A Conundrum among Colleagues: What Makes a Great Image?

As a photography/digital imaging studio, we are obviously going to have our fair share of opinions on what makes an image truly great, but what may surprise you is how varying those opinions can be. I sat down with David from retouching; Mandy, one of our project managers; Derrick from CG; and Craig, our Marketing Specialist to discuss that elusive question. 

As we all gathered around the heavy wooden conference table, David pulled out a notebook and began flipping through it. He noted that he had looked at some images earlier in the day in preparation for the blog, mostly images of food and wine, high gloss magazine photos, and so on, and that’s when it dawned on him that beginning with a great concept is what sets images apart from others. 

TRG food photography image. 

Of course now that David had started the proverbial ball rolling for this conversation, everyone felt more comfortable sharing his and her thoughts, and it wasn’t long before Mandy jumped in to disagree. Lighting, good color, quality styling: these are the makings of a great image, she argued. Some of the “best” pictures in the world were not necessarily born out of an initial concept but snapped unexpectedly. An agreement was finally reached that instead of concept it’s perhaps better to say idea since a concept typically involves more thought and more planning, and no one could deny that lighting, color, and styling often play heavy roles in what makes a great image. “A concept is not necessary; it’s all in the eye of the beholder,” Mandy commented, David nodding. 

TRG image of puzzle teacup. 

During the back and forth between Mandy and David, Derrick sat calmly, eyes traveling the distance between them as the remarks volleyed across the table.  “I agree. Something special can happen without having to make it special,” Derrick finally chimed in. With this, David made an excellent point. When anyone is flipping through thumbnails of images, our eyes are naturally drawn to those that pop, which is most likely due to the sum elements mentioned above. To clarify, and as Derrick put it: “good composition.” A collective nod made its way around the table at that.

“So,” asked Mandy, “do the same things apply to the amateur photographer?” David spoke first: “The amateur photographer shoots what interests him; the studio shoots for the client.”  This response elicited another question, this time from Craig. He wanted to know how important emotion is in an image. “For instance, if the image doesn’t have all of the things that you said it should have – if there’s nothing else there – is the emotion evoked in the photo enough to still make it ‘great’?”

TRG Image of Summa Care soap box derby car. 

“An image is great if a person takes interest in it, in the subject matter,” answered David. He argued that if the image grabs a person’s attention and holds it for more than a few seconds, or inspires a person to share that image with others, then that is the mark of a great image.

Ok, let’s recap. So far our experts have pinpointed an idea, lighting, color, styling, and interest as the components to what makes a great image. But wait, there’s more. 

Our some-what silent party member Derrick dove head first into the debate. He noted that some of the “great” photos throughout history are often caught randomly – a sort of “I was there and I got the shot” situation. But speaking from a strictly CG point of view, creating an image where people can’t tell that it’s CG is yet another element to what makes an image great. “People are so used to seeing heavily edited images that they don’t know that they are looking at an edited image,” Derrick added. For him, it’s making something that isn’t real into something believable that is a mark of greatness. 

Everyone jumped in to agree, Craig eagerly adding that compositing different shots together so well that a person can’t tell the singular final images was created from multiple photographs is in fact pretty awesome. “Sometimes people will come up to your desk, see the image, and ask ‘is that CGI or photography?’ which I think counts as successful,” added David. 

TRG Image of brightly colored couch. 

Another mark of a great image is the collaboration of all of the people who work on it together, from a strictly professional point of view. Derrick was quick to point out that if everyone involved doesn’t do his or her part, the image could fall flat. Nods of agreement all around.

But the story behind an image can also make that image pretty darn fantastic. For example, as Mandy pointed out, “Seeing a series of images, and knowing the story behind them, that is what can really make a picture interesting.” The images might not be remarkable by aesthetic purposes, but it’s the history behind them that can set them apart from others. “It’s more impactful; you feel the images are amazing because there is a special story connected to them,” adds Mandy. 

“Context definitely plays a heavy role in what you perceive from the image,” Derrick agreed. The discussion then turned to the photograph TRG Reality posted recently to our Facebook page – the first known picture of a person. The picture itself isn’t particularly remarkable, but when you realize you’re looking at the very first photograph of another human being, it takes your breath away.  

