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What a Difference a Millimeter Can Make

Posted By Stanley Leary On July 29, 2007 @ 7:00 am In Art of Photography | No Comments

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In my last post I discussed the importance of taking enough photos of your subjects [2]. Once you’ve begun doing that, it’s easy to see how even a millimeter’s change in angle can make the difference between a good and a great photograph — or a good shot and a crummy one.

See the photos at left? The top picture isn’t so hot — but by just barely moving the camera, we can include the feet and anchor the photo for a greatly improved image.

If we print all the digital images from a shoot as large thumbnails, we’ll have several pages of images we can study side by side. This should give us some insight about our work that looking at our photos one at a time will never give us. Editing software, such as Photoshop, gives us the opportunity to rate photos from zero to five stars.

Here are eight factors to consider when determining whether you have any five-star photos in your next shoot.

1. Exposure. Not just the technically correct one, but the proper exposure for the effect we wish to convey. We can under-expose a little to emphasize graphics or overexpose (e.g., in fashion photography, to diminish skin tones or to emphasize eyes and lips).

2. Focus. I love selective focus where the depth of field is very shallow. This lets me direct the viewer’s attention to where I want it to go. It makes the subject pop out. We see this used in fashion and sports photography a lot. Just the opposite (a deep depth of field) may be just what is needed in landscape photos and certainly it is necessity in macro photography.

3. Composition. Medical students are told, “First, do no harm.” Photographers should take the same advice and leave out all unnecessary elements. All composition amounts to is the selection of what should be in and what should be out of the frame when we release the shutter. Speaking of framing, to add depth to a picture, frame it as you take it. Shoot under the branch of a tree or through a door or window. A frame is only one of many visual elements that can draw a viewer into our photo. Elements like leading lines will give it a three-dimensional feel. Anytime we can make someone feel as if they can see into our photography we have truly accomplished something. After all, it is only a two-dimensional object.

4. Lighting. Light can draw one into the photo, too. Light is probably, next to expression and body language, the most dramatic, mood-setting tool we have as photographers. The color temperature can be powerful. The warm late evening light, the cool early morning colors, or the green cast of fluorescent office light each carries a mood of its own.

5. Expression. Realtors like to say what matters is location, location, location. Portrait photographers KNOW that the composition may be beautiful, the lighting creative, the clothing and background perfect, but if the EXPRESSION isn’t what it needs to be … No sale! Is a smile what is needed? (By the way, never tell anyone to smile. Most adults can’t turn it on and off, and kids will come up with some rather unusual expression, but generally not a real smile. If, as a photographer we need them to smile, then it is up to us to elicit one from them.) Usually pictures of people should show their faces. Sounds obvious, but if our subjects are watching something happening, like a ball game or a birthday party, we must be sure we are not so distracted by the event that we forget what is important … the faces of our subjects.

6. Body Language. We can communicate a great deal about our subjects if we watch their body language. Watch their arms; it’s amazing what we say just by the position of our arms. Are they open or closed? Is the person in our photo leaning forward or backward? Does their position engage or pull back? Do they appear to be sensitive or cold? Are they reaching out to others or pushing them away?

7. The Eyes. An eye doctor may tell us that the eyes really don’t change. Perhaps that is true in a technical sense. Be that as it may, watch the eyes. They tell it all! The eyes are the essence of a portrait.

8. The Head. A millimeter’s turn of the head, a slight tilt is all it takes to make the difference between a zero and a five-star photograph.

This is in no way a comprehensive list, only a sampling of many things we need consider when “grading” our photos.

By moving the camera merely a millimeter, you can include someone’s feet rather than chopping them off, leave out or include another person and change the mood. Just a millimeter or so can keep the tree from growing out of your spouse’s head. Moving an inch to the left may let the camera see a person’s face a little better or distinguish the main subject from their surroundings.

When we shoot enough photos, we become aware of the difference just a millimeter’s change can make. It is then we begin to see why one photo is bad and another is good.

[tags]photography advice, Stanley Leary, photo composition [/tags]

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