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Pro Photo Tips for Students: What makes a successful photograph?

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One of the most difficult aspects of changing photography is that any comment that is made is subjective: it is somebody’s opinion that you may or may not agree with. This instantly provides a problem for you as a student if someone criticizes your work, but you either don’t agree with him or her or understand what he or she is saying. The same situation applies when you are dealing with a client. If you find yourself in this situation then here is some advice to deal with it when it happens, and perhaps prevent it from happening at all. The solution is to remove the subjective and become objective, and to do this you need to understand the context of why the photograph was taken. This then allows you to comment on a photograph as being either successful or unsuccessful in its intent. If your argument for a picture being successful is because you ‘like’ it, you will always be open to others saying that they don’t. That’s okay, but it means that neither of you can move the conversation forward, without understanding that there can be no informed discussion on that basis.


If I take a photograph of a loaf of bread, no matter how beautiful the image may be, how technically and aesthetically perfect it is, as a fashion photograph it is unsuccessful. As an image for a magazine article about making bread it is successful. It doesn’t matter if I like it or not, the reason why it was taken and the place in which it is going to appear provide the context for the image. Therefore, objectively, you will know and the client or your lecturer will know if it is successful for its intended context.

Once I have decided if the image is successful for its initial context, the second decision as to whether or not the image is successful is based on an aesthetic and technical context. This context is set by the work created by other photographers shooting a similar subject from a similar level of experience.

If a photograph of a loaf of bread, for example fulfills the aesthetic, narrative and technical requirements that other images featured in a magazine demonstrate, then it is appropriate for its context. It is, therefore a successful image. If it is not, then it is unsuccessful. These judgments have to be completely objective; as the photographer, these decisions cannot be made from an emotional perspective. You can’t allow the time, money or effort you have committed to creating an image or series of images to make you believe that an unsuccessful image is better than it is. Within professional photography the image either works or it does not work, and the client will tell you quickly if it is the latter! To avoid this happening, learn to talk about and explain your work to understand which of your images are successful and unsuccessful. This understanding will then be essential for you to take to all of your shoots to ensure that you are taking images that you will be able to discuss and possibly defend.

Even if you are really good at discussing your work, you will always disagree with people about specific images. Never take criticism personally, don’t be afraid of passionate debate and always listen to other people’s opinions based on their experience and knowledge. All of this is part of the creative learning process, and as long as you understand the context of your images and your intention in taking them, you should always feel confident in your photography.

“Photography offers all the things a young person desires—a sense of purpose, a real sense of adventure and something at the end of it to reward you.”

— Photographer: Donovan Wylie

Excerpted from The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography by Grant Scott © 2016 Taylor and Francis LLC, All Rights Reserved.

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MasteringPhoto, powered by bestselling Routledge authors and industry experts, features tips, advice, articles, video tutorials, interviews, and other resources for hobbyist photographers through pro image makers. No matter what your passion is—from people and landscapes to postproduction and business practices—MasteringPhoto offers advice and images that will inform and inspire you. You’ll learn from professionals at the forefront of photography, allowing you to take your skills to the next level.