Ask anyone you know why it is that they like a photograph, and you’ll probably get a different answer out of everyone! There are as many reasons to like or dislike a photograph as there are people. And some of these reasons are perhaps—I don’t want to say “bad” reasons, but maybe they are superficial reasons.
To illustrate this, think about some of the things that come up in conversation when you’re speaking with other photographers about a particular photograph. There are a few certain things that you’ll hear quite often. These things may even be things you’ve heard yourself say.
Perhaps a particular photograph is enjoyable because it’s technically perfect, for example. The focus is tack sharp, the composition is spot on, the exposure is ideal. Or another person may look at a photograph and like it because it looks like how they think it should. In a landscape, this could mean that the grass is green and the sky is blue—therefore, it’s a good landscape. We may admire a photograph because we recognize the work that went into creating it. Complicated lighting setups, trips to an out of the way place, and other things of that nature.
Just as there are reasons like this for enjoying a photograph, there are also superficial reasons why people dislike photographs. Many is the time I’ve heard some sections of the photographic community pronounce that they really don’t like HDR photography because it’s too colorful, or because some HDR photographers employ techniques that the observers find unenjoyable. That’s just one example of the ways in which we generalize, and there are many others.
Now, even though I’ve said that some of these reasons are superficial reasons for liking or disliking things, to my mind, there can be no right or wrong reasons. Art is, after all, highly subjective.
But, there’s a caveat. When we make superficial judgments or sweeping generalizations, perhaps we are missing the point of the photograph. It’s too easy to nod your head and say that you like something or to disregard an image at first glance over something that doesn’t immediately thrill you.
When that happens, we tend to move on from the photograph. Whether we like it or dislike it, we’ve made our judgment and we go on to look at other things.
And that’s why my favorite way to judge a photograph is to ask a simple question: Does it keep on giving? I like this question because it invites me to look deeper in search of something more. To go beyond the exposure, the colors, and whatever else to see if I can find things that provoke thought. It encourages me to spend time with the photograph rather than making a quick judgment before moving on.
So that is the metric I try to use when I’m looking at photographs. Does it keep on giving? If I get something new from it every time I pause to consider it, then to me, it’s a good photograph. Photography should be about more than composition, colors, or techniques. These things are no more than the tools we use to best get our meanings across. Ultimately, photography is about the experience.