The difference between good photos and beautiful photos

Good photos tell stories. Average photos are just beautiful

Martino Pietropoli
Sep 18, 2017 · 15 min read

These days there are tons of photos around. Many are very good. Many just beautiful. Lot of professional stuff done by pros that know how to get the thing done. Killers, maybe.

The most appreciated photos are those of simple composition, often central, with beautiful colors. Once Roger Ballen said:

When people say they admire a photo, they are very often just admiring the colours.

Colors are the sugar of photography. We all love sugar. Colors strike us immediately in a photo and maybe there is a theory about color perception to figure out why some colors work well and let us say “Oh beautiful picture”. The blue of the sky, the colors of the flowers, the tone of a child’s skin.

Let’s do this test: blur a picture with beautiful colors to the point that the figures are unrecognizable. Pure color spots. If it’s still nice it’s a nice photo. If it is unrecognizable it is no longer a photo, and I mean a photo with a solid composition, not a blocked one.

Beautiful pictures annoy me. The photos I’m most interested in are not even the ones I would like to think of “Who knows how he did it”. The technique is interesting but usually I got bored more sooner than later. I’m only interested in photos able to capture my attention for at least 10 seconds. 10 seconds is a lot. Watching a photo for such a long time is a big thing, it’s more than the time we spend looking at a painting in an art gallery.


Composition is the basis of photography. Each element of the photo must be perfectly arranged within the frame in order to get the perfect result. That is widely known.

I’d like now to analyze two different kind of composition.

The first ones are blocked compositions: I’m talking about those where the subject is usually right in the center and every other element points right to the center of the frame.

Even if there are many famous and pretty good photos based on this composition, I love the opposite, that’s the centrifugal composition because it’s much more interesting. Since every photo is defined by its elements but also by the frame, every element that tends to go outside of the borders usually adds something interesting. It’s like as if it was impossible to contain the whole story inside the frame or, from another point of view, it’s like there were two photos: the visible one inside the frame and the other invisible outside it. You see? A centrifugal composition delivers two photos in one or, at least, tells a bigger story: something is happening inside the frame and you can see it, but something is also happening outside, and you can just figure it out. Guess it. The story inside is so strong that it tries to escape outside the frame.

Two shots come to my mind: one by Henri Cartier-Bresson e the other by Rui Palha.

Both are based on elements of the composition that try to get out of the frame.

The movement generates complexity, as well as stratification of a wine gives it depth.

A truly good picture does not only show something but it lights up a perceptual space in the head of the observer. It can’t be contained into the two dimensions of a print but it always tries to get out.

It wants to go beyond the two dimensions into the physical space. A good picture can’t be just a nice thing.

Do you remember that beautiful photos are just like sugar? Well, a good photo is like a good wine: when you start to drink wine and you’ve never tried any you probably like the sweet ones. Once you get used to its taste you suddenly look for a much more deep complexity. You are any longer satisfied by its sweetness: you want thickness, flavors, different textures.

The same happens in photography: the sugar is easy to taste and understand (just like colors) but the more you educate yourself in something, the more you look for complex manifestations because the simple ones do not stimulate you anymore. Sugar is always sweet and fine, but you just do not care anymore. You want something different.

Paraphrasing Cartier-Bresson who said that the sharpness is a bourgeois concept, it can be said that the color itself is a bourgeois concept. To be able to communicate, a photo must also be striking at times, it must be shouting, so to say. Otherwise it is just sugar. Enjoyable. Sickening other times.

Not very interesting in the end.

Telling a story

“Storytelling” seems to be a magical word in these times. Like every word, it soon ends up being abused.

Telling a story requires words or an animation at least. It is something based on three stages: a beginning, something in the middle and then an end.

Photography is a static image. It does not have the freedom of a movie, nor the articulation of a story made in words. Yet, speaking of photography, there is only one element that in my opinion allows an image to tell a story: there must be at least a certain tension between the elements that make up the photo. Only the tension, which is a frozen action at the moment of the shot, lets presume, guess, imagine what came before and especially after.
That’s why landscape photos do not tell stories, so photos with a single subject that does not do anything particular can hardly tell any story, unless they are very successful portraits.
The story contained in a photo is composed of the present (the frozen moment, visible) and a past and a future that are just lurking, left to the imagination.

The story told by a photo is a bit like the ones imagined when in the metro we look at those people riding with us in the wagon and we try to think what life they have: what they do, where they are from and so on.
The first and the later moments portrayed in the photo belong to the domain of the imagination of the observer, especially when it is just a single photo.

Talking about photos that tell stories I’d like to introduce two examples: one by Mary Ellen Mark and one by Martin Parr. For each of them I imagined the past and the future of the people portrayed. I have created possible pasts and futures based on the suggestion of the photos themselves. Those pasts and futures were not visible in those photos, but they stemmed from conflicting elements visible in those images.

A photo can be a simple picture that ends in the moment it describes. When it tells a story, however, it expands into the minds of those who look at it and embrace past and future. This ability comes from the tension between the elements that compose it. That happens when an image comes out of the edges of its frame and becomes something interesting or, in other words, becomes a story.

