Photo Critique: Apache at Sunset

This photo was submitted for critique by Edward Garner.

This is a beautiful image taken near sunset in Afghanistan. I love the simplicity of the compositon and the strong graphics. There is a lot of drama in a shot like this.

Looking at the composition, the first thing I notice is the helicopter, which is a good thing. It’s the main focal point of the photograph and there is little question as to what this photo is about.

After the helicopter, I notice the sun, which makes a nice counterpoint to the helicopter. It’s also very interesting how the helicopter and sun are tonally reversed – the heli is black, the sun is white. A nice contrast.

One thing to look out for in a composition like this is that when you have two very strong elements the viewer’s eye can tend to “ping pong” back and forth between the two. In this case, I don’t think it’s a problem because the helicopter is strong enough to retain its dominance in the composition. (more…)

Photo Critique: Swinging with the Music

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This photo was submitted by Diana Birdwell.

I really like the black and white treatment; I think this is a perfect example of a shot that looks great in BW due to the graphic shapes and strong contrast.

I also like the title. Good titles are important for photos, especially in critique or competition environments where everything contributes to the overall impression created on the viewer.

This photo is chock full of lines and geometric shapes. What’s really cool is how the smooth, curving shape of the violin contrasts the harder, angular shapes of the swing. This kind of “contrast” is different that what we typically think of: tonal contrast. Consider that many strong images contain contrasts between various elements of the conposition: bold vs. subtle, large vs. small, soft vs. hard, smooth vs. textured, etc. As you’re making photographs may special attention to the juxtapositions you can create between elements, as these variations are what creates dramatic appeal.

The rhythm created by the repeating pattern of the chain links mimics the rhythm of the slats on the back of the swing. This is a very effective technique: use a lesser dominant element to subtly mimic a stronger element. This creates a sense of cohesiveness in the picture, even when the viewer may not perceive exactly why this is. The lines of the strings mimics the lines of the swing, etc.

A couple of suggestions that I think would improve the photo:

  1. Burning (darkening) the grass in the background will reduce the potential distraction from that part of the frame.
  2. Burning the lower left side, bottom and right corner will help hold the viewer’s eye within the frame and will draw more emphasis to the violin.
  3. Cropping the left side and a bit off the bottom to remove the angled, vertical support on the back of the swing would reduce distraction there, too, and further emphasize the violin.
  4. Finally, I would have recommended using a polarizing filter to reduce the glare on the front of the violin. This would have revealed more detail in the wood grain and also would have provided more contrast and variation in tone throughout the frame.

Nice image; thanks for submitting!

Photo critique: Diver

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This photo was submitted by Becky Kagan of Pennsylvania.

Let me start by saying I love this shot. The combination of a nearly featureless silhouette against an amazing background is simply stunning.

What makes this image strong is its simplicity. The subject is clearly identifiable and the photographer’s intention is clear. There’s no question of “what’s this a photo of?”.

That said, I do wish I could tell what’s in the left hand of the diver. Since the shape of the object is unidentifiable (I’m guessing it’s a conch shell?)  it might have been better to use an empty hand.

The only other suggestion I have is that the composition might be even stronger cropped to a square, or at least cropped in tighter on the sides. The dark areas don’t add much to the composition and might compete with the “darkness” of the diver.

On the whole, the strong subject, the incredible lighting and the simple composition make this a great image. Nice work!

Photo critique: Manatee

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This photo was submitted by Becky Kagan of Pennsylvania. Becky runs a photo/video production company called Liquid Productions that specializes in underwater imaging. (Check out her site; there’s some nice work there!)

In Becky’s photo submission she expressed some frustration with the shooting conditions and the processing of this photo. Below are my comments.

First, about the sky. Most outdoor photographers cringe at the very thought of photographing a solid white or gray sky, often with good reason. A featureless sky is seldom an ideal element in a strong photograph. The brightness can distract the viewer’s eye (we’re naturally drawn to bright objects in a photo) and since there is no detail present, it’s not very interesting. Of course, like every other “rule” of photography, there are exceptions.

When we go out for shoot, especially an elaborate event that has been shceduled, planned and coordinated to the nth degree, we’re forced to deal with what we find on location. For documentary photography and photogjournalism, this is seldom a problem. In fine art nature and landscape photography, the lighting and the condition of the sky becomes paramount.

This photo represents one of those situations in which the sky didn’t cooperate. This presentes the photographer with very few options:

  1. Don’t make the photographs at all; chalk it up to bad luck and pack it in for the day.
  2. Make the photos but avoid including the sky in the frame.
  3. “Fix it in post”, referring to the common practice of correcting flaws during computer processing.

To me, the first option is rarely an option. After all, I’ve made it to the location and have my gear ready… I’m gonna shoot, dammit! 😉 However, there are situations where it’s impossible to produce a strong image because of poor lighting. After all, photography is all about light.

The second option, excluding the sky altogether, sometimes is the best choice. If the sky is featureless, it probalby isn’t going to contribute anything meaningful to the photo, so leave it out.

Finally, the third option for faking it in the computer. Evern notice films where the sky has been made blue in post? All too often, it’s done poorly and looks obviously fake. So they key to pulling this off is having the technical chops to make it convincing.

So let’s see how all this applies to the photo here.

For starters, I have to say that this is an incredibly strong, compelling photo, purely for the subject matter and the way it’s portrayed. This kind of shot is difficult to get under any circumstances, so kudos to the photographer for getting a great image in spite of less than ideal conditions.

Interestingly, my critique has far less to do with the sky than it does the “models”, or the people in the frame. A couple of things I think would have improved the photo:

  1. Having the people on the boat pose or at least be sitting/standing in more appealing positions would have helped a lot. I find it quite distracting that the person at the front of the boat is facing away from the camera, almost as if the appearance of the manatees is a non-event.
  2. Similarly, the jacket and folded arms make it appear cold outside. Even if it was chilly, I’d have asked everyone to go short sleeve for the shot. The appearance of cold weather is incongruous with the subject and I find it to be a bit distracting from the overall theme.
  3. Now, about that sky. One option would have been to include less of it at the time of capture. At this point, a tigher crop might lessen the potential distraction caused by the bright sky. Alternatively, this is the kind of shot in which replacing the sky (called “compositing” for the act of making a composite image) would be very easy. The fact that the sky is so devoid of detail, solid and “smooth” would make masking and layering a new sky quick and easy. Obviously the trick would be using a sky that is believable; a blue sky with puffy white clouds might work, but a golden sunset would not. You could also use a simple blue gradient that fades out to white at the bottom.

Overall I think this is a strong image and I don’t find the sky to be a killer. That said, the lighting is flat and diffuse, which works great for under the water but is less than ideal for the scenery above. This is a case where conditions weren’t perfect and I think the photographer did a fine job of making the most of a unique opportunity.

Photo Critique: Butterfly

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This image was submitted by Diana Birdwell.

The subject filling the frame is good; it creates drama and leaves no question about the message and intent of the photo.

The backlighting of the wings is beautiful. This is a photo about light, as much as it is about a butterfly.

I’d recommend burning the bright spot at the top left of the frame; it’s very distracting.

Also, the proximity of the insect’s legs to the bottom of the frame seems a bit tight; more space there would be nice.