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What makes a Great Photo?

What makes a Great Photo? If there is one question I hear more then any other, it is this one. Is my photo great? Is it good enough to sell to an Agency? What do Agencies want anyway? It all comes down to the same thing: What makes a Great Photo?

We have already seen in my Cool Composition is King article the importance of composition in determining how to anticipate a great photo, but what lifts a great compositon to become a great photo? Here's my take on the subject: A Great Photo is a Wow Photo. When you see it for the first time, you say Wow. You just know, by looking at it, that this is a winning image. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, the general public see things much the same, too. We can all think of the iconic photos and posters of our age. Its not just you who thinks they are great: everyone does. I find this very encouraging: it means that as long as I am strict with myself, I can identify the images that will really work well, not just for me, but for everyone else too.

A great photo doesn't need to be big. Size is not important here. A great photo is great when its no bigger than a thumbnail. The eye recognises this straight away it doesn't need to wait for an enlargement. Look, for instance, at one of my Catalog pages. Click on this link: 'Catalog Page 5' to open the Catalog page in a new Browser window. The images down the left hand side of the page are all tiny, yet as we look at them we have no problems deciding which are the 'Wow' photos. Click on a thumbnail to see a bigger version. Does this make more impact on your assessment of it or not?

What do the Photography Agencies and Image Libraries want? This is the magic question we all, as Travel Photographers, want the answer to. What do the Photo Agencies and Image Libraries consider a great photo, one that is worthy to be on their sites? Ask them the question directly and you are unlikely to get a direct answer. Of course the basics must be correct. It has to meet all of their specifications. It must be in focus, unless for artistic effect. Horizons must be straight, likewise. Colors must be correct, to the best of your ability. After that, it gets a bit more difficult to answer. So I've stopped asking the Agencies and come up with the answer myself. The best way is to determine what the Photo Agencies consider are La Creme de la Creme: the Best of the Best of Travel Photography, is to look on their own sites. Visit their galleries, see which images are selling the best, and which images are the most popular. I consider this a great learning tool, and spend quite a bit of time considering each shot, asking myself WHY a photo is great, what aspects of it make it so, and what I can learn from it. I was also very pleased and surprised to find that some of my own photographs were included in the Lonely Planet Images Best of 2009, 2010, and 2011 Galleries, without mention, as well. LPI was bought out my Getty Images in 2012, and their site closed down, but if you are interested, you can see the photos that made it here.

There's another great learning tool for Travel Photographers, and one that's often overlooked. Its free, too, which is always nice to hear. Its also very relevant,as it contains images that photo buyers have already chosen. What is it? Simple: holiday brochures, as stocked by your friendly local travel agent. These bulky brochures, which the travel agencies are delighted to give you, are stuffed full of excellent travel photographs, and each image in there has been chosen for its ability to sell this or that vacation. This should make you stop and think for a moment. The images on display at the Travel Photo Libraries are those that the library owners think will be good enough to sell to those people who need travel photographs. Guess what: the pictures in the holiday brochures have *already* sold. They *are* just what the buyers are looking for! If your local travel agent is getting a bit suspicious of all those exotic brochures you keep taking, then contact the companies directly, and get them to put you on their mailing list. Not only will they send you this year's examples of travel photos that really sell, but they will keep on sending them to you, year after year, without you having to remind them.


Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...

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