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The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California, USA 1987. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

How difficult is it to tell a story in a single frame? It happens rarely, and in the case of this photo by Mary Ellen Mark titled “The Damm family in their car” taken in Los Angeles in 1987, there is simply everything. Not just the story of a family at a specific time of its life, but also of a whole country.

Gestures and objects say everything
What do you see? A family inside a car. Each member is clearly posing in a natural pose, as if they really lived this way, within what is probably their car and their own home at the same time. A poor family who has a car and anything else. But they take care of each other: the father/husband gently embraces the wife, their daughter caresses and protects her young brother. She is staring at something outside the frame. Probably not the photographer, even if we do not know what or who it is. Maybe it’s the future that does not look so bright.

The father’s eyes
The father, the mother and the daughter look directly into the camera. They know this is their life and will probably always be this way.
The father says with his eyes “This is all I have” but it’s easy to understand that he cares about his family.
The mother abandons her arms. She’s exhausted.
Her daughter looks like her but 20 years younger. It is like seeing the same person at different moments of his life, both at the same time. This little woman is already aware of her future: there is no hope, this is her life. She’s like her mother, grown up and mature like her, but in a younger body. You already know everything. She looks sadly into her future, already behind her.

The country
The country they live in is in the background: a dirt road where they parked their car and their home. A car that is probably no longer a moving object: it just stands there, stopped, indefinitely parked and stopped, a symbol of a broken society that no longer produces anything. The same car is also a frame within the frame: its windows create a border between their lives and that of the country they live in. Protection and exclusion at the same time.

We did not know anything about this family before. Now we know everything. In this photo there is their story and that one of their country, at the same time. In a single frame. Every story is based on a beginning, something in the middle and an end. We are looking at the whole story in a wink.

Mary Ellen Mark tells the story of the Damm family. We can still hear it, clearly, even after almost 30 years.

Talking about how to tell a story in a single frame, Martin Parr is maybe one of the best photographer you can find. So, before going straight to one of his most iconic shot, allow me to tell you why I think that he is probably the greatest photographer on the whole earth, no matter what.

You can see many different photos by many different photographers and still when you stumble into one by Martin Parr it could be only Parr. Why is that?

There are many points of view, but only one Parr

Photography is basically the expression of one point of view. There’s the technique of course, but what sets a photographer apart and defines him is his own point of view. Try this: how many times you can be fooled into thinking that this was taken by one photographer and instead it was another one? Many times, I suspect. Parr is different: he’s got his own style (heavily defined by his techniques — the use of flash light, the close-ups and so on) but only him can take pics like his ones.

An epiphany

His shots can be read like “Uhm, clever” but also like the real and genuine expression of our times: he usually focuses on people, more often middle class or even wealthy people. His interest appears to be describing them with their own objects and symbols, being them religious or just coming form the material society: expensive objects, repetitive patterns, contrasts.
Like any true expression of art, he adds a meaning to the plain and common reality. Its hidden meaning was already there and he is the decoder: he’s able to use elements that we can easily recognize, arranging them into a composition which tells a different story.

Un-beauty photos

Parr asks you to forget that a photo can be beautiful too. He’s not looking for this thin layer of beauty. Taking a beautiful shot is pretty easy: follow some rules, choose your subject, have a good light and the trick is done.
His shots don’t show any concept of beauty. They simple don’t care about it. Their story is an intellectual mechanism: they require the observer to use his/her brain: connecting the dots into the photo, find the path and get the meaning. It could be the repetition of a pattern, some colors, the juxtaposition of elements like in the above acropolis picture, where the visitors are (or are supposed to be) more important than the monument itself. So important that on the background another group of tourists are turning their shoulders on them, like they’re doing to the Parthenon.

The observer

Parr is the observer: although his work could be read really like “a collection of lucky moments” when things happen together in that exact way, it’s easy to understand how big his attention should have been to get exactly that shot. You can feel he’s been around his subjects for a very long time, maybe not even taking a single shot, just smiling and chatting. What was he doing? Collecting impressions, composing the frame into his mind. Then, like a hunter, when the right time has come, he was there with his camera.

Parr is not looking for any kind of beauty except for the intellectual one: his compositions are often, well, good. What’s great about him is that he requires the observer’s brain to deliver the message. The observer is active, not passive. The message is “Go further: the meaning is not on the surface, it’s beneath it”. It’s a brain in action, that’s what he’s working on.

Let’s go back to the main issue that is “How to tell a story in a single shot”

I’ m particularly fond of this picture by Parr. When you look at it you probably wouldn’t think “Oh this is beautiful”. It is not beautiful at all, but it’s got a whole story to tell. Follow me.

A couple at a restaurant

There is a man and a woman sitting at a table next to a wall in a restaurant. The board is set up and they wait to eat their meal. They have not yet eaten since there are no bottles or glasses and the cutlery are still aligned and cleaned in front of them. She looks at her nails or fingers. Presumably check the manicure. He smokes a cigarette and his gaze is in the direction of the woman but overcomes her. He’s looking outside the window. They’re a couple, probably husband and wife. They share a common life but this day they have nothing in common. Nothing seems to tie them apart from being at the same table on the same day. The language of their bodies is unmistakable: They are indifferent to each other.
The greatness of this picture is not only contained in the composition itself or in the moment it captures, but it is expressed above all in what it does not show, but that lets you guess: the whole story of that couple who led them that day, at that hour and at that restaurant’s table in New Brighton.

