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What Do You Think of My Photographs?

Most of the tutorials here have been technical in nature, discussing things like exposure, “F-stops,” histograms, and the like. They are geared toward the budding enthusiast who wants to take their photography to the proverbial “next level.”

“Do you want me to say nice things about your photographs, or do you want an honest critique?”

Fairly often, I am asked by friends and family to look at an image, or a group of images and “tell me what you think.” Before I go further, I want to refer to my own experience as a brand new enthusiast. My motivator was a “beloved” college professor who, 35 years ago, put a very blunt question to me: “do you want me to say nice things about your photographs, or do you want an honest critique?” It was a critical point in my own photographic journey – perhaps the critical juncture.

If you want to truly move to “higher levels” (it is a continuum, and I am not going to try to define levels), you have to be willing to put in time, practice, homework and significant effort. Often, enthusiastic shutterbugs, though they begin enthusiastically, are not ultimately willing (or perhaps ready). I mean this as simply as observation and certainly not as criticism. We all have limited time and means and thus our own priorities and interests.

I don’t not mean to arrogant. We all have our own gifts. Taking that gift “to the next level” no matter what the endeavor, will always involve some “perspiration.” Sometimes we do it. Other times, we simply marvel at the gifts God gave us and enjoy them for what they are. In my case, I have made a near-lifelong study of all things photographic. I have at least 3 linear feet of bookcase holding photographic “how-to” and inspirational books. I have had the good fortune of having my work critiqued by a number of very talented photographers and artists (several of them accomplished professionals).  Those critiques have usually been honest (at times, brutally so).  I have also had a minor amount of “formal” photographic education.  I hope I have learned from those experiences, and improved at a photographer, maybe even to the “next level.”  My hope, in all of the tutorials, is that I can pass some of that knowledge and experience on in a useful way. And, in one or two cases, a little bit of my own enthusiasm may have rubbed off on a couple of other “enthusiasts” who have (in my view) taken it to higher levels. I am not solely to blame, but hopefully one motivating factor.

We all have our own gifts. Taking that gift “to the next level” no matter what the endeavor, will always involve some “perspiration.”

And, there is certainly irony. Many shutterbugs take many, many more images than I (or my enthusiast colleagues) do, and nearly always have a camera in hand. I am often in awe (and maybe a little envy?) of others’ vision – images with things in them I never saw (maybe because I get bogged down it the “right ways” of photography) – and of their sense of right time/right place in their photography.

It is often difficult to see issues in your own images.

Having said the above, there are things that any avid shooter can use. It is often difficult to see issues in your own images. Maybe this is because we were there and we are imagining what we saw and that is “filtering” how we look at an image. But the camera lens is a brutally honest observer. So often, it makes some sense to have others look at your images and make comments. It is not that you are necessarily going to “fix” images already taken, but maybe by looking at some of them, with the following in mind, you will think about those items the next time you snap in image. So here are some basic comments on how to improve images.

Watch the Horizon

One of the most common “faults” in a photograph, often seen in those vacation photos of the beach, or skiing, or the mountains, where there is some scenic vista in the background (or perhaps it is the subject of the photo) is a tilting horizon. It is usually very obvious to the third party observer, especially if they were not standing in the place you took the image. There will be times when it is tricky, because you may have multiple “lines” in an image (a hillside or a building in the foreground, for example). Our eyes “want” horizontal lines to be level and perpendicular lines to be straight up and down. But the horizon is how we anchor ourselves to the earth and so, 99% of the time, it should be the leveling point in a photograph. (After 35 years of shooting, I recently had a friend and very talented shooter in his own right, point this issue out to me in one my own images. I obviously don’t see the world in a balanced way – just ask my friends and family. :-). His suggested solution: use a bubble level. It is a good tool, but not one I expect most enthusiasts to use).

Look out for “Merges”

What the heck is a merge? A merge is one of those times in a photograph when you see a post, a sign, a tree or branch (or even a hand or a leg) “growing out of the top of someone’s head.” Photography (so far) is two dimensional. We use lenses, perspective, etc., to give the impression of 3-D, but it is truly only 2 dimensional at this point. Normal human vision, on the other hand, is 3-dimensional. So our eye (and brain) tells us that there is “space” between the subject’s head and the sign post. Most photographic lenses, especially up close, will compress that space and the resulting image is a “merge.” The solution is to move sideways one way or another enough to move the offending object to one side.

Get Closer!

This is sometimes easier said than done. But in well over 1/2 the images I view, one of my first thoughts is that this would be a stronger image if the shooter composed more tightly. This is especially true with photographs of people, pets and animals. The viewer wants to connect with the subject. They want to see their face in an “in-your-face” way. Obviously, there will be times when that is just not possible. But in most cases, the photographers I am addressing here are shooting friends and family. The relationship and circumstances should be such that you can get closer. The same is true with pets, generally. For any of these subjects, the point of focus is almost always one place – the eyes. So use the subject’s eyes as a focal point and try to be sure that they are always in sharp focus.

Avoid the “Bullseye” Effect

After crooked horizons, this may be my most often observed comment in photographs. It is a natural tendency for the photographer. If you think about it, the camera is an extension of our eye, which is connected to a very sophisticated apparatus—the human brain. But like the scarecrow, the camera doesn’t have a brain. The brain does something the camera—and thus, the resulting image—cannot do. It sees context and puts its interpretation of that image within that context. The human eye can focus on its subject and still “see” the surroundings. But the lens is literal. What it can physically capture within its view is what you get.

And, camera manufacturers don’t necessarily help us in that area. Most cameras today have focusing brackets, and most of them are dead-center (bullseye) in the middle of the lens.

