Elements of a Good Photo

At the moment  I believe that a good photo is made of the following ingredients in this order. I’m sure my view will develop when I learn more and I’ll try to update this every now and then.

  • Reaction
  • Story
  • Subject
  • Moment
  • Visual
  • Context
  • Presentation
  • Technical execution
  • Post-processing


A good photo causes a reaction in the viewer. Makes her think or feel or maybe even surprises her. Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-winning photo of a starving Sudanese child and a vulture  is definitely in this category. Garry Winogrand’s famous zoo photo will quite likely cause a reaction but it can be very different based on viewer’s view of the world.


A photo shouldn’t communicate only what the subject looks like but it should contain a story or a message. Alan Diaz’s photo of U.S border patrol taking away Elian Gonzales told what had just happened to those who had followed the controversial case. It also tells what Elian thought about it – or does it? A photographer can also create the story like Adele Enersen did by making dream worlds from everyday items and taking photos of her child sleeping in them.


There must be something interesting about the subject whether it is about a person, object or something less concrete like weather or human rights. Kalle Björklid’s Andy McCoy and a fan is one of my favourite music images but it wouldn’t be the same without the Hanoi Rocks cult guitarist. Jussi Aalto’s iconic portrait of Urho Kekkonen – the strongest and most controversial Finnish president – probably interests also some of those who don’t know who he is.


A camera is basically a moment capturing device so this is where photography’s strength should be compared to the alternative ways of telling the same story. Often it’s about waiting for the right gestures like in this hilarious Matilde Berk’s wedding photo or the moment when everything is compositionally right like in this Kari Kuukka’s cross country skiing image.


Composition, light, colors, perspective etc. must support the story, subject and reaction and make it better. Help the viewer to see the essential. Arnold Newman’s highly visual portrait of Igor Stravinsky is a pleasure watch. This is definitely not a portrait of a rock star or the most traditional classical composer.


A photo of a statue can become more interesting if it’s shown together with other statues. Gustavo Germano’s Ausencias contains a powerful beach photo that would be boring in almost any other context. Jorma Pouta’s famous photo of fallen long distance runner Lasse Viren in Munich ’72 communicates failure to most people but Finns and sport lovers see how Viren incredibly got up and won his first of four Olympic gold medals.


It’s easy to cripple a great photo by putting it on display. Make it too small and I can’t properly appreciate it (have you heard of Flickr?). Put it into a slow loading slideshow that requires constant clicking and I’ll never see it.

Technical execution

If two photos are equally interesting, the one with better technical merits wins. This is also about photographer’s skills relating to tools and techniques like filters, camera settings, flash, lens choice, panning, pre-focusing, long exposures, … Robert Capa’s D-Day photo is world famous despite being awfully blurry.


I’m not sure if post-processing really deserves its own category since it’s about technical execution, visuals, presentation and even story when doing creative edits. From learning perspective it makes sense to keep it as a separate category.

Other considerations

A distinct style can be important for a photographer but I find it difficult to put that as an element of a good photo. Finland’s most awarded photojournalists Hannes Heikura adds vignetting to his photos so often that “to add heikura” has become part of the slang.

Version history

20 Aug 2012: Added a reference to Garry Winogrand’s zoo photo.

Since this is about learning, now it’s your turn to disagree in the comment box!

3 thoughts on “Elements of a Good Photo

  1. Pingback: 1st Anniversary of Learning to See in Helsinki Photoblog « Learning to See in Helsinki

  2. Pingback: Fiat Lux | Learning to See in Helsinki

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