It took me a long time, probably too long, to figure this simple rule out, but here’s the conclusion I’ve come to:
And, as a close corollary:
That’s really it. There’s a lot more that can be said about the technical aspects of what makes a photo good, and trust me, the Internet is teeming with that type of advice, but if it’s technically perfect and doesn’t elicit any type of emotional reaction, it’s still not a good photograph.*
I’m still working on trusting my own feelings when I look at my photography. It’s strangely difficult to differentiate between something that I really want to elicit an emotion and something that actually does.
When I first wrote this, I wanted to say for a photo to be good it should be a positive emotion, and generally I think that’s a good guideline, especially for me personally. A positive emotion is a good indication that the photograph is beautiful, which is usually my goal. That said, I think there are many instances where a photo can elicit emotions like nostalgia, melancholy, or even sadness and that’s good in its own way too.
* This is specifically about photography as an art form, not as documentation etc.