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Pay attention: to light and shadow, to moments of connection and emotion, to events and to the little secrets we notice as we go about our lives. Good pictures can be made anywhere and everywhere and at anytime if we choose to pay attention and notice the world and moments around us.

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In 1987 famed French photographer Edouard Boubat was in Atlanta in conjunction with an exhibition of his, and other other well-known French photographers pictures. I was asked to escort him around town and deliver him to the gallery to give a talk. He was tall, dapper and quintessentially French. He was asked how he knew that he was seeing a good picture. He smiled slyly, touched his finger tips together and answered, "First you see zee light, zen you feel zee love.". Still sounds right to me.

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Where to stand. Whether using a large camera on a tripod, as I most often do, or quickly grabbing street scenes with a pocket camera or phone, you have to develop two linked skills: the quick grasping of a nascent image and the equally quick but separate decision of where to stand to frame and capture it in order to SEE what you had only sensed. You need both skills to transform a vision of the world into a photograph, an object (physical or electronic) itself now a part of that world.

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I think about this all the time. To me, being a “good photographer” is understanding the frame and how to appropriately fill it while also having enough background knowledge of what is or isn’t new in the medium. I think most photographers have both understandings but photographers can also be completely one or the other. Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore is a great example of someone nailing the formal elements of photography while Diane Arbus had a more intuitive knack for making fresh and interesting work. I think if you excel or one approach or the other you’ll make “good” work but “good” is kind of a nonsense way to judge art. The fun of photography is how a photographer’s approach can be so weird and so, maybe, technically wrong that it invents a whole new way thinking about photos. So I guess, to actually answer your question, I’d say you need to become a student of the medium. Look at what’s been done and look at what’s being done contemporarily and making enough pictures to create a style that’s exciting to you. It’s intuitive and skill based.

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Mar 25·edited Mar 25

A good picture is one that gets a viewer to engage with it. It should create an emotional response or boost the curiosity of the viewer. All other technical aspects only add icing to the cake.

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Mar 25Liked by Andy Adams

The answer usually is: do the best you can then rush to check what you've done. And fix what needs to be fixed.

So, to do the best you can or know how to, the question really becomes: what do you already know about good pictures - your own or others', the kind you personally respond to? A good picture has to be good for You. What have you liked in the past, what have you responded to in the past? Study that. Learn from that. Osmosis is faster and more reliable than reading or taking notes because osmosis is about saying YES to something you already know, that resonates every time you run into it. So practice what you already know. Easy, peasy. And look at 300 new images a day on line or in print. Meanwhile, stay awake and diligent.

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Thanks for the great question Andy.

Once upon a time I was lucky enough to hang out with David Hurn. He came to one of my talks at Magnum and invited me to stay at his house so I could show him my how I used a smartphone when documenting.

I asked him about his workflow and he told me it was easy. He said that after the basics, a photographer only really has two controls. Where you stand and when you press the button.

Since then I've seen variations of this attributed to him pop up in a few places. e.g.

“These are the two basic controls at the photographer's command--position and timing--all others are extensions, peripheral ones, compared to them” ~ David Hurn

Remembering that it's all about position and timing reminds me that I need to get out there. And as often as possible.

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The biggest thing for me was to study other forms of visual art. I believe line, texture, and color are building blocks of expression—no different than words are to a writer. By studying paintings that moved me in some way, I learned what those elements could mean and could then apply that in my own work. I found it easier to study paintings because they were different from my work and therefore I wouldn't just be copying someone's style. It really was more of an attempt to learn the visual language.

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Understand that you are NOT photographing an object, a person, or a scene. You are photographing the LIGHT REFLECTED off of that object, person or scene. Once you grasp this you'll understand why some photos you take work and some don't, and you'll create consistently good photos, at least from a technical aspect.

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I think, if you can forget the camera.... ;0) Tongue in cheek, of course, but for the past 30-odd years, I have used only one kind of b+w film, one body, one lens, no tripod, nor flash. I know the limitations of my gear, or kit, as they call it over here, but equally, I have become pretty good at visualizing what I will get if I frame something that intrigues me and press the shutter. As Franco Fontana once said to me; "you make photographs with your mind, not a camera".

