Quote Series: What Makes a Good Photograph?

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These brilliant quotes about what makes a good photograph will spark your creativity and help take your photography to the next level.

After reading through thousands of quotes, here are some of the common qualities of a good photograph from those in the know:

  • Unique – Can never be repeated
  • Emotion – The viewer feel something
  • Purpose – Includes some form of narrative/or drama
  • Mystery – Provides questions, not answers
  • Timeless – Just as good (or better) in the future

What about composition?

It doesn’t really matter. A poorly composed photograph that says something is better than a perfectly composed photograph that says nothing. Substance beats style every time.

So without further ado, here are the best tips, advice, and secrets from master photographers as well as quotes from artists and non-photographers.

Qualities of a Good Photograph

Unique

A good photograph can never be repeated.

Harry Benson

When you look into your camera, if you see an image you have ever seen before, don’t click the shutter.

Alexey Brodovitch

The eye is made to see and not to think… A good photograph is a surprise. How could we plan and foresee a surprise? We just have to be ready.

Marc Riboud

For me, it’s all about chance, coincidence, mistakes… it’s all about discovery for me, those things that change your perception of where you’re going with the next body of work.

Trent Parke

Like all photographers, I depend on serendipity… I pray for what might be referred to as the angel of chance.

Sally Mann

I’m inviting the spirits into my photography. It’s an act of God.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Luck is the attentive photographer’s best teacher.

John Szarkowski

A photograph is neither taken nor seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

The best pictures are uninvited, they’re suddenly there in front of you… easy to see but difficult to catch. Some people take pictures, I find them.

Jane Bown

I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before.

Robert Mapplethorpe

We know that photographs inform people. We also know that photographs move people. The photograph that does both is the one we want to see and make.

Sam Abell

The public is being spoiled by good technical quality photographs in magazines, on television, in the movies, and they have become bored. The disease of our age is this boredom and a good photographer must successfully combat it. The only way to do this is by invention by surprise.  

Alexey Brodovitch

Every photograph is a battle of form versus content. The good ones are on the border of failure.

Garry Winogrand

Without the participation of intuition, sensibility, and understanding, photography is nothing. All these faculties must be closely harnessed, and it is then that the capture of a rare picture becomes a real physical delight.

Henri Cartier-Bresson
gare-saint-lazare-henri-cartier-bresson
Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1932 © Magnum Photo

Emotion

A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.

Irving Penn

Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.

Don McCullin

I frequently attempt to show in my work, in various ways, the unreality of the “real” and the reality of the “unreal.” This may result, at times, in some disturbing effects. But art should be disturbing; it should make us both think and feel; it should infect the subconscious as well as the conscious mind; it should never allow complacency nor condone the status quo.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue

Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like. 

David Alan Harvey

If viewing the picture triggers emotions, of whatever kind, and perhaps touches something in you that you find important.

Peter Lindbergh

I realized that you could shoot photographs until the cows came home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings.

Don McCullin

If an image is good, it is brought back to life by the feelings of the viewer.

Daido Moriyama

The purpose of all art is to cause a deep and emotion, also one that is entertaining or pleasing. Out of the depth and entertainment comes value.

W. Eugene Smith

My pictures must first be beautiful, but that beauty is not enough. I strive to convey an underlying edge of anxiety, of isolation, of fear.

Gregory Crewdson

There’s one more secret ingredient that should go into a photo – ATTITUDE… this makes the difference between an ordinary photograph and a great one. In all my lectures and magazine articles, I always this point. Now just what is this thing called attitude? You can’t buy it. It doesn’t come wrapped in a package. Yet, without it, it is impossible to produce a picture that has life.

Weegee

There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough – there has to be vision and the two together can make a good photograph. It is difficult to describe this thin line where matter ends and mind begins.

Robert Frank

Every photograph has an equivalent idea or emotion attached to it.

Alfred Stieglitz

When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.  

Robert Frank

The formula for doing a good job in photography is to think like a poet.

Imogen Cunningham

I often think of my work as visual haiku. It is an attempt to evoke and suggest through as few elements as possible rather than to describe with tremendous detail.  

Michael Kenna

We know that photographs inform people. We also know that photographs move people. The photograph that does both is the one we want to see and make.

Sam Abell
The Burning Monk
The Burning Monk by Malcolm Browne, 1963

Purpose

I’m always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don’t give a damn how it got made.

Minor White

A photographer must be prepared to catch and hold on to those elements which give distinction to the subject or lend it atmosphere.

Bill Brandt

I look for drama – drama is the key factor in all my work.

Don McCullin

People often ask me what makes a great image. That’s an almost impossible question to answer. Sometimes the obvious can make a great image. Sometimes a photograph works because of its subtlety or what is excluded from the frame. For me, a great image involves a combination of strong content and excellent design.

