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What makes a good photo?

Written by
Cole Cogswell
Published on
August 20, 2023

What makes a good photo? That seems like a big question, right? Well, the questions worth asking rarely come with simple answers…

It’s important to understand that photography is not a strict 1:1 representation of the world around us. In fact, a photo is every bit as much an interpretation of the world as a painting is.

Before they even press the capture button, the photographer has the opportunity to adjust a dozen or so parameters on their camera, which will all have an effect on the final image. And later on, the possibilities in post-processing can seem practically infinite.

Conversely, a photographer can also allow algorithms and machine learning to take on the brunt of the load, as they snap a quick photo on their smartphone. Maybe add a filter. But that's where it stops.

Becoming proficient at deciding which tools to use, how and when to use them, and knowing how they will affect the final outcome are all core tenets for creating consistently good photos.

Technical Constraints and Aesthetic Qualities

At a high level, the output image is primarily a result of the photographer’s decision to use tools and specific mechanisms in their camera to adjust how light and digital signals behave.

The Optical Photographic Process

The first half of the photographic process determines how light is gathered and transformed. To summarize the optical process:

- Light is emitted from source(s)

- Light interacts with objects in a scene

- Light enters the camera lens Light is refracted by optical elements

- Light induces a digital signal once it strikes the image sensor

The choice of lens will determine the behavior of light as it’s refracted, resulting in a specific Focal Length (FL), Field of View (FoV), Chromatic Aberration (CA) and Bokeh. F-number (F/#) and shutter speed settings will impact the amount (and behavior) of light that ultimately reaches the camera’s sensor.

The Digital Photographic Process

The second half of the process happens digitally - and this is typically where traditional and smartphone photography diverge from one another.

When light strikes the camera sensor, it is then encoded into a digital signal containing color and luminance information. Different cameras have different sensors, each with dimension, resolution and pixel size specifications correlating to the quality and efficiency with which light is converted into a digital signal.

Sensors with higher resolution and larger pixels will capture more light information with less noise. Physical size constraints for smartphones result in smaller optics that allow less light through the lenses, which subsequently requires the use of smaller, noisier sensors.

In a DSLR camera, the digital signal created by pixels in the sensor is captured as a RAW image file, and - depending on the shooting mode - may or may not be processed. If it is, then it will next be passed on to the Image Signal Processor (ISP) and compressed in order to be saved as a JPG.

Sophisticated denoising, HDR, image fusion and sharpening algorithms advancements in computational photography have emerged to bridge the quality gap between DSLR and smartphone cameras, and are often built into the final compressed image.

Until recently, RAW image data from smartphones was inaccessible, but more and more phones have now begun enabling RAW captures. In order to continue producing high-quality images, many phones still include denoising or sharpening algorithms which are already baked straight into the RAW file - thus making manual post-processing more difficult.

The pros and cons of shooting in RAW are widely documented, but quite simply boil down to the fact that while RAW files certainly allow for much more freedom in post-processing editing, they are also huge files, coming in much larger than that of their compressed JPG counterparts.

In some scenarios, it is important to have the flexibility to be able to adjust the image in post-processing to match the intention of the photo. Making these adjustments on a compressed file, however, often leads to the creation of artifacts such as banding, increased noise, and decreased dynamic range, which can make creating a good photo next to impossible - even when the capture settings have been specifically optimized for the scene.

In certain situations, built-in computational processing is going to provide a desirable and hassle-free result - for example, when you’re shooting a selfie for your Facebook profile, where these artifacts really aren’t going to matter.

Understanding when each approach is appropriate will go on to help save a lot of headaches for people who are aiming to take good pictures.

With a basic understanding of the importance of light and the available tools and formats, the next step toward taking a good photo is becoming familiar with the context and purpose of the shot.

If a photographer asks themselves the following questions of the whys, whats, wheres and hows before shooting, then these answers will help guide them in their endeavors to take more reliable and consistently good photos:

1. Why Take the Photo?

Are you a professional photographer creating and selling art prints? Are you looking at marketing a product? Or are you simply taking some family portraits?

Perhaps you are an influencer making content to share through half-a-dozen social media channels - or then again, perhaps you are a research assistant recording a lab setup, so that you can achieve consistent results between experiments?

Or perhaps none of the above apply, but you went on a really cool hike last weekend and want to remember the beach cliffs, without having to go back and actually smell the rotting fish carcasses left behind on the beach by the elephant seals?

The why of the photo helps inform who will ultimately judge the quality of a photo.

