What Makes a Good Photograph?

To me, a good photograph is one which evokes the viewer’s emotional response. That evocation in landscapes is usually more elusive than in news photography, street photography or wildlife photography.

In a black and white landscape, there is only the subject, the perspective and the light. The vast interpretative power of color is not available. A good photograph has some compelling aesthetic appeal. I believe it is principally the use of light in the black and white landscape that evokes the aesthetic appeal and maybe even a quiet “Oh, wow” from the viewer.

Timing is critical to the successful capture of such light. It usually means the landscape photographer must be there at the moment when the light on the subject turns evanescent: i.e., when the sun is close to the horizon (so that its rays are diffracted -- softened -- by the atmosphere), there are no clouds blocking the light on the subject and the sun's axis is as close to perpendicular to the most important plane of the subject as its seasonal transit will allow. That requires a lot of luck or a lot of planning and often months of patience (waiting for the optimum sun angle), and often all three. It almost always means shooting in the early mornings and late winter afternoons and summer evenings. It is a process that Ansel Adams used to call "ambushing the light."

My preoccupation with light notwithstanding, subject and perspective are integral to an appealing composition. I seek subjects that beg a story, not tell one. I try to capture images that will entice the viewer to imagine. I try to isolate a compelling perspective of my subject within a broader landscape. Finding that compelling perspective usually involves several or more visits to my chosen subjects. 

Ansel Adams used to say that he took pictures every day and that if, at the end of a year, he had a dozen images that he liked, he felt he was a success. My process, like Ansel's, begins with film. Unlike Ansel, I make very few exposures in a year. Of those, once my process is complete, fewer still do I characterize as "good" photographs.

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