Mary Ellen Mark

What I’m after, what I’ve always been after is a picture that tells a story. I see it all in my head beforehand, and I set out obsessively—maybe even narcissistically—to make it. Very little is improvised in the end, though I am open to serendipity in some details. In part, I see what I am doing as exploring the American psyche through the American vernacular landscape, much as Hopper did.

Gregory Crewdson

I think a great image, first of all – however it looks – it has to have a purpose. And when it has a purpose, then after, you can tell what aesthetics and many other things. But I think the purpose is the most important thing. And then after the purpose, of course, if it’s a boring, visually boring message, then it’s not really a great picture at all.

Peter Lindbergh

If you want to write you should learn the alphabet. You write and write and in the end you have a beautiful, perfect alphabet. But it isn’t the alphabet that is important. The important thing is what you are writing, what you are expressing. The same thing goes for photography. Photographs can be technically perfect and even beautiful, but they have no expression.

Andre Kertesz

Quality doesn’t mean deep blacks and whatever tonal range. That’s not quality, that’s a kind of quality. The pictures of Robert Frank might strike someone as being sloppy–the tone range isn’t right and things like that–but they’re far superior to the pictures of Ansel Adams with regard to quality, because the quality of Ansel Adams, if I may say so, is essentially the quality of a postcard. But the quality of Robert Frank is a quality that has something to do with what he’s doing, what his mind is. It’s not balancing out the sky to the sand and so forth. It’s got to do with intention.

Elliott Erwitt

The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told.

Cindy Sherman
Film Still 21, Cindy Sherman
Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978 © Cindy Sherman

Mystery

To me, photography must suggest, not insist or explain.  

Brassai

It’s not the decisive moment. It’s not the beginning or end. It’s the middle. It’s more like a question.

Robert Frank

I try with my pictures to raise a question, to provoke a debate, so that we can discuss problems together and come up with solutions.

Sebastiao Salgado

For me, a photograph is most successful when it doesn’t answer all the questions, but leaves something to the imagination.

Greg Gorman

If it doesn’t have ambiguity, don’t bother to take it. I love that, that aspect of photography – the mendacity of photography – it’s got to have some kind of peculiarity in it or it’s not interesting to me.

Sally Mann

I do regard photography as an extremely difficult act. I believe the achievement of a work that is evocative and mysterious and, at the same time, realistic is a great one and a rare one – and perhaps sometimes almost an accident.

Walker Evans

Photographs can be enigmatic. They sometimes work because of what is included in the frame; and sometimes because of what is not. There’s no formula… It’s a mysterious process, an endless challenge.

Mary Ellen Mark

A great photograph needs no explanation; it functions by suggestion. There is no need to be explicit.

Mary Ellen Mark

When I say that a good picture has surprise quality or shock appeal, I do not mean that it is a loud or vulgar picture but, instead, that it stimulates my thinking and intrigues me.

Alexey Brodovitch

When the good pictures come, we hope they tell truths, but truths “told slant,” just as Emily Dickinson commanded.

Sally Mann

My work is not quite perfect. Perhaps it still contains something of life. Because perfection often prevents the work from breathing.  

Anton Corbijn

Clarity isn’t what photography is about.

Daido Moriyama

How could we possibly appreciate La Giocanda [the Mona Lisa] today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: “This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth” – or “because she’s hiding a secret from her lover”? It would shut off the viewers reality and shackle him to a “reality” other than his own.

Stanley Kubrick
What Makes a Good Photo, Loch Ness
The Loch Ness Monster by Unknown, 1934

Timeless

The very best pictures adapt themselves to many changes in meaning.

John Swarkowski

Hang a chocolate box lid and a good painting on the wall together and in a short time the first will bore, yet the painting will give more and more pleasure and satisfaction as time goes by. This is true about good and bad photographs. You cannot expect to appreciate good photography instantly. It takes time and study to appreciate the feeling of the photographer.

David Hurn

The similarity between Van Gogh, Haiku poetry, and good photography is the concern for mortality. That things are very fleeting, that there are people who are more sensitive to death than others. The threat of time is of great concern to them. And the camera is a very appropriate instrument for many.

Dennis Stock

A still photograph is something which you can always go back to. You can put it on your wall and look at it again and again. Because it is that frozen moment. I think it tends to burn into your psyche. It becomes ingrained in your mind. A powerful picture becomes iconic of a place or a time or a situation.  

Steve McCurry

My own approach is based upon three considerations: First – hands off! Whenever I photograph I do not molest or tamper with or arrange. Second – a sense of place. I try to picture as part of its surroundings, as having roots. Third – a sense of time. Whatever I photograph, I try to show as having its position in the past or in the present.  

Dorothea Lange

A single photograph contains different images.

Daido Moriyama

I will be remembered when I’m in heaven. People won’t remember my name, but they will know the photographer who did that picture of that nurse being kissed by the sailor at the end of World War II. Everybody remembers that.  

Alfred Eisenstaedt
V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945

More What Makes a Good Photograph Quotes

A good photograph is knowing where to stand.  

