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What makes a photograph great?


There has been a change in photography, one which has been nothing short of cataclysmic. It happened in the seeming blink of an eye. When did the ‘weekend warrior’ photographer become so good that he could compete and even outcompete professional wildlife photographers? When I first started photographing I shot on film and I sat in a waterhole for 3 months just to get a shot of a lion drinking. I kid you not, here is the link. Then came the digital revolution and the word revolution is an understatement. Gigs of data rapidly replaced rolls of film. The power to instantly review and tweak settings as well as the enormous power of sophisticated post processing software literally was a game changer. Remote cameras hidden in buggies and GoPro cameras strapped to any and everything imaginable are now the preferred modus operandi. The current Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s winning image was taken on a GoPro. These days even National Geographic photographers are no not behind the camera, they set up infrared beams and let the subject take its own photo. These ‘peek-a-boo’ shots of animals looking like stuffed teddy bears in a museum exhibit, seem to be the only answer that the world’s top professional photographers have to try and take fresh images. I can ramble on as much as I like about how digital photography has not only shifted the goal posts but more accurately, obliterated them. But, when my ramblings are done, I am still left with questions...


Does a photograph still hold value? Or put differently, is a photograph still something special? If the world is full of them, do they still remain attractive and valuable or powerful? Think about this, if the world were knee-deep in diamonds, would they still be a precious stone? Well, the world is knee-deep in photographs! If I were to try and answer my own question I would say that good photographs have indeed lost some of their value. Think about it, every single time you go onto social media, and especially photographic platforms, you see good photographs but are these photographs memorable? Can you remember what photos you saw on Instagram yesterday? What about last week? What about last year? In film days, I used to aim for 12 good photographs per year and if I actually achieved this goal, it was a great year. Wait, it was a phenomenal year. Of those 12, perhaps 6 would maybe be photographs that I would consider ‘signature shots’ to place in a book or portfolio. Fast forward to the year 2017 and if you are a wildlife photographer who does not place at least one photo on social media per day, well then, you simply are not keeping up with the Joneses and your amount of followers will reflect this. It seems that the world has a vast appetite for good photographs and this in and of itself, tells me that good photographs do still hold at least some value, but that this value has certainly diminished on the basis that good photographs abound everywhere everyday. It is basic economics, the supply outstrips the demand and the value decreases, even on an emotional or psychological level.

Ok, so if a good photograph has lost some or maybe a lot of its value, what about a great photograph? Before we can answer this question we need to answer the question of what makes a photograph great? For me there is one defining point that elevates an image into the realm of greatness and that is its ability to be remembered. Anything truly great in life is memorable and is remembered long afterwards. Of course the same holds true for great disasters. So, if a photograph is remembered then it is great? I could go along with this. Do great photographs still exist and how has the digital revolution, the same revolution that killed the good photograph, affected this?

One might argue that the vast improvement in equipment has made it easy to capture even a great photograph. For example, birds in flight are widely regarded by amateur photographers and many pro’s alike, as the most difficult photographs to get as birds are small and fast. The new digital cameras offer you 12 frames per second and incredible autofocus, combined with large memory cards offering gigs worth of ‘spraying and praying’, making it possible to take images of birds in flight. As a result, birds in flight have now become commonplace. This then translates to mean that, if you agree with my above sentiments, birds in flight are no longer great photographs as by default, anything that is commonplace can surely not be considered great? Or can it? I am just thinking out aloud now but let me suggest at least that yesterday’s great is today's good.

Let me get to the point. I believe good photographs have largely lost their value if we use how memorable they are as yardstick. There are simply too many to be remembered. But, great photos are still as memorable as they ever were. That is the beautiful thing about life, there is always room at the very top, the thin edge of the wedge if you like, for great. You might know of 100 good restaurants but there will always be those few great ones that raise the bar. As a passionate wildlife photographer my mission is to elevate my imagery to great, wherever and how high that bar may be. I have seen thousands of good movies in my time but only a handful of ones I would consider great. I consider them great, not because of how many Oscars they won (although most of them did), but because I remember them. They touched my soul. They affected me.

I would argue that good photographs are a dime a dozen but great photographs are still as rare as they ever were. The really good news for wildlife and nature photographers is that nature, in all its many forms and glory, is by default great. Wild animals are great! If I use the same simple logic as I have above, wild animals, if anything, will become more rare and will therefore become greater. If I know, which I do, that my wild subjects are great and if I want to capture a great photograph, all I need do, is capture my subject in a pleasing way. I need to, through my photographs, capture the essence of my great subjects. I need to capture their nature and beauty and if I can do this, I will by default have a great photograph. “Sigh”, what a relief.

I was reminded of this recently on safari in the Zambezi Valley. Wild Dogs are truly great animals; anyone who has spent time with them knows this. But, to capture the dog’s spirit in a photograph is far easier said than done. It took me years and years, up until this encounter in fact, to finally take portraits that I feel communicate the wonder and mystery of the dog. I could argue that these images are pleasing portraits of a great animal and therefore these are great photographs. But, let me rather say that taking these photographs and now looking at them, I will remember them and therefore they are great, even if only in my eyes. In closing, let me propose the notion that in the case of photography good might have become the enemy of great.

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