(photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
is so much fun and is a wonderfully satisfying pursuit, especially when
you understand how to take Good Pictures. Unfortunately as you progress
you will become more frustrated as you better appreciate how few
pictures are really successful.
Great pictures succeed because
they tell a story in a way that no other art form can match. They not
only capture the moment, they capture the right moment that brings a
photