“I’ve found photography has little to do with the things you see, and everything to do with the way you see them.” Elliott Erwitt
There’s an extremely small, razor-thin line separating what can be heralded as an exceptional photo. Although a subjective decision to a certain extent, there are somewhat universal questions used to evaluate both the technical and emotive aspects of a shot. This criteria is by no means only familiar to seasoned photographers, but can be learned and applied by all who attempt this art.
To understand a photo, and deem it a good one, there are several questions to be asked. Depending on the type of shot, these questions may vary; but for the sake of generality, the following form a good base to start.
Is the photo in question composed well? Do the different elements come together cohesively? Is there a center of interest? What is the context of the photo, does it tell a story?
Let’s take these questions and apply them to a famous shot from a series called “Power of Play” by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry.
Immediately your eye is pulled to the student monk in the center third of the frame who is seemingly defying the laws of gravity by running on a wall over his colleagues, rather easily it seems. The direction in which he is going then leads to the onlooker standing on the left third of the shot, he’s probably an instructor. Your eye then retreats to the right third of the frame, where the next student is preparing for the exercise. The manner in which this shot is composed aides the progression of the eye back and forth through the width of the frame, giving it a fluidity similar to that exhibited by the student running.
For a shot that captures such a specific moment in time, the depth of it is something to be admired. It creates a stretching effect that emphasizes the distance the runner must cover to complete his move. This, paired with the intent gaze of the instructor – whose face isn’t shown, but can be assumed – adds to the importance of the act. The stark contrast between the bright orange outfits of the monks and the earth tones of the wall and ground emphasize the balance between the actions of humans and the sometimes mundane earth around them.
The center of interest and story of this particular photo are unequivocally related. Let’s start with the only element of the photo in motion, the running monk. He has a look of extreme determination and focus on his face, with his arms positioned in a manner to ensure his balance. His right arm is extended and hand is in a fist, signifying his strength. While his left arm is bent and palm open which can signify the agility and grace is takes to complete such a skill. The quickness of his movement is exhibited through the flailing of his garments, showing the sheer speed with which he attacked the wall.
Now, let’s shift to the group sitting on the floor and the monk stretching in the distance. Both in their posture and expressions, the group of monks are an almost complete contrast to the runner. They seem to be talking rather nonchalantly as the monk passes overhead; it isn’t their first time witnessing this. Their arms and garments are stationary, and feet are positioned in a resting manner, possibly recovering from their attempt at the same feat. The monk in the distance, however, is in the midst of a deep stretch. He seems to be trying to harness the same focus and energy of his colleague. He wants to show the instructor, who continues to watch intently, that he is up to the challenge.
Regardless of the shot you are taking, the principles of what make a good photograph apply. It doesn’t take a master of the medium to understand these concepts, it just takes a bit of dedication and a commitment to knowing how and why you see things the way you see them.
AuthorA writer from the Los Angeles area in his 20-somethings. An enjoyer of good conversations, good compositions, and good drinks. Inspired by the the sights, sounds and ideals of a city which embraces cultures of all different mediums.