Although, having struggled to find a decent solution to create simple panoramas on a Mac, the ability to just sweep my phone from left to right and get this (above) is rather nice to have.
No, the photographs on this page are all from my semi-ancient Smartphone just to illustrate that good has nothing to do with gear.
Heck one of the photographs (below) has even been automatically “enhanced” by Google. The algorithm cropped, added monochrome treatment and handled contrast without even asking me permission to do so. The scary part is that it works so well …
So, what am I saying and why ?
Something very simple. No technology or philosophy required.
A good photograph is one that shows something the author reacted to and to which others can relate emotionally.
Below is a view from the bed of a campervan we recently rented to tour the Bassin d’Arcachon, showing my wife’s book and the trees outside seen before sunrise through the curtains.
The inside is underexposed but we all understand the photograph nonetheless.
Not everyone will connect. But anyone who has enjoyed the luxury and warmth of a mobile 4 star bedroom in a cold wintry landscape will immediately recognise the feeling and relate to this photograph. It will bring back memories of their own experiences. They will peek out of the window to try to recognise the location, scan the outside of the frame in search of clues about the type of van (Carado T348*) …
As to why I’m sharing all these technically mediocre shots that will never live the glory of a wall hanging, it’s simple too.
We’ve been talking about training and practice a lot recently. Philippe wrote the very inspiring Are ballet dancers better photographers? about this very topic just a few days ago.
Practicing is, by far, the most important ingredient of becoming a better photographer. Some have more natural talent than others but untrained talent always wanes. And the photographer who practices always ends up being the better one.
So, my reason for publishing these holiday snaps is this: when in practice mode, practise making good photos!
“Wow!” you’re thinking 😉 “Now that’s unparalleled consumer advice ! Where do I sign up. How can I send you all my money?”
You shouldn’t make fun of me, I reply pulling my tongue.
Go back to the top. I didn’t write masterful shots, gallery shots or anything like that.
Practise making good shots, shots that you are certain some people will connect with emotionally.
I know some will look at this above and search for clues (our Carado T348 on the left, a companion Eriba Jet integral on the right, neighbours in the middle, all in the car park of the Dune du Pilat at sunrise). Others will just recognise some compositional effort and find no interest beyond that.
Below is a shot made half a mile away. Many more viewers will relate to this than to the previous one.
This, below, is from the small town of Biscarosse, which comes closer to a Western Australian surfing spot than anywhere else I’ve visited in France.
I took the shot for my friend Karim who enjoys tattoos and exotic bikes. Similarly minded people will connect with it just as much even though it is over exposed, needs cropping on the right, some work on colour …
This (below) was grabbed on the motorway driving back to the rental place, just before my wife had a fit and ripped the phone out of my hands. For that hilarious memory and for the dreamy mysterious look, I love it. And the light is bound to appeal to the landscape photography crowd here.
Below is the train station in Bordeaux. It’s been in that state of constant expansion / repair work for as long as my relatives in Bordeaux remember. They told me about it, complaining about the feeling that it would never end.
Poorly managed highlight? Chromatic aberration? Skewed horizon? I don’t care. It gives center stage to the scaffolding and grabs anyone’s attention for as long as they haven’t worked out what it is they are seeing. It’s a good photograph.
Inside a great pancake restaurant in Bordeaux. Retro charm.
Outside my hotel. Graphical appeal and light. Composition.
And so on. And so on …
What I’m getting at is that, unlike the artists (such as Philippe’s concert pianist mother) who have to practise thousands of hours to gain technical mastery over a very challenging tool and score, we have access to super easy gear and no given track to rehearse.
Our score is the human emotional palette. Our scales are individual human emotions.
Much like marketers are required to understand their public very well in order to deliver great content and experiences, photographers need to understand what fellow humans react to, why and how.
The golden light postcard below is counterbalanced by the weird trees slapped in front of the church. The lovely evening glow meets the less conventional shapes of the branches making this contrast in emotions more interesting than a simple heartwarming or gloomy image.
The kinship created by the same colour created a mother-cub relationship in this photograph that’s a lot more about nurturing than it is about heavy machinery.
This is an unashamed postcard. Sunrise on a cafe terrace surrounded by beautiful stone buildings. Too easy … But why not, if it makes someone click and think “hey, next time, why don’t we go to Bordeaux instead of Paris ?”
This could be all about composition. But it isn’t. Those are wine bottles from all of the local producers in Pessac Leognan, Margaux, St Emilion, St Estephe, Pomerol, Medoc … but also others from the whole wild world. There are hundreds of bottles here and the framing suggests thousands more. Any wine lover is going to have an erotic dream after this.
And what if I cheated, added some text to explain that ALL of those below are from Haut-Brion, Suduiraut, Cheval Blanc, Margaux, Chasse Spleen, Palmer, Ducru Beaucaillou, Yquem, Latour, Petrus, Lynch-Bages, La Lagune, Brane Cantenac, Lafite …
But I won’t because that would be cheating. A good photo must work on its own and let the imagination run free !
So here’s a little exercise, in closing. Find 20 of your current fave photographs and try to analyse what emotion they create in you. When you are able to recognise and put a name on them, you’ll also be able to identify them in a scene and instil your photographs with them. What say you?
Awe, terror, love, kinship, nurturing, yuck, lust, cuddle, mystery, pride, grandeur …
Let’s compile a list. What emotions do you think are best suited to photographic transcription? Tough one, I need your help on this 😉