Ansel Adams

Detachment, lack of sentimentality, originality, a lot of things that sound rather empty. I know what they mean. Let’s say, ‘visual impact’ may not mean much to anybody. I could point it out though. I mean it’s a quality that something has or does not have. Coherence. Well, some things are weak, some things are strong…  

Walker Evans

The way I would describe a pictorial is that it is a picture that makes everybody say ‘Aaaaah,’ with five vowels when they see it. It is something you would like to hang on the wall. The French word ‘photogenique’ defines it better than anything in English. It is a picture which must have quality, drama, and it must, in addition, be as good technically as you can possible make it.

Alfred Eisenstaedt

I prefer to work on the edge, not the middle of the road. I am looking for chaos.

Robert Frank

I have always done the opposite of what I was trained to do… Having little technical background, I became a photographer. Adopting a machine, I do my utmost to make it malfunction. For me, to make a photograph is to make an anti-photograph.

William Klein

To be an artist, to be a photographer, you have to nurture the things that most people discard.

Richard Avedon

Cartier-Bresson has said that photography seizes a ‘decisive moment’, that’s true except that it shouldn’t be taken too narrowly…does my picture of a cobweb in the rain represent a decisive moment? The exposure time was probably three or four minutes. That’s a pretty long moment. I would say the decisive moment, in that case, was the moment in which I saw this thing and decided I wanted to photograph it.

Paul Strand

I didn’t want to be criticized for taking low-quality photographs, so I tried to reach the best, highest quality of photography, and then to combine this with a conceptual art practice. But thinking back, that was the wrong decision [laughs]. Developing a low-quality aesthetic is a sign of serious fine art – I still see this.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

To make good photographs, to express something, to contribute something to the world he lives in, and to contribute something to the art of photography besides imitations of the best photographers on the market today, that is basic training, the understanding of self.

Edward Steichen

Everyone will take one great picture, I’ve done better because I’ve taken two.

David Bailey

I think aesthetically recording spontaneous action, rather than carefully posing a picture, is the most valid and expressive use of photography.

Stanley Kubrick

When I first started, I thought that if I took enough frames, I’d get a good picture. Photographs are taken with the brain, the camera records it, but it’s a metaphysical process because what happens in an image is beyond what you see. And the problem with amateurs is that they’re too busy with the technical side. It’s the head that makes pictures and the cameras record the thought. You’ve got to be able to read the images.

Terence Donovan

Good photography is not about ‘Zone Printing’ or any other Ansel Adams nonsense. It’s just about seeing. You either see, or you don’t see. The rest is academic. Photography is simply a function of noticing things. Nothing more.

Elliott Erwitt

Sometimes photographers mistake emotion for what makes a great street photograph.

Garry Winogrand

You are asking me what makes a good picture. For me, it is the harmony between subject and form that leads each one of those elements to its maximum of expression and vigor.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.

Ansel Adams

If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.

Robert Capa
D Day Landing, Robert Capa
D-Day, Normandy by Robert Capa, 1944 © Magnum Photo

Quotes From Non-Photographers

To suggest is to create, to state is to destroy.

Author unknown

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.

Aristotle

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

Albert Einstein

The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb. Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to instant recall.

Susan Sontag

In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it.

Kakuzō Okakura, The Book of Tea

The best images are the ones that retain their strength and impact over the years, regardless of the number of times they are viewed.

Anne Geddes

The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.

Anton Chekhov

With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.  

Aristotle

In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I always thought good photos were like good jokes. If you have to explain it, it just isn’t that good.  

Anonymous
What Makes a Good Photo, Lunch Skyscraper
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper by Unknown, 1932

Wisdom From Artists

The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.  

Francis Bacon

A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.

Edgar Degas

Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.  

Banksy

Unless a picture shocks, it is nothing.

Marcel Duchamp

The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists.. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.

Banksy

A good picture is equivalent to a good deed.

Vincent Van Gogh

The painter will produce pictures of little merit if he takes the works of others as his standard.  

Leonardo da Vinci

A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun, an event first and only secondarily an image.  

Elaine de Kooning

Without atmosphere a painting is nothing.

Rembrandt

The mystery lies in the irrationality by which you make appearance – if it is not irrational, you make an illustration.

Francis Bacon

It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.  

Mark Rothko

The idea is more important than the object.

Damien Hirst

A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks labored and overworked… I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.  

Helen Frankenthaler

A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.

Paul Cezanne

Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.

Leonardo da Vinci

Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.

Edgar Degas
What Makes a Good Photograph
Dalí Atomicus by Philippe Halsman, 1948

Final Words

Have a favorite quote about what makes a good photograph? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Looking for examples of a good photograph? Check out Time Magazines, 100 Most Influential Images of All-Time

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Founder of Photogpedia.com. Photography enthusiast, occasional filmmaker, part-time writer and full-time dreamer. Rediscovered photography in 2012 and have been trying to level up my photography skills since (I'm getting there) #chasingthecreative

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