What Makes a Good Photo?

Dear friend,

I’m very interested in aesthetics, and what makes a “good” photo– or an aesthetically pleasing image, which causes our soul to quiver.

I. Tension

Fashion District in Downtown La, 2011 // ERIC KIM

A good photo needs tension. Some drama. Something about to happen. The writer Geoffrey Dyer calls this the “pregnant moment”– the moment before the decisive moment.

For example, the moment before the woman wipes the sweat off her boyfriend. Or the moment before the Lamborghini exits the frame of a photo.

If think about sexual relationships: if we watch a film, we like to see the “build up” of the drama of a couple before something happens.

Even with comedy– a good story happens because there is a “build up” and a tension before the punch-line. Without tension, a joke wouldn’t work.

How to capture tension in your photos:

Practical ways to capture more tension in your photos:

  1. Capture people about to enter or exit the frame.
  2. Capture hand gestures
  3. Capture tension in the eyes of your subject.

II. Emotion

A photo or image without emotion is dead.

A photo with emotion: evokes excitement, fear, resentment, joy, sadness, or anxiety.

A tip for yourself, look at your own photo and ask yourself:

Does this photo make me feel something?

What kind of emotion does your photo evoke?

For myself, I am a social cynic and critic. Most of my photos are pretty depressing. My SUITS project shows men stuck in shitty jobs, that are stressful, although well paying. It is a reaction against what I felt when I worked corporate — I felt like a slave.

However more recently, I’m making personal photos of Cindy. These photos are a dynamic opposite: I am celebrating positivity, life, happiness, and the joyful struggle of our relationship.

My mom.

If my photos don’t cause my viewer to feel something in their heart, I’ve failed as a photographer.

Assignment: Photograph joy and sorrow

For an entire day, photograph only joy. The next day, only photograph sorrow. Make a photo series with 5 joyful photos, and 5 sad photos. See if you can actually feel the emotion in your photos.

III. Be opinionated.

I want to see your opinion in your photos.

Reality is all interpretation. You create your own reality with your photos.


You decide what to include in your photos, and more importantly, what to exclude from your photos.

We both might walk down the same block, and you photograph happy kids playing. I might ignore that, and photograph the lonely man with his fist against his chin. We see the same thing, but there is something that causes us to photograph different things.

It is your opinion or perspective of the world.

Are you an optimist? Pessimist? Cynic? Social justice warrior? Bloodthirsty capitalist? Who are you? And do your photos show your opinion and soul?

All photos are opinion.

Assignment: Show your opinion on a social issue

This assignment is to photograph gentrification. Aka, when rich people come into a poor neighborhood and build a “Whole Foods” expensive grocery store.

How do you feel about it? Make a photo series on gentrification, limited to 10 images. Show your opinion, whether good, bad, or something in between.


Obviously there are a lot more things on what makes a good or bad photo– like composition, simplicity, minimalism, layers, etc.

But ultimately what makes a good photo for me: making photos true to your personal artistic and opinionated view of the world.

The world needs your opinion and perspective. So never water that down.


He passed away a year after I made this portrait.


Seoul, 2009

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