The good vs. the great

Tiananmen Square protesto 001

In response to a post and then a follow-up post (see here and here) regarding what makes for a good vs. great photo, we received some interesting emails from our readers.  In short, some thanked us for offering such an insightful and thought provoking read.  Others thought that a debate on such a subjective topic is akin to racing into a wormhole… i.e., something best avoided.  Here at 2 Guys Photo, we think it’s ok to ponder how and why some photos are memorable and others, while technically perfect, are not.  In fact, we think that this very process of consideration is a means to learn and grow as an artist.  If we, as photographers, are uncertain about which images we like and why, how then can we go out and create something worth sharing with others?

Here are a two of the comments… along with a response.

Comment: The problem here is the definitions of “good” and “memorable”. Without a proper agreement on what those terms mean, the discussion becomes meaningless too.

“Good” is just a ridiculously fuzzy term that I have no way of defining.

2 Guys Photo: Agree that ‘good’ is ridiculously fuzzy.  It is subjective.  But let’s face it, truly great art tends to be considered truly great by many.  That’s not to say that a unique piece of art that speaks to me in some way is rendered less great because others don’t deem it so.  If it’s great to me, then that’s all that counts.

With that said, however, I don’t agree that the discussion is meaningless without an acceptable and proper definition of terms.  In reality, the post itself essentially poses the very question: what is great and why is that so?  The post asked readers to consider their own definitions.


Comment: A great photo should move you even if you have no knowledge of the back story.

2 Guys Photo:  I actually used to agree with this statement.  Along a similar line, photo captions used to annoy me to no end.  Great images need no words… words which impose meaning and interpretation and context, I thought.  A truly great image should stand on it’s own without those aids and hindrances.

But, upon further reflection, I’ve concluded that some back stories and their images are inseparable.  They are meant to coexist, and stripping the visual backbone out from its context can leave the viewer with only a very superficial rendering of reality.

For instance…

Just a few days ago, we marked the 22nd anniversary of the Chinese government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square – see photo above.  On its own, is that a particularly great or even good photo?  Was a passerby stopping to admire an unmoving battalion of tanks, perhaps just before a celebratory military parade?  No, of course not.  This photo stands as a profound symbol of that conflict and the overpowering military might that stood to oppose and ultimately crush the peaceful attempt to create lasting change.  A great image… but only with the context… with the backstory.

Finally, a new study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers (neuroscientists to be exact) sought to identify, scientifically, why some photos are memorable and why some are not.  The study (linked here) points out that the most memorable photos are ones that contain people.  The next memorable are of static indoor scenes and human scale objects.  What about landscapes?  Though beautiful, they are generally speaking, completely forgettable.


Posted by Rey

This entry was posted in Learning and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The good vs. the great

  1. arthill says:

    Rats, I shoot thousands, nay, tens of thousands of completely forgettable photos each year. Kinda takes the fun out of it. Ah forget about it 🙂

  2. 2guysphoto says:

    Art – we’re familiar with your work… and are grateful for all of your far from forgettable ones…


  3. Mark says:

    For me it’s not just people but people with emotion in their face or even there stance. I think because emotion is such a large part of the human experience that we look for it in things. If we see something that makes us feel different then we felt the second before we looked at it then it has an impact and will be more memorable. Unfortunately ugly and or disturbing things can cause the same reaction so the goal is to provide a positive emotional connection. Though not a huge fan of the style I think Norman Rockwell did a great job of utilizing this concept to it’s fullest with his art.

    Is this shot memorable?
    For me it is because I can see emotion in his eye that helps me connect with it. Does it make it a good shot? For me yes, and as I improve my skills I hope to illicit that response from others as well.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      The attached is interesting. I found myself looking at it and wondering what exactly it was that I was looking at…


  4. I think I agree that memorable photos have people in them. But, do I want a memorable photo on my wall or a pretty one? One that tells a story or one that has characterisstics that over time I want to look and relook at? It’s all in the audience I guess. Photojournalistic, artlike, scientific or documentary. I think it’s an interesting debate. I suspect the answer changes or time for some people.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Maryann – it has changed for me over time, that’s for sure. For a while, I couldn’t see why anyone would think Cartier-Bresson was much to write home about. Decisive moment? Right.

      But now, I’ve gone over to that extreme, thinking that facial expressions, movement, and personal context are all what make some photos winners.

      But I do certainly agree that “it’s all in the audience”. That’s why art is great. And beauty. It really is in the eyes of the beholder…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s