There are many things that go into making a good photo. You must have a clearly defined subject, good focus, optimal depth of field, perfect exposure, good color and a great composition. It takes all these things, and more, to create good photos, yet it still doesn't guarantee a great photo. In fact, a great photo can sometimes be missing one or more of the qualities above and still qualify as a great photo, why?
In order for an image to be elevated to greatness it must evoke an emotional response from the viewer. After all, emotions are the forces that connect humans together, emotions also work to connect a viewer to an image! A good photo is seen, a great photo is felt! The more viewers that are emotionally impacted by a photo, and the stronger the emotional impact, the higher it rises on a scale of greatness. What causes a photo to evoke feelings is not always as apparent as one first thinks.
Subject matter is an obvious factor. For example, a photo of an elderly woman sitting on a rocking chair peeling apples in her backyard is likely to cause many to feel an emotional response regardless of whether they realize it. Many of us can relate to the photo by recalling our family matriarch using her well honed baking skills to create a masterpiece of comforting delight. Even if your grandmother never baked it’s still likely that you can relate to the thought and therefore the feeling. Since apple pie is so well recognized as a piece of Americana it’s likely Americans will “feel” a sense of national pride without even consciously being aware of it. The emotional impact of the image described above may not have quite the same effect in other parts of the world. It may still have some appeal but it’s unlikely to have the entire range of impact as it would in the U.S.
In addition to obvious factors like subject matter, there are a host of other qualities that impact our emotions.
Take color for example. It has long been known that color affects our emotions and impacts our mood. We associate colors with emotion, and again, emotions are the forces that connect humans to one another. While the psychology of color is beyond the scope of this article it is important to realize that there is a definite correlation between color and mood. In one study it was found that red colored placebos were more effective than blue colored ones, this obviously demonstrates the power with which color affects us. How do different colors make you feel? How about blue? Most people associate blue with cold, calm and sadness. Although blue is the most popular color in the spectrum, it’s use may cause people to experience an emotional response contrary to the intent of the photographer.
Another example of image qualities that affect emotion is perspective. A portrait taken from a low vantage point will give the viewer the “feeling” that the subject is powerful and dominant, while a high vantage point will cause them to feel the subject is more submissive and non-threatening.
Symbolism can be another powerful force. By the basic thought process known as "association" we associate this with that. The lines of association generated by a symbol may radiate in many directions. The Statue of Liberty, for example, is a quite powerful symbol. Lady Liberty, as many affectionately know her, is considered a symbol of all that the U.S.A. stands for. Can you imagine the emotions of European immigrants as they made their way towards Ellis Island. The feeling they had seeing this beautiful symbol holding her torch, as if to light the way for all to come, must have had amazing impact. Since, as her name suggests, she stands for Liberty, many will associate her likeness with the freedom we hold so dearly. Because freedom is such an important aspect of who we are we will, and do, fight for it. Perhaps this is why the symbol she represents is proudly used to represent the battles we've fought to maintain that freedom. When I think back to all the images of 9/11/2001 none were as powerful as one I saw with Lady Liberty standing in the foreground while the twin towers burned behind her. To me, at that moment, she spoke to me. She told me that no matter how devastating the attack was that day she was standing there to light the way in our darkest hour. I'm not sure about others but I felt a deep sense of national pride when I saw that photo.