Into the light – what makes a good photograph?
Updated: Jul 10
Back when I still lived in Farnham, I went to my local one evening – to meet potential clients actually – and bumped into a guy who lived a few doors up from my old house, we didn’t know each other but our once similar habitational proximity bonded us for the night. He owned a reputable security company in town and was also a keen amateur photographer. After introductions and a bit of chat we got on to the topic of what I was doing there that night and thus onto my profession – he then asked me the inevitable question, one I’ve been asked before and one I will discuss with you now. He asked me ‘what makes a good photograph?’ – my simple answer was this… light. There are of course other factors that contribute, such as composition and framing, content and ambiguity but essentially for me and for most photographers who know what they are looking for when pointing their camera at something – it is all about the light.
To illustrate my point, my question to you is this… if you were to spend the next few days looking at photographs and you assembled a short list of say ,five images – my challenge would be this this: I’ll bet you that the common denominator binding those photographs will be some subtle play of light. You may not recognise it, yet if you have a natural photographer’s eye then the chances are that this will be what drew you to those images in the first place. It is of no surprise then that the origin of the word PHOTOGRAPHY comes from the Greek, photos meaning light and graphos meaning to draw. So we are drawing with (or as we say these days, painting with) light. Like most things in life, it is simple.
A lot of people will argue the toss and often – in my mind – we make the mistake that it is the content that is the most important thing about a photograph. I actually disagree. Naturally the content is usually hugely important, consider press photography. The subject matter being a war, a natural disaster or strongly topical and newsworthy story that the world ought to see. Or a wedding client to whom the subject matter of their wedding is the single most significant thing at stake. But consider these images with their massively important content matter, only imagine them poorly lit or them having absolutely no interesting or dynamic play of light about them and you have a different photograph all together.
That’s a nice photo
Suzanne Sontag mentions in her collection of essays On Photography that most of us agree that an image is regarded as beautiful providing the subject matter is beautiful. A photograph of a flower or sunset is instantly labeled as ‘good’ simply because the content is of a beautiful thing. But I argue that the trained eye knows differently. It is possible to have a photograph of a banal thing, but if lit brilliantly it can become amazing. It was in the spare bedroom of an old acquaintance's house a few years ago that the penny dropped. There was a large framed photograph of a door in the courtyard of what looked like a Greek village. It isn't a very uninteresting subject matter – a door, in a courtyard, – but there was something about this image that made me look… and stop… and think. Eventually it hit home, it was the light. The way the light shone in from the right hand side of the courtyard and as it bounced up off the floor (out of frame – perhaps water or polished cobblestone) it spread across the wall above framing the door in a subtle aura that quite simply, was gorgeous.
It’s just a van, man
I will now attempt to demonstrate exactly what it is I mean with two of my own photographs. The first photograph has become something of my signature image, attracting comments from friends and clients alike. Some even stating it was this picture that drew them to contact me in the first place. However, for me it is the subject matter that captivates and holds you, it may even strike an emotive chord of lifestyle aspiration deep inside you viewer and makes you smile or wish or glow or yearn that this… this could be you in some way shape or form, some other worldly incarnation of yourself. Yes it’s nicely composed, yes it has a good looking couple in trendy vintage clothing and yes the bare, brushed steel hull of the VW camper van looks really, really cool – but I guarantee it is the content of the photo you are ‘wow’ing at.
The real deal
The difference now is this… These gentlemen are lit from within almost, a glow radiates out from the centre of the group almost like the strong light-play found in many of the paintings of my favourite classical artist and master of light, Caravaggio. There is a neat rim light on the men at the two outer edges and to an extent on the guys in the foreground as well. The two in the background are perfectly exposed despite being at the extremity of the light source and to add to the pleasing lighting the composition is nicely symmetrical. However the subject matter is basically arbitrary, were it not the wedding prep of a groom I shot one summer at the Corinthia in London.
You might ask why am I not keeping this concealed? Why not keep it hidden like the Magic Circle keeps its secrets a mystery to those on the outside? Why? Because I want my clients to appreciate photography and the craft and art involved. I want them to absorb the subtleties that make a photograph a good photograph and I want them to see what sets apart a good photographer from an average photographer. And lastly I want them to know what is meant by this, when we are working we look for the light… we hunt ceaselessly and we chase… the light.