Time is What Makes Your Photos Valuable

Time is What Makes Your Photos Valuable - Mastin Labs

It's often debated as to what makes a photo 'good.' I take that to mean a picture worth taking and a photo worth looking at. Something the world needs to see.

As a self proclaimed photography history fanatic, an avid consumer of images (you should see my photo book library!) and founder of Mastin Labs (I see beautiful photos all day every day as part of my job) I'm going to chime in with my theory of what makes a photo 'good.' 

So, what are some factors that make a photo good according to me personally?

  • Is there an expression of humanity in the picture that rings true and universal?
    (think 'Migrant Mother' by Dorothea Lange)
  • Can the picture ever be recreated?
    (think 'Dali Atomicus' by Philippe Halsman)
  • Does the photo ask difficult questions from the viewer?
    (think James Nachtwey)
  • Was there considerable effort in the planning and conceptualizing of the photo?
    (think Gregory Crewdson)

As you can see, the above is a tall order.

The average pro photographer will be lucky to take a few pictures in his or her life that are 'good' according to the criteria above. As Ansel Adams once said: "Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop."

I know that in 20 years working as both a photojournalist and later as a wedding photographer, I may have 4 or 5 photos that are 'good' according to the above criteria. But don't despair; there is one more quality that makes a photo 'good': Time.

‚ÄúDon't despair; there is one more quality that makes a photo 'good': Time.‚Ä̬†- Kirk Mastin

I believe that it is the photos we take of our daily lives, using our instincts and keeping it honest and authentic, that will later be our 'good' photographs. The mundane to us and those around us will be treasured in the future.


Because we often try so hard to make the present day unnaturally amazing through photography, that we neglect to take honest, un-doctored photos. And it's the honest photos of a time gone by that most people can agree are interesting and 'good.'

As an example, I ran across a historical archive of photos of Ballard (where Mastin Labs HQ is located) that were taken by an unknown photographer to document the neighborhood as it was in the 1970s.

These images were made for the Seattle city archives, but they are amazing due to the amount of time that's passed. Seeing Ballard in the 1970s is fascinating. Funnily enough, these photos remind me of the forced vintage photos that people try to put together today. Except, in this case, these are authentic.

Man Entering Restaurant on Ballard Avenue in 1975. By the Seattle Municipal Archives

Ballard Avenue in 1976. By the Seattle Municipal Archives

Ballard Avenue in 1975. By the Seattle Municipal Archives

Another example are the photos of my own life during the time I was raising my children and still married. These photos were mundane when I took them, but now they have more meaning as I see the subtlety of relationships between people, emerging personality in my kids, and daily life from a more detached perspective.

I am learning more about myself and about the nature of life itself from these photos AS TIME PASSES.

Basically, these photos become more valuable to me over time.

Playdate with PEPS group in 2012. By Kirk Mastin

Remotely working and living in an apartment above my mother in law in San Francisco for the winter in 2011. By Kirk Mastin

Portrait of Maeve with scraped nose. Seattle, WA 2013. By Kirk Mastin

I am just an ordinary guy, but I feel deeply about this: please don't neglect to capture your everyday life, family, and friends in the pursuit of something that is artificially made interesting, like a styled shoot.

Yes, you should make what you want to make, but think in broader terms of time. Think of the honest and authentic photos of your life as an investment in your future enjoyment and understanding of what it is to be human.

Time can make even the most ordinary picture valuable.

Don't forget that.