Content is king - but let's just agree to set that aside for just a moment. In terms of strictly photographic characteristics, how does one define photographic quality? I've always felt that there is no "right answer" to this question for the obvious reasons that it's a matter of opinion — an opinions vary wildly. Perhaps the more pertinent question is how do you define photographic quality — a question that is worth considering by each and every one of us.
For example, many photographers think that quality is related to size — the bigger the photograph, the better it is. I never have — although I suppose in truth I actually have within limits. For me an 8x10 image is better than a 1" by 2" one, so size does equate to quality for me to some degree. Even then, there are exceptions; I can recall seeing a few 35mm contact prints that were simply fabulous in spite of their tiny size. But, essentially in my scale of appreciation, larger prints are not "better" than smaller ones. In fact, they are often worse. Why? This became clear to me as I thought about it more deeply.
Years ago thinking through this thought experiment, I realized my definitions of quality work are closely associated with the revelation of details (related to, but subtly different than "sharpness") and smoothness of tonality (think the absence of film grain or digital sensor noise). Your answer likely will vary, but for me, this is the core of the issue. Consider of all the photographic qualities that are missing from my personal list that could easily be on yours: color fidelity, a magical quality of light, surface characteristics of the physical print, the choice of medium, the absence of lens distortions (pin cushion, barrel distortion, or converging lines in architecture), catch lights in the model's eye, size of the edition (!), etc. How do you define photographic quality?
The implications of our personal definitions of quality are profound. For example, the equipment we need/choose is determined by our definitions of quality; the photographers' work we admire, collect, or books we buy are determined by the definitions of quality we use to judge work; the work you see in LensWork or other magazines will appeal to you (or not) based on your definitions of quality. Elsewhere, I've talked about my difficulty in appreciating the work of Bill Brandt — because I struggle with his tonalities, film grain, and casual disregard of fine detail. Clearly, this is my loss and in no way a reflection of Bill Brandt's genius or contribution to the medium.
And this brings me exactly to the point. As a publisher, I've learned the dangers of my narrowly restricted definitions of image quality. Knowing them can/should become the foundation of my personal work, but they can also be a terrible and unjust barrier to my appreciation of the work of other photographers — especially those whose criteria are different than mine. It is a good idea, I believe, to develop the complimentary skills of knowing our own definitions while simultaneously suspending our personal prejudices when we look at the work of others. Without that, we might miss a lot.
Over twenty years of publishing LensWork, one of the most amusing aspects of the emails we receive is the consistency with which we receive polar-conflicting feedback. For every email "How could you publish such crap?" there follows on its heels another email "The best portfolio you've ever published!" It never fails. I've learned that both of these emails are a symptom of the writer's personal perspectives on photographic quality — both technical and aesthetic. Each is a statement more about the writer than about the work. By extension, when I react that "I like" or "I don't like," I've learned that this only says something about me, and may not have anything at all to do with the work itself. The work may indeed be crap, but I do need to guard against the unfair judgment just because it may not be consistent with my thought about what makes a quality photograph.
And in these comments, I've only been writing about photographic quality. Imagine how the discussion blurs when we circle back and start including content to this train of thought!
Brooks' books on photography and the creative process are available in print from Lulu.com, and as eBooks for Kindle or EPUB readers. As one of the membership benefits, these eBooks are available in their entirety to members of LensWork Online via download.