#562. What makes a good photograph? Emotional connection.

By pascaljappy | How-To

Feb 24

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 πŸ™‚ ) 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 πŸ™‚ ” 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 πŸ˜‰ 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 inspiringΒ 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 πŸ˜‰ “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 …Β  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 πŸ˜‰



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  • jc wilson says:

    I think any list would become instantly obsolete because it would be both inclusive (whats on the list) and exclusive (what’s not on the list). Any human emotion is suited to artistic transcription and that includes photography. Let’s not forget that we all see differently and while there may be some images that we can agree on that convey a particular emotion, we can have very divergent reactions to any image. The reaction we have to a particular image is dependent on what we the viewer bring to the viewing – emotionally, psychologically, experientially, how you happen to feel at the moment …

    Ultimately, in art, there’s no one size fits all.

    • pascaljappy says:

      “Any human emotion is suited to artistic transcription and that includes photography.”

      Yes indeed !

      Hi JC, thanks for the comment. I agree entirely with what you say, in particular with the above and the fact that we can have reactions to a photograph that diverge from others, or even from day to day.

      That’s why I suggest people analyse how photographs they like make them feel. It’s just a way of putting words on images and learning to recognise the idea/emotion in real life.

      The list is just to provide a set of ideas. As you say, it could never be comprehensive or consistent.

      All the best,

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Can’t help you with that one, Pascal. After my brother died in a car crash nearly 49 years ago, I went into a kind of state of shock – presumably one of “mother nature’s protective measures”, when something is too hard to deal with, so you don’t – and for decades afterwards I had no emotional life. Even now, it’s wonky, unstable, and only works in a restricted range – fortunately for both of us, wide enough to embrace my lovely wife, and the dogs, and a few close friends – otherwise rather parched and arid territory, still.

    Last time I felt “emotional” about a work of art was when I entered the Accademia in Firenze to see Michelangelo’s capolavoro, his David. I was totally overcome by it and the tears poured down my cheeks. It was kind of embarrassing. But I’m glad I have seen it. It’s odd to say this – some of the replicas have exactly the same dimensions – but NONE of them have the same appearance. I can only think it must be something about that special block of marble, which he reserved for that statue many years earlier – a special beauty that radiates out, from within his statue. If not, the only other explanation that I can think of is my own psychological attachment to his work.

    Otherwise, for me, art is a visual experience. Coupled with appropriately varying levels of admiration. When my aunt & I went to an exhibition of works from the NY Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, for example, she had to physically tear me away from Dali’s painting of the Madonna – which at a glance looks a bit like enlarged newsprint, but what you really see depends on the distance between you and the canvas, and whether or not you have “the third eye”. I was spellbound by it. Rodin has a similar effect – so do any number of artists. And within the limits of my comprehension, photography is another form of art – sometimes humorous, sometimes representational, sometimes creative – ultimately, whatever we want to make of it.

    And yes a lot of what it’s about IS “technical”. So what? Isn’t that just as true for painters, sculptors and other artists?

    And you’re quite right – those shots of the wine cellar left me dreaming . . . Bit phased by all those stairs, though – “WorkSafe” would probably condemn it, as an unsafe mix (all that alcohol, and all those stairs!)

    BTW – is your “unashamed postcard” also shot in Bordeaux? I love the shot of the station – MUCH better with converging lines – it’s easy enough to straighten it out, but I’d leave it there. You can tell your friend Karim that the best place to see bikes & tattoos in Western Australia wouldn’t be the surfing beaches – it’d have to be the Naval Base Hotel, at Kwinana, just south of Fremantle. Owned by the bikies, and occasionally they have a “tattoos, bikes and hotrods day” there – which has to be one of the funniest and most off beat things I’ve ever seen in my life. Not too sure what sort of reception you’d get there, if you pulled a camera out, though.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Very sorry to hear that Pete.

      It’s amazing what some works of art can do to us, isn’t it ?

      Yes, the postcard is from Bordeaux, a very interesting city for photographers.

      Thanks for the Kwinana tip. I hope to return to Perth next year, so will check out the Naval Base Hotel πŸ™‚

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        OMG – check for an “open day”, like the Tatts, Bikes and Rods Day. I rather suspect that they don’t welcome visitors, except on public days. The Naval Base Hotel does belong to the bikies, and I’d be wary of turning up uninvited. πŸ™‚

    • Sean says:

      So very well said:

      “… what you really see depends on the distance between you and the canvas, and whether or not you have β€œthe third eye”. I was spellbound by it. Rodin has a similar effect – so do any number of artists. And within the limits of my comprehension, photography is another form of art …”


  • Sean says:

    How about the following emotions:

    – happy/sad
    – afraid/surprised
    – angry/disgusted

    The ability to capture these in an image may depend upon the ability of the photographer to read body language, perhaps. just a thought.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Sean. Yes, the photographer would have to be able to read facial emotions and body language. Could be a fun project πŸ˜‰

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      I doubt if I could capture those emotions as a portrait photographer, Sean – I usually take the easy way, and try to capture them in candid shots – where small cams or smartphones excel – especially when they have a tilt screen that goes all over the place, so you can appear to be fiddling with your toy but, in fact, you’re hot on the trail of “that shot”.

  • Mark Muse says:

    I think naming emotional responses is beside the point. Photography is a visual experience. We deal with symbols, not words that categorize and file things away. I think the emotional content of an image is best left out of the intellect. Just experience it. Sometimes we humans live too much in our frontal cortex.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Mark,

      that’s interesting. “I think the emotional content of an image is best left out of the intellect. Just experience it. Sometimes we humans live too much in our frontal cortex.”

      Couldn’t agree more with the second part. Another way to put it is that it’s super hard to work with the left brain and the right brain at the same time. Being spontaneously creative *and simultaneously* analytical is a tall order.

      What I’m suggesting is that we practice “scales” with a little more left brain (analytical) and try to analyse what we react to in existing photographs that we love, in order to be more spontaneous and intuitive in the field.

      Just my 2 cents really because that’s how I work. It might not be universal πŸ˜‰

      • Mark Muse says:

        Hi Pascal,

        I think we are on the same page. For me the time to be analytical is after the fact, viewing files or prints. Closing the loop, so to speak. But when I am shooting I want to be as much in the moment as possible, which for me means shutting down the analysis.

        Our intellect is a small part of what is going on up there. I am learning more everyday to trust my instincts and intuition. They take me places my intellect would never dream of going.


        • pascaljappy says:

          Exactly. Also, instincts and intuition probably benefit a lot from reading, values, a strong worldview … On top of the analysis of photographs, I’m pretty sure the way we see the world and our role in it influences our ‘visual reflexes’ once behind the camera.

          Cheers, Pascal

  • Nitin Khanna says:

    Great Pictures. Loved Your Photography. Really Appreciate your work and efforts.

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