It’s a bit like seeing an accelerated movie and suddenly pressing the stop button and then the film stops on that frame — even seeing it accelerated, you know perfectly what happened up to that point in time. You know what their life was before. The life of a couple like many others but not the same as all others. A couple of the British class middle class or perhaps even more popular, that one Sunday decides to go out and have lunch at a restaurant.
We are in the mid-80’s and the iconography of this couple has hardly anything in common with those years. All colors were different back then: fluffy, fuchsia, long straight hair, heavy makeup. The same day that Madonna was singing sensually on a gondola under the bridges of Venice in 1984this couple was having his lunch in that restaurant. That very same day.
And Martin Parr was there too.

Often, Parr is described as a ruthless critic (in the British way, so civilly) of the society and maybe you can even think so seeing some of his photos taken at some high society party. In this photo there is indeed great human participation. He is not saying “Look at this couple: they are tied but there is nothing that binds them”. He’s just telling their story in a single shot that’s so precise that you can figure out all the shots from their lives that brought them that day to that restaurant. You can imagine those shots perfectly.
When a story is well-told there is not only a good plot and the act and wisdom of the tale itself, but also the ability to activate memories, identification, compassion or rejection.
When a story stimulates a reaction and is not a pure entertainment, when it poses a doubt or plant a seed, it leaves traces.
You keep on thinking on them days after hearing them, as happens with some movies. You did not understand what exactly they told you but you felt they talked to you somehow, they whispered to you something.

Who knows what they talked about.
Who knows if they were angry with each other.
Who knows if that was only their private way to stay together.
Who knows.

Some photographers know how to tell a story masterfully with just a single image.
When a photo contains thousands more then it tells a story.

Photographic stereotypes

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Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the sea of fog

I’d like to end this article talking about some photographic stereotypes that — I believe — are the degeneration of the art of taking photos.

The painting above by Caspar David Friedrich inspired millions of photographers or wannabe photographers. Men and women that think that having a camera means being photographers. As if the tool and its use made the user familiar with what that tool is meant to do.

Photographing is an attitude, an inclination, an expression of a vision of the world. It is not a magic art borrowed from an instrument. The camera does not make the photographer. The photographer uses the camera as a tool.

Understandably inspired by such a perfect and enigmatic painting, many thought that the easiest way to do art was to imitate it. If that picture gives some emotions it is because it poses a subject in front of an extraordinary landscape that is metaphorical of life: the beauty covered by the clouds. Joy and pain, clarity and confusion, vision and confusion. Life, in short.

But emotions have this peculiarity: they are powerful when they impact, but they lose their strength the more the movement with which they sway is repetitive. The millionth appearance of emotion is more banal than normal because it is expected and well anticipated. “Cloudscape and meditating man looking at it. Already seen”.

Instagram, social networks and digital machines have only amplified and made this feeling soothing: they persuaded many people that taking a photograph was just to repeat a working and catchy pattern. But as the best pop song or the best pizza in the world, listening to it or feeding with it in the end generates nausea and refusal.
And the photographic stereotypes are multiple and repetitive, of course: they hang around in clusters and bands. Thousands of photos, already seen, repeated over and over again. The background changes but the death of fantasy remains the same.

Orwell said that the repetition of metaphors, especially in journalism, was the death of language. Repeating without re-inventing means to give up the sense of the metaphor that is to “bring out”. In other words, to explain a concept using highly evocative and more comprehensible images. Repetition undermines this evocative power, as the repetition of stereotypes undermines photography, which is more direct than a metaphor being a metaphor in existence, already a finished image in itself.

There is a particular emotional alignment that arises when an image represents a certain moment, which is also a mood got by the photographer. It is an intimate mechanism that is only activated when seen for the first time because it evokes a particular emotion, a memory. When it remembers a memory that is the recall of an image already seen it only generates a recognition and a weak re-affliction of an emotion.

In every already seen image there is a double betrayal: that of the original image and that of the creative idea. The first image — the one copied and declined in a thousand variants that are always recognizable and tedious until exhaustion — remains a memory; the creative idea no longer emerges, because there is no creation. There is a cautious trust in the already seen. It worked once, then it will work again.


Commercially, yes. But it’s no longer photography. It is an image, it is a functional object or an expression of stereotypes. It does not like the anarchist variations of art: it’s just a monument to the security of the already seen.
The photographer who puts himself and the subject in a car and does not look at that subject — human, animal or natural — but instead looks at a mental image and reassembles it according to a type already seen does not look at the reality and does not interpret and rewrites it creating a new object in the end. He’s just looking inside his own visual memory.

Every photo already seen, every already seen composition of the frame, each element arranged in that frame just like a thousand other times is a betrayal of photography.

Technically it is a photograph. But the technique describes a support and not the art that is supposed to be in it.

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