Practical ideas:

1. Awe

First and foremost, it seems that a great photograph provokes a sense of awe. Awe as your mouth being agape (open), and amazed by the epicness of something.

Funny enough the etymology of the word ‘awe‘ actually comes from fear (Proto-Germanic word, ‘agaz‘)

Contact sheet. Note how viewing all the photos as small thumbnails best helps identify the best photograph in bottom-left)
Contact sheet. Note how viewing all the photos as small thumbnails best helps identify the best photograph in bottom-left)

For example in the above photo– it provokes a sense of awe in me because of the epic lights in the top-left corner, the elegance of the curves in the top-right corner, the silhouette of Cindy’s face, and the overall scale of the photograph (shot with 21mm adapter on RICOH GR III).

Note how you can easily judge a composition as a small thumb nail quicker than seeing it all full-screen.
Note how you can easily judge a composition as a small thumb nail quicker than seeing it all full-screen.

Furthermore, monochrome seems to work better to evoke a sense of mystery/awe in a photograph, because we don’t see the world in monochrome. Perhaps this means:

The ability of a photograph to awe the viewer is based on how divorced it is from reality (we don’t see the world in monochrome).

In other words, photographs that DON’T look like reality are more impressive or awe-inspiring.

2. Mimesis

I think this philosophy of ‘mimesis‘ as interesting (human mimicry).

The basic notion is this:

When you look at a photograph, and it provokes a feeling, emotion, or action within yourself, it is great.

This means, when you look at certain photo, do you somehow mimic the behavior, emotion, thought, or feeling in real life?

LAUGHING LADY by Eric Kim Contact Sheets from MASTERS
LAUGHING LADY by Eric Kim Contact Sheet

For example for my ‘laughing lady’ photograph, it sparks joy in me, and it also “triggers” me to start laughing, and feel more optimistic and hopeful! All from this beautiful woman’s laughter!

And what makes this LAUGHING LADY photograph epic or great from a compositional standpoint?

Well, for me it is a combination of the super-close perspective (28mm, macro mode, on RICOH GR II). Furthermore, it is capturing the ‘decisive moment‘ of her laughing. Also, because it is shot from a lower-angle looking up, she looks larger than life. Furthermore, the combinator of the colors work well (the red of her lips juxtaposed against the blue sky, with enough white to fill the frame).

3. The Gaussian Blur x Inverse Test

Download .ZIP of all the composition files in this example >

Hanoi, 2017

To make a great composition, see if it passes the “gaussian blur test”. Which means, apply the GAUSSIAN BLUR effect on Photoshop, and determine the strength/simplicity of your composition.

Gaussian blur applied on Photoshop
Gaussian blur applied on Photoshop. For a full resolution JPEG image, I applied 123 pixels.
Using polygonal lasso tool in Photoshop, to select the white bits.
Using polygonal lasso tool in Photoshop, to select the white bits.
Filling in with crimson red
Filling in with crimson red

When I analyze this composition, I do a combination of applying Gaussian Blur, and inversing the image.

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Original photograph
Gaussian blur applied
Gaussian blur applied
Photograph inversed
Photograph inversed
Filling in the crimson red
Filling in the crimson red. Background still shows the gaussian blur effect
Background layer hidden. Shows the general composition of the image.
Background layer hidden. Shows the general composition of the image.
abstract. Photograph inversed again, this time with crimson red layer lowered opacity.
Photograph inversed again, this time with crimson red layer lowered opacity.
Lowered opacity in photoshop with inversed image.
Lowered opacity in photoshop with inversed image.
Simple ineverse
Simple inverse

Download .ZIP of all the composition files in this example >

Conclusion: It is all subjective

The annoying answer:

The secret of great photography is a mystery, and it is all subjective.

With philosophy of beauty (aesthetics), it is all subjective. Which means, you are the judge of what is a great or beautiful photograph.

Kyoto, 2017 #cindyproject
Kyoto, 2017 #cindyproject

But what I would say is this:

The more experienced I get in photography, the more I shoot, the more I think, the more I philosophize — the greater my self-confidence in my judgements of what makes a great photograph (or not).


Practical takeaway points

The practical conclusion is this:

  1. Never stop making photos
  2. Always strive to make MORE BEAUTIFUL or MORE GREAT photos
  3. Constantly revise your opinion, philosophy, and share these learnings with others.

ERIC

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