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It's weird to have a relationship with a tool, but my answer is you need to know your camera well, respect it, and tolerate its imperfections. A deep understanding of my camera is a gift to my work; it empowers me to trust the chemistry and the tech, not have to think about them for more than a brief moment, and immerse myself into the moment in the viewfinder.

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Patience.

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I have no idea, but I do want a review on that new Nicholson Baker book - love him!

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I don't know for others, but in my experience it's two things. Either racing to capture a moment that will likely never exist again or on the polar opposite, I patiently wait, plan/build a scene and my relationship with either a place or person who is kind enough to sit for me and we collaborate and hopefully play with the camera, the space we're in and any other factors such as clothing, makeup or ideas/traditions. It's thinking about not only what you're going to include in the frame but also what to exclude both in camera or if you decide to crop the image afterwards. Technical aspects aren't really that important to me

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Mar 26Liked by Andy Adams

I lean towards intuition, but your intuition can grow and develop based on practice and exposure to the work of quality photographers. Someone commented above that it also depends on what kind of photography you're doing, and I agree. What you need to produce good commercial photography for a client in a studio is not exactly the same as what you need to produce good personal photography shopping on the streets. I do the latter so for me intuition, even a kind of thoughtlessness, is key.

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I’ve taken a bunch of “good” pictures but probably never a “great” picture. Of course that’s SUPER subjective. To me, the primary skill set is looking, seeing, framing (+ and basic requisite technical facility).

But the big one of those to me is looking. Looking with intent and enough familiarity with the ratio of your camera and what it “sees”

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Mar 25Liked by Andy Adams

If you read all the comments made by our colleagues, it's all there. The redundant parts are probably worth saying more than once. I've heard it sung..."It ain't what you do, it's the way how you do it."

Or as the Swallows sang in 1951, "It ain't the meat, it's the motion."

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Stand to photograph where you would stand to observe;

Frame it;

Get the exposure about right;

Wait for the right contents;

Hope for some ambiguity.

Nick

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Aside from technical aspects - As an image maker (I'm not a pro-photographer) you have to have a constant diet of looking at pictures to know what is good, what works and what rules can be broken, and how. More importantly different types of images, to develop a pallet - not just ones you already like. Exercise and fresh air for the eyes and mind. (not to be confused for inspiration but thats another topic) I work in an industry (entertainment design) where cliches abound and there are young artists who display technical wizardry but the content is really in poor taste. You can tell when people have been looking at their very limited window of interest and not outside of their bubble.

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After 52 years as a photojournalist I find good images continue to appear spontaneously. Of course, while on the hunt, I have a specific concept I want to translate into an image, but inevitably the most incredible moments happen with great surprise. After decades of reporting with a camera, I’m not trying to force a style on my subject or the viewer. Long gone are the visual platitudes of silhouettes, bocah, tilted horizons, ground pepper grain, the Orton Effect, making day look like night, b&w conversions, bang flash, and cut off heads. I can still appreciate sunsets, rainbows, street snapshots, selfies and birthday cakes, but as I scroll past the social media deluge of crappy pictures, I continue to find purpose in making photographs that may not change the world but they may change your mind.

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A good eye and mind and an honest voice

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I think framing can be intuitive, especially if you like photography and art and observe how artists place objects within a box. Subject matter - what do you find interesting? That can certainly be intuitive as it's a product of whatever personality you have developed.

However, for all the devilish details on optimizing a shot - lighting, focal point, timing, and all the knowledge and experience one gains in editing, those elements come with learning, failing, succeeding, etc. - experience

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The advice I always give when asked how to make a good image is to take a lot of pictures and LOOK at a lot of pictures. Build up a viewing experience and build up a picture taking experience.

I think intuition comes with experience.

On the technical side, I think composition is one of the most important things. The more you look and take, the better your compositional skills will develop.

Attention to lighting is also crucial. How the shadows and highlights are depicted can determine the success of your images.

Once you are comfortable with concepts of composition and exposure you can then push their boundaries to create your own vision.

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Of course there are certain technical skills required, as there are for any kind of artistic practice. But the question as to what makes a good photograph, or image, is more a question of what is it you like, what is it you are trying to say and is the image one that you are making for yourself (this should be a pre-requisite for any artist) or is it to fulfill a commission or a professional practice?

Any image I make is primarily for me. What I see, how I see it and how I capture it is always rooted in my personal vision, it cannot be any other way. A more apposite question would be: "Who decides which images, and thus artists, are selected for publication/exhibition/dissemination, and what is the criteria that drives the selection, and ultimately, the visibility of those images?"

So for me, to make a good image you need vision, both optical and intellectual.

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A good picture is one that I am excited about taking. If I am lucky then others share my excitement when they are looking at it. That’s not always the case. It’s still a good picture for me if I keep liking it.

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I think it's a mix of many things and still it can be subjective depending on the type of photography you are drawn to.

For me I believe that there are definitely skills to learn (going from the obvious, reading the light in a scene to actually designing the light for a photograph, paying attention to the edges of the frame, knowing how each lens affects perspective and distortion, etc.), BUT the true power of the photograph for me will always transcend technique and skills.

The "punctum" of a powerful image lies in the fact that it connects with us on a deeper level, makes think, question and rules rarely apply there. Many of my favorite photographs have such a high value for me, because they do break the conventional rules of photography, like good exposure, sharpness, rule of thirds, and and all that rigid stuff that many photographers are sadly obsessed with.

The camera is only a tool, and these are just some guidelines to get you started. The moment you learn how to use the tool I think, you have to start question these rules, breaking them, playing with them, and start exploring the far reaches on what photography can do and what kind of photography speaks to your heart. And be honest with that. However weird that is, however dark, vulgar that might be embrace it, because it's a part of your soul speaking out to you through the camera. Anything that stays away from the mainstream, sharp "beautiful" photography who see so much from Instagram influencers and that bunch is better, and I think it's better because it shows different ways of seeing and questions what beautiful is.

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To me, it's a combination of learning through repetition and feeling the energy of the moment. All the practice in the world won't change the direction of the sun or the number of clouds in the sky. But it will prepare you for when the moment strikes.

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At the moment what is really helping me with my photography is looking at other photographers work and trying to work out how to achieve the effects I like there, in terms of light and shadow, angles, a palette of colour that meshes, subject, emotional affect, balance, mystery. Mine is all on my phone, so I make sure I am aware of what it can do, and I practise using the different editing options that I find. This is ongoing. I've been seeing a lot of amazing black and white photos there and that's what I've been concentrating on. That aside, intuition is in there, and being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Some scrappy photos at a peak moment have still made me proud.

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The images that I love making are the ones that I have a strong emotional connection to, a place, time of day, light, shadow, person, animal or thing. Sometimes it contains all of those elements.

Pay attention to what you feel as you capture the image and resist the urge to constantly check every digital preview of the last image. (Shooting film taught me this lesson.) Stay in the moment.

Trust your self and your sense of craft will not let you down.

Don’t pay any mind to formulas of composition. Your eyes, heart and brain are hard-wired to organize what you see and will do this for you automatically. keep moving around and find other perspectives -like you would with any other problem you encounter in life. It’s nice to have awareness of the rules but don’t let them become an overwhelming inner narrative.

Bring your awareness to the edges of the frame if you have to check anything. Those are where the demons hide and if you are using wide angle lenses in tight quarters, notice the edges and corners of the frame. They can make or break your visual statement.

Yes, it’s a visual statement you are making whether you realize it or not. Photography is a language, intentional or unintentional, and everything you include in the frame will either confuse, occlude or illuminate what you are attempting to articulate. This is Visual Literacy 101.

Let the language flow from your heart. This is why I can only photograph what I care about. So ask yourself, what do I love here? Go there and explore that person, place or thing.

It is from this level of observation and communication that I dream, in remarkable detail. This visual experience in my dreams is how I learned to make meaningful images. I saw them in my dreams and then went out and recreated them.

I thought I was making something unique but photographing a dream or reality is all the same.

So to summarize, love yourself, love your subjects, and love the fleeting moments, behind the camera, so much, that your caring becomes a photograph worth keeping like any brilliant piece of writing, painting, or sculpture that you may create. It all comes from the same source.

So when you ask what goes into making a good photograph just know it is a special relationship that begins and ends with you.

The medium is secondary.

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A excellent place to start is to listen to Charlie Rose interviewing Cartier-Bresson on YouTube. My friend Henri did not particularly like being interviewed, but somehow he agreed to this one, which is probably his last. Since he was a photojournalist, he does not discuss light, having to deal with what was available. For me his most remarkable comment was “You mustn’t want.” It’s a remarkable video that is prefaced by an exuberant Dick Avedon

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This depends on what kind of photographer you are. Someone into portraits has to think about something different than a documentary photographer so this question can’t be broadly answered.

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The key to a good image, or a good image that would qualify as a work of art, is the recognition that the subject of the photograph is not the subject. As the artist Ian Roberts writes, subject matter is nothing more than an armature supporting a deeper vision. In all the years I've spent looking at photographs and from everything I've read and the tens of thousands of image I've looked at, it's become clear to me that there are three type of photographers: Those who focus on the technology, mega pixel counts, various autofocus systems, software; those who focus on the subject such as an iconic sunset, the colors of autumn, slow shutter speed pictures of moving water, many (but not all) botanical images, etc.; and those like Roberts who are in search of a deeper vision that transcends what is directly in front of the camera, the quality of the light, the arrangement of shapes, the interplay or colors, etc.

In middle school I had a teacher who was from the first group, Mr. Kafka was his name. He was an avid collector of Leica cameras. His pictures are completely un-memorable. In fact, the only thing I remember about him was his Leica collection and the fact that he told my parents that I was not likely to be a very successful as a photographer. Shortly after that, I got into an arts oriented high school in NYC based on the strength of my portfolio. And since then, I've been in several group shows and had a spread published in a fashion magazine. I don't know about his Leicas, but Mr. Kafka is most likely in the ground now and I am working on gallery representation.

The problem for me with subject oriented photographs is that pretty much EVERY subject that can be photographed has been photographed and photographed rather well. All the time I ask, "does the world NEED another picture of the Dolomites, fall in Vermont, a castle in ruins, or god help me, Iceland? There is a satisfaction in personally taking such a photograph, but really why would it be of interest to anyone else, except purely as something to fill a space on the wall.

Personally, I'm interested in the third kind of photography, photography that transcends the subject. Such photography can be entirely abstract and contain no discernable subject--I'm thinking here of Aaron Sisking, Minor White or more contemporary photographers such as Kate Steciw or Alison Rossiter. Or it can offer an abstraction of a subject, for example, Man Ray, Laslo Moholy-Nagy or more contemporary artists such as Jan Grover, Ray K. Metzker, Adam Fuss or David Benjamin Sherry. Even the work of people like Thomas Ruff or Stephen Shore could be considered, if not abstract, then at least subject transcending. Their work makes the familiar, somehow unfamiliar and in so doing, shows me something I didn't know about before.

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I had a professor who organized critiques of our work and assignments along three dimensions: Content, Design, Technique. The most basic is technique: correct exposure, correct focus, correct printing--this was film, so post-processing included push/pull developing of film and paper, dodging/burning, etc. Analog Lightroom, if you will. Second was design: classic notions of composition, movement, thirds, spirals--zooming with your feet, cropping tools in the darkroom. The third was content: intention, what does the photograph say, communicate, express what the artist wants to express; or serendipity, being aware of one's environment and surroundings. The first two can be learned, the last can only be developed from within oneself, taking inspiration from what others have done in photography, painting, sculpture, music, poetry. Tremendous content can overcome weak technique and design, while phenomenal technique and design cannot lift an image without content.

