Letters of Life

What Makes A Good Photo

A typical scene on a Singapore street


At first glance, this picture looks simple. An Indian man reading the daily news in a quiet corner of a coffee shop. The tables spill out on the five-foot-way, Singapore’s answer to people-watching as customers sip coffee with condensed milk or drink Guiness after a hard day’s work.

Look again. The vibrant colour tones, the tranquility of the man, the all-too-familiar plastic chairs, though in a vivid cobalt, all compose a typical street scene in Singapore. The composition obeys the one-third-two-third rule of dividing the frame, the man is classically off-center, two pillars frame the sides in perfect symmetry. It’s the kind of picture you find calming and evergreen in its ability to evoke a warm, nostalgic feeling.

This picture was taken by an old friend, Lee Yee Meng, an amateur photog currently living in North London. When he’s not trading oil derivatives, he is snapping pictures in the streets from Manchester to Mumbai, capturing the seconds of life as it flows around him.

Yee Meng adds that the Singapore street scene was taken with a Leica M9, Leica’s latest rangefinder camera with a full frame sensor. Rangerfinders, unlike single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras, are so-called because they focus using a dual-image rangefinding device. You turn a ring, and when two superimposed images line up, you’re in perfect focus.

Thus, with a rangefinder camera, you never look through the lens. You focus and compose through a window on the top right, just like on a disposable camera. An interesting comparison between rangefinders and SLRs can be found here.

A purist, Yee Meng has delved into darkroom techniques as well, for as any photographer schooled in the classics of photography knows, the transition from a picture in its negative form to one on paper was once an art balancing chemicals and calibrated exposure to light. Interestingly, darkroom techniques have adapted easily to virtual reality, and this photog uses Adobe Lightroom, a software which adjusts the exposures digitally to negatives scanned into his Mac.

“Though I am more of a purist,” he tells me via Facebook, “I do enjoy some of the works done in photoshop; they can be very creative. I like the dark, dreamy types especially.”

Here’s an example.

Eastbourne, England: Surreal beauty by the sea.


Describing how this picture was taken, Yee Meng says, “It took 10 minutes for exposure on this image. The long exposure takes out all the roughness of the tide coming in under full moon conditions.”

The classical composition of sea and horizon, the way the surf zigzags its way onto the beach, brings to mind the work of the professional French artist and illustrator, Guy Billout. The reverse silhoutte of the ship in the distance, again just a little off-center, adds a mysterious chord to the picture, lifting what could be a cliched seaside shot into a first-rate composition of the elements. What an eye.


The Frenchman’s work can be found in books, magazines, and also in The Atlantic magazine. They have a two-dimensional quality about them, with thin outlines, pared down shapes, but always the perspective, the surreal nature of his work, make for a calmness that can be quite unsettling and provocative.

And so it is with good photos. Digital cams and even the ubiquitous iPhone allow us to take all kinds of pictures; the randomness guarantees some really good ones too. Sunsets and sunrises are kind to all mankind; they take good pictures all by themselves. But it is the art of using the manual camera, like a bassist who knows his guitar well, and the inner eye, and as any good photographer will admit, some luck, that can give you a picture which lifts the everyday into the sublime.

Check out Yee Meng’s photographs at www.flickr.com/photos/ym32.

What memorable pictures have you taken? Which pictures have impressed you and made themselves unforgettable in your mind? What do you think makes a good picture? And why?

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2 Responses »

  1. I like Bresson’s style street photography where eccentricities of human behaviour engages with the photograher’s lens, camera, film, eyes and mind. You can never take the same picture twice; the click brings a sense possession. The slowness in the process dealing with film photography brings out the love and appreciation of the world around me. Its never good enough… still after the next capture that evokes new feelings and sensations within oneself. To me thats a good picture.

    • I rather like Henri Cartier Bresson myself. I once visited an exhibition of his at the old National Museum, oh, 25 years ago, and it changed the way I looked at photography, particularly black-and-white photography. Thanks for reading!

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