When I was in high school, one of my English teachers used to have us do a creative writing exercise; the teacher would project a still image and we were required to write a one-page story about it (I remember once anthropomorphizing a dandelion that I named “Claude”). It was an exercise that many of my classmates hated, but I loved it.

Yesterday, someone came in to my shop and we had a long conversation about photography. At one point, he looked at me and asked very seriously, “What makes a good photograph good? I really don’t know.”

That’s a question a lot of people never ask, and I think it’s an excellent one.

To me, a “good” photograph tells a story. We live in a very visual age, and we are constantly bombarded by images, both still and video. Most of this imagery is intended to sell us something, and with the advent of “reality” television (that is often anything BUT real), it can be difficult to discern what is genuine and what is simply product.

Think back on some of the iconic images you know. A sailor’s kiss in Times Square. Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue. Neil Armstrong on the moon. The Iwo Jima flag raising. I bet you saw them in your mind as you read this. That’s the power of storytelling.

Surely, not every photo tells a compelling story, but the best ones do. They are deliberate, thoughtful, the result of the photographer surveying the world, finding something interesting, and using the camera to convey that to the viewer. It is a powerful tool, and its importance should not be overlooked.

Sometimes, even a simple snapshot can tell a story. I recently wrote about a photo that I found of a family gathering that I took when I was a teenager. There’s nothing particularly great about it, but to me, it tells a story: There’s my dad with his ubiquitous coffee mug, my mom is shyly turning her face away from the camera, and my brother is making a face the way he often did when the camera came out. It’s taken in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, and I recognize the talisman objects of my youth…Mom’s shadow box decor, the big coffee percolator, the box that held overdue bills and mail. I wouldn’t hold it up as art, but it definitely tells a story.

How many of your photographs do that? Ponder that the next time you whip out your cell phone to snap a quick shot. Think about your subject for a moment…what do you want your photograph to say? If you showed it to a stranger, what could they tell you about the image? Would they even care? Or would they find something compelling, something they could, say, use to write a one-page story?

In this digital age where we often take more photographs in a day than the previous generation of film photographers did in a week or longer, it may be time to step back and be more careful. More deliberate. Tell a story with your photos…make them important. Make them last. Make them worthy.

THAT is what will make them not only “good,” but great.

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