For instance, the scientist recording their lab setup will likely want to capture an image that has as many details in-focus as possible, whereas the pro photographer might want to create an ambiguous image that is completely out-of-focus, so that they can force their audience to take an extra second to analyze and feel, leaving them thinking about the experience.

One photographer’s artistic blur is another photographer’s missed shot.

2. What Takes the Photo?

When deciding which type of camera is appropriate, purists may look strictly to DSLRs, but at the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the presence that smartphones carry in today’s photography landscape.

When a high-quality camera that can simply be slipped into your back pocket is never more than an arm’s length away, the act of taking photos becomes both wildly more convenient and - in equal proportion - more common than hauling a DSLR camera around.

The reality of the current state of photography is that DSLR camera systems afford users finer control over capture settings and post-capture processing, as a result of their increased light-gathering capabilities.
Finer control means it’s possible to achieve images that are of a much higher quality, both technically and aesthetically.

While many smartphones do allow users to access these controls, they can oftentimes be hidden or difficult to find. Smaller and less-forgiving sensors also capture less light, resulting in much less flexibility through all stages of photo taking and editing.

Knowing why a photo is going to be captured should inform the decision of which camera to use.
There are countless scenarios in which a smartphone camera will create the desired result, even when ignoring the benefits of convenience. Smartphone photographers are able to take candid shots that DSLR photographers will often miss while pulling out their larger, heavier gear, for instance.

Each camera has its own set of pros and cons, and taking the time to consider all the options and weigh them against the shot’s context will bring you one step closer to taking a good photo.

3. Where Will the Photo Go?

It isn’t necessarily a groundbreaking insight to say that photography has evolved at an astonishing rate following the dawn of cell phone cameras.

These devices have repeatedly proven to be pivotal in providing a bridge between our physical and digital worlds by creating a more accessible medium for users to translate their experiences into digital artwork that can be liked, shared, swiped, retweeted or pinned in an instant.

Phone cameras can create beautiful, seemingly-detailed photos when they are viewed on a phone screen however, if the intent for the photo is to be published to a larger medium such as television or large print, the quality and resolution soon become quite evident.

Even 4K and 8K photos can look degraded, due to the fact that the computational photography algorithms will often leave behind artifacts in an image which only become noticeable once blown-up. Not all 4K is equal.

The intended medium can be a reliable indicator for informing decisions that will turn a standard photo into a good photo. Some mediums call for quick, relatively thoughtless snaps, while others may be better suited for more specific, less auto-processed images.

Having an idea of where the final image is going to exist while capturing the shot will immensely increase the likelihood of getting a good photo.

4. How Will the Photo Be Taken?

Intention is the seed with which every good photo must start.

Before clicking capture, answering questions 1-3 above will help the photographer create a clear mental model of the intent of their photo. The answer to this final question should provide the final piece to the “what makes a good photo” puzzle.

Once informed by the set intention for the photo, the photographer can now make thoughtful choices on how best to use their selected tools to capture an image that will best fit their purpose.
Good photos require capturing a story.

Leveraging the tools available in the camera to make creative decisions about what is in-focus vs. out-of-focus, how deep the DoF is, how much motion blur is captured with a slower shutter speed, or even simply what is and isn’t included in the frame will all go on to tell a story, and it is up to the photographer to ensure that that story matches their intended vision.

Conclusion: What Makes a Good Photo?

Smartphones are the undeniable champion of convenience and ease of use, meaning they afford photographers unparalleled latitude in capturing spontaneous moments.

DSLR cameras currently hold the crown for creating images with flexibility, both in shooting and editability, as a direct result of their size and ability to gather larger quantities of light.
Shooting with intent - and considering the consequences of all the creative decisions and technical compromises made - grants the photographer the greatest amount of leeway in their pursuit of good photos, which is quite important.

Human error can be seen just as commonly in photography as it can in any other practice, so creating some amount of wiggle-room is critical for being able to salvage bad or “just okay” photos and turn them into good photos - even great ones.

In the end, the noble pursuit of consistently creating good photos boils down to mastery of just two simple concepts: light and intent.

And when the answer is that simple, it almost begs the question:

How might the world of photography (and the creation of outstanding images) change when cutting-edge engineering finally delivers convenient, smartphone-sized camera packages that are capable of capturing 1000% more light and producing DSLR-quality images?

Hint: Start keeping tabs on Glass Imaging to find out… it sounds like the sun is setting on the era of having to make tradeoffs between quality and convenience.