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To make good images you need strong image making 'language'. Image making in any realm is ultimately communication. It does not matter what you photograph: weddings, fine art, street, commercial, etc... In the end you are making 'content' to be perceived by yourself and/or others. Like all actions, practicing the basic skills make you better. Learning how to use your tools (camera, printer, darkroom, eyes, computer) makes communication easier and better. Getting feedback from your audience can help you refine your message. Photography can absolutely be intuitive! Once the tools and techniques are no longer the burden, you can ‘feel’ your way through a scene or an action to find the deepest marrow of your message. A perfect example is shooting from the hip(not looking through the viewfinder). You get happy accidents that speak to you in new ways and they are absolutely tied to your movement in space and time. Sometimes, they are revelatory.

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Such a good question, looking forward to browsing all the answers! I think the skills and intuition form a bit of a feedback loop - the more you notice your world in new ways, the more you seek out skills to capture it :)

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I think you make better photographs via a lot of practice and figuring out why certain photos you made weren’t (aren’t) that great. Skills/knowledge can certainly be useful, but I think anyone might hone these over time (intentionally or even inadvertently.) I was self taught until I earned my MA. Now I can look at 15 years of work and see my own growth/improvement over time in my own work/practice.

Anyone can learn “skills” or how best to operate camera equipment. This might improve the outcomes but it might not necessarily guarantee a “good” photo every time.

I think it’s more useful to think about what makes a “good” photo to YOU? Everyone’s opinion on that will be subjective and even if many different photographers with varied approaches/equipment objectively all agree one photograph they’ve all seen is excellent, they might think it is for vastly different reasons.

Think about photos you love/admire. Study the photographs you are drawn to and what it is about them that appeals to you.

I’ve often found the best photographs contain at least one story (if not more than one) or a moment that draws the eye that makes you think, “What just happened?” Or “What is happening?” or “What is about to happen?” I like wondering this stuff from the photographs I admire. Because story is implied.

Framing and tech skills/knowledge might help improve chances of making good photographs, but even with all the skills in the world or the best equipment or most expensive lighting, some resulting photos can still turn out to be humdrum, even appear a bit lifeless.

Improving chances of making better photographs can also be innate if you are attentive and the engagement/relationship you carve (even if very brief or limited in some way) to the environment/human/landscape/animal/community/event you photograph.

For me, so much of what makes a photo “good” to my own eye is down to light and that relationship/engagement you craft. The word photograph means ‘light drawn’ or ‘to draw light.’ Light is always what draws my eye on the scenes I turn my gaze towards and photographs I make and admire. These are photos that are not always about bells/whistles.

For instance, I am not drawn to so-called “perfect” calendar type photographs or ones that are heavily filtered or high contrast. If you love those photographs, that is what’s “good” to you and it matters what speaks to your eye for the heart you bring, the heart you’re going to put into making photographs.

I don’t mean ‘try to copy others’ or ‘study (so-called) masters.’ But looking at lots of other photographs can help inform. You can craft your own photographic practice by emulating what you love and paying homage to that with your own twist on things. Make it your own practice. But definitely practice. I made a lot of what I might now consider “bad” or poor photographs when I began. I look back now and recognize what I’d do differently.

The best equipment in the world won’t necessarily make you good/better. Look at the myriad photographs out in the world and understand which ones ignite and compel you and WHY. I think that helps for inspiration to improve what you make.

For instance, my own preference is more of a documentary approach. I prefer natural light. Other folks may be pulled by other kinds of images. Look at the photographs you admire, those that appeal to you most and try to understand what it is about them that compels you as a way to begin an approach to making good/better photographs.

Thanks, Andy, for the contemplation and asking the questions you do.

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I also think a lot of photographers don't know how to discern a strong photo from a weak photo and many of them are the ones championing other photographers' mediocre work as "awesome", and it encourages more poor work and the cycle continues.

No photographer should ever ask which image do people like, the BW or color, you're the storyteller, you choose. By asking, you're telling the viewer that they are not in competent hands.

Same with asking opinions on two similar photo compositions, again the photographer must choose. Make a choice. Be the authority. You're the storyteller.

Photographers, to get seen as great, must post less, when the work is deserving, not just because they're a content creator with a scheduled post.

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It's all composition and lighting which creates a mood, or foregrounds an interesting pattern or shape. Saying anything else is pointless.