Now, from a CG point of view, “if you’re trying to make something realistic, you need to imagine the story you’re trying to tell with that photo or image,” Derrick adds. Clearly, the story – in addition to idea, lighting, styling, etc. – is capable of making an image great.

TRG image of dials on a stove. 

“The greatest image we create here is the one that the client loves. It may be something we’ve worked on thatI don’t think is all that great, but if the client loves it and takes the time to say something about it, it makes me think of that image differently,” chimes in David. Agreed all around! When TRG delivers to the client exactly what they want, that makes a truly great image. 

Of course Craig can’t let it go at just that. “How do you tailor what you believe is a great image to what the client wants?” Glances bounced around the table and then all eyes fell on Derrick. “Typically, you need to learn the product really well to get the details right. You become, in a way, a temporary expert on the product. It’s the only way we can make sure we’re meeting the clients’ needs.” It’s our ability to consider what the clients’ needs are, to adapt from project to project, and to be just as passionate about that product as the client is that sets the stage for a great image. 

TRG image of Nespresso cafe 

To this point, Craig eagerly nodded and agreed. Leaning forward in his chair, he added “Really knowing the product and the industry – getting into the minds of the client to fully grasp the product and the industry – that is how we can highlight all of the aspects they want in an image.”

“Yes,” Derrick, also now leaning forward, agreed. “You can’t talk about the product being great without becoming invested in that product,” which of course gives us the edge in creating those perfect images. “And having a great team behind the creation of those images is a huge help,” added Mandy. Everyone has to work with each other, as Derrick pointed out earlier, and to say we excel at that is an understatement. The team we have at TRG is incredibly cohesive, and that shines through in all of our great images. 

“We don’t often think of ourselves like that, so that’s nice to hear,” said David, and the room is warmed by the gratitude the coworkers feel for one another.  “It is a good team; the clients wouldn’t say that if it’s not true, and when you hear it, all of a sudden it clicks. It’s a great feeling. 

TRG image of sink with toothbrush holder. 

“I agree with David,” added Craig. “When you’re staring at the same thing for one to three hours, you’re staring at all of these details, all of these things that bother you, all of the things you can’t fix or aren’t supposed to fix. You look at it for so long, but when you throw it down and someone says ‘Wow, that is amazing!’ or you go back and look at it a month or a year later, that’s when it hits you.”

“Yes, you’re looking at it with fresh eyes,” David exclaimed, his own eyes sparkling. “I’m creating something really spectacular for someone; I never really gave it a thought. I just do what I do, and it is what it should be; but, then they see the image, and they like it enough to say something, and that’s when you know you’re on the right track.”

“Being self-critical is an integral part in getting us to that ‘great image’; it can always be a little bit better,” said Derrick. And the shower of self-praise, affirmations, and altruisms rained down in the TRG Reality conference room: “We’re perfectionists!” cried Craig; “Don’t let it go unless you’re sure,” David pleaded; “The idea that it’s not good enough is always there, but it’s good enough!” Derrick let out in a burst of uncharacteristic emotion, all of this crescendoing to one strongly agreed-upon maxim: “Don’t over work it!”

TRG image of downtown Cleveland at night with fireworks. 

The emotion in the room settled a bit, and everyone eased back into their chairs. Craig was the first to speak again. “Think about it. The real struggle is trying to figure it out. We’re taking an idea from someone’s brain and then we have to make it real. The struggle is trying to find out what that idea is, but when we do, and that client tells us it turned out exactly the way they imagined in their mind, that is so gratifying.” And when he finishes saying this, I think I hear the distinct sound of three other minds being completely blown.  

“And in the end,” Derrick, back to his soft-spoken self, “if there was a struggle, the outcome erases all of that.” 

“And we’d do it all again just for the outcome.” Craig for the win.

So, what makes a great image? The answer: far too many things to narrow down into a simple answer. Perspective, ideas, moments, styling: all of these and more can and do play a role in the creation of great imagery. Perhaps the more important questions is what do you think makes a great image? Make sure to share your opinions with us in the comments below. 

And just in case you’re wondering, this blogger happens to think that what makes a great image is kittens. I’m pretty sure everyone can agree to that.