Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hit A Roadblock With Your Portrait Photography? Let's Round Up The Usual Suspects...

I taught a handful of photography subjects during my time living in South Florida, from black & white film and print processing, to studio lighting, to photo composition and critique. All were satisfying, as they helped open up new worlds to students, giving them tools to further their work, sometimes in surprisingly wonderful ways. But the most enjoyable by far were my classes on photo composition.

Sure, the equipment can be fun, the shooting can be fun, and the process can be fun, but what I tend to cherish most about photography is viewing and talking about photos. My photos. Your photos. Their photos.

And so, with that in mind, I'd like to pass along a little easy-to-remember visualization tool for making your photos (especially your people shots) stronger. I came up with this technique years ago, and it was usually the very first thing I taught my students. Not to brag, but sometimes the improvement of their images between the first class and the second was dramatic. Kind of like flipping a switch. Even if you've been doing this photography stuff for a while, you may find it helpful.

Start by picturing one of the most straight-forward, flat, unemotional, boring visual scenes out there: your typical police lineup. Here's a very well-known example:

Now, just for a second, try to ignore the fact that these are Hollywood actors projecting oddball personalities as part of the plot of the movie. If these were just your "average Joes" rounded up and used for a standard police lineup, trust me, this would be a very boring picture.

As I'm sure you realize, a police lineup intentionally lacks any kind of visual style. It is evenly lit, the subjects are evenly and symmetrically spread out, standing straight up and looking eyes forward, expressionless. They are all the exact same distance from the viewer. Everything is in focus. It's sole purpose is to impart clear and accurate information to the viewer.

Ok, now the fun part. If you start with this bland composition, any deviation from it will result in a stronger and more interesting photo. Think about that...

So, take your pick. Raise or lower your camera angle? The shot gets stronger. Angle your background so it recedes into the frame? The shot gets stronger. Group multiple subjects closer to one another asymmetrically or at different heights or distances? The shot gets stronger. Have your subjects interact and show emotions? The shot gets stronger. Throw parts of your scene out of focus? Move your light source around? Well, you get the idea...

That's really all there is to it. When you pose your subjects in photos, if you're struggling with your composition, try to keep the image of a police lineup in your head, and avoid its compositional pitfalls at all costs. Even if your portrait is of a single person, the visualization will usually hold true.

Class dismissed...