But photos with the subject dead center are usually boring and static. Having the subject off-center usually makes the photo more dynamic. An often invoked “rule” of composition is “the rule of thirds.” There are some very well thought out artistic underpinnings for this “rule.” We won’t go there. There are, of course, exceptions. Portraits are perhaps the main one. But there also may be times when you just need to “get the shot” or when it just looks right.

Many newer cameras have the option to turn on lines which divide the frame in thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Take advantage of that feature and start thinking about placing the subject at the different intersections of those lines.

Placement of the Horizon

This is a continuation of the thought process from above. Just as placing the subject, bullseye in the center in the frame is generally to be avoided, you should also avoid placing the horizon dead-center horizontally in the image frame. Again, placing it in the top third or bottom third will usually make a more dynamic image. If you have a really dynamic sky (puffy white clouds, pink or orange sunset, angry black storm clouds) you may want the horizon in the bottom third of the image to emphasize the sky. If you have a blah sky (greys are almost universally awful, as is white, overcast, and many times, completely clear blue), then you want to exclude as much as possible. Conversely, if there is some really dynamic object in the foreground that you want to emphasize, you may want to place the horizon in the top third.

There are probably more times when you will break this rule than any of the others. Sometimes, the correct placement of the subject takes precedence over placement of the horizon. But if you can place it differently and can think about it, it will often make a stronger image. Another time this rule will be broken is with a mirror-image reflection shot.

Think about What to Exclude

We usually know what to include. It’s the reason for taking the photo in the first place. But sometimes what we exclude makes a stronger image. The human mind is powerful. It has an incredible memory bank of images and it can supply context. You don’t have to “write a book,” sometimes just a page or a chapter will do. I recall “critiquing” a sports image by a (very talented, semi-pro) friend of mine a couple years back. It was a high school basketball game and the shot was of two opposing players fighting for a rebound. The shot was from back a bit and showed the gym, basket, basketball and stands, as well as the player. My comment to him was that I didn’t need all the depicted context. I wanted to see the up-close, intensive facial expressions of the two players. There is enough “context” that is subliminal that 90% of viewers will know it’s a basketball game. We don’t have to tell them. This may be a subset of the “get closer” comment.

Another thing to exclude is dull sky. Most of the time, it is grey, white, dull overcast, or hazy skies that fool the human eye. It is a beautiful day at the beach, but in the resulting image, the sky is a blob of grey, or overexposed whitish grey. The solution? Exclude as much of the sky as possible in the image.

In a similar vein, often, large expanses of the same color with no other interest (e.g., green fields, large areas of plain blue or grey sky, a large expanse of water) should be mostly excluded.

Rules are made to be Broken

While there are certainly “rules” in life and in society, there really aren’t any in art

In my older years, I have begun to correct myself whenever I want to discuss a “rule.” I prefer the term “guideline” these days. While there are certainly “rules” in life and in society, there really aren’t any in art (and photography is certainly a form of art, in my view). So lets call them guidelines. The guidelines are generally there for a reason. They generally make a stronger image. But there are times when we want to break the rules on purpose. Don’t be afraid to experiment with other perspectives.

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5 Responses

  1. Andy, very good article. For those of us who have been doing this for a long time, these “rules” are automatic but for someone who is new to the game and trying to figure out what makes a good photo, these tips will shorten the learning curve.

    • Thanks, Al. Also trying to make a point though, that I am having trouble articulating well. Without meaning for it to pejorative, what I think this article does is tells how to make better “snapshots.” They are still snapshots, though :-). Stay tuned, as I am going to try to articulate how one goes from taking “better” snaps to making good images.

  2. As always, I enjoyed reading your article Andy. It is full of good advice and easy to read. I have only one comment RE “Rules are made to be broken.”

    Amen! But, IMHO, only when the photographer is so proficient with them as to be able to apply each and every one blindfolded, upside down, and backwards. In my own journey through light and landscape I find it quite helpful in times of harsh light to run through all of the so called “rules of composition” and their various sub-sets, snapping merrily away just as a musician would practice a score…then deleting the batch from my media card after a quick review of each.

    It’s such a small world too! I wrote this morning to a photographer mentoring with me: “From this point forward your assignment is no more than 3 frames per scene (1 over, 1 under, and 1 right on the money). When I download your Lightroom catalog I will be looking at the camera’s sequential image numbering–and I will be looking at each of those exposure sets; I don’t want to see any gaps.

    You must get to the point of thinking about your composition–planning it in your head and mind’s eye as perfectly as possible; observing everything in the scene so you know what to exclude and what to emphasize; evaluating the light so you can ballpark the EV closely–before your first peek in the viewfinder. That’s the only way you are going to begin assimilating all of the little bits and pieces that you’ve been learning.

    It’s where you have to get to before you can advance any more in the field. This is the first BIG hurdle. One can either take the time and hard work to master it, or continue doing what they do and add one more short-cut and bad habit to their bag of tricks that result in ho-hum images.”

    • Well said, Jim. As always, I am flattered that you find the time to read and comment on my blog! I plan to talk about “taking it to the next level” in future blogs. We are all at a certain level and needing to move to the next level. In that light, I not only agree with your comment about internalizing the rules — but I think it is instructive for all of us, no matter how long we have been at this, to revisit, review and renew these internalized rules from time to time. Also, I am still learning new rules (a number of them from you 🙂 ).

  3. […] a series of decisions and—most of all—a willingness to change. My recent Blog on this subject (What Do You Think of my Photographs?) suggested that sometimes, photographers aspire to taking their photography to art or professional […]

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