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First I need to understand what is going on; what is the relationship between the elements I could frame? Thus, what should I frame? What do I want to tell? (This skill is not specific to photography). Then I want to create an appealing picture, one that invites people to stare at it, and this is a photographic skill; this is the part of my craft that tool me so much time to learn and explore (posing, light, composition, optics, colors...).

But if you take a wider look at it, good litterature blooms where the story meets the art of story telling; good music is at the cross roads of emotions and playing perfection, and the long list of people required by the making of a movie is useless without a good story.

So at last, remember Louis Armstrong "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing"..

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Good photographers are good editors. (Editing in the sense of removing, not toning.) They don't make bad images. Rather, they work a scene and know how to recognize the ones that come together well and how to cull the rest. Where you happen to be standing is a bit of serendipity to what is happening in front of you. You have to have your camera at the ready of course. But the good images take just getting to work, finding what you find and editing out the ones that don't quite measure up. The best photographers only show their best work. That's what it takes. Constant working and strong editing. There is no inspiration, there's just work. The muse exists, but she has to find us working.

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You realise there will be no universal 'good'. And you concern yourself with creating something which is appropriate to the brief in front of you. In whatever shape or form that brief comes.

But you also take part in wider critique to identify where there are options for better - so that next time you have greater likelihood of 'good'.

You also ready yourself for derailing others' vision of 'good' and that someone will always have an opinion that the item isn't good to them.

And finally, for me, you don't chase fame or plaudits - unless that is part of the brief.

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What do you need to know to make a good image? >>> You need to know how to SEE!

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Not intending to be DA as such, but unless one is solely concerned with received aesthetics of discrete images (composition, light, colour, etc.), shouldn't the "goodness" of an image be seen in terms of whether it does what it was intended to do?

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"What do you need to know to make a good image? Are there skills you must learn? Or is photography an intuitive art?"

Some of both, but more of the latter. To make a great image, you need more of both, but much more of the latter. But I think the thing you need that doesn't quite fall into either category is experience. Depending on how you look at it, the more experience you have, either the less intuition you have or the less intuition you need.

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There are people who need to learn skills to take a good photo. There are people who are able to take a good photo intuitively. And there are those in between, partially skilled/partially intuitive.

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I was taught by my professor Clarence Williams who is also a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer there are three elements to a good photograph. Good lighting, good composition, and a good moment.

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I constantly ask myself this question. I believe lighting and perspective play an important role to compose an image. When I was in art school I remember my photo teacher saying, "the way you light your subject, is your signature."

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Understanding the basic mechanics of a camera is definitely something that can be taught, but with the advent of the digital camera, there seems to be less emphasis on just understanding the basic relationship between aperture and shutter speed. Learning to read light, and how to compose a good photo comes with practice and patience. Learning how to watch, observe, and wait are also skills that can be cultivated, but for some people these are intuitive skills in the same way that there are those who naturally have the ability to or draw. Creative vision is also an innate ability. Knowing how to take a technically perfect image can be taught, but creatively playing with shadow and light requires a certain kind of curiosity and a willingness to be playful and push boundaries. But “good” is relative, I think anyone can learn how to take a technically good photo, but knowing how to create a captivating image takes a mix of technical knowledge, regular practice, a natural ability to “read” the light, or situation, and an ability to observe ones environment in order to craft a unique yet compelling image.

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What are the evaluation criteria? What is a good image? Everything is so subjective that any shot is both bad and good, a kind of “Schrodinger’s dilemma.”

If you, as a creator, like what you do, can it be considered something good? I think so. Everything else is too relative and may not be taken into account.

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There are things in the world I find attractive. A texture, a thing, some confluence of things, a person ... When the world grabs my attention I take a picture. I don't know what will make a good picture. Good pictures are not a representation. They are the thing in our mind we read and image on paper or screen. Sometimes a photo reminds me of something real but in the end the image on screen or paper must become itself and not illustrative of reality and in that magic moment we can call it a good photo. A good photographer increases the chance of this happening by being aware and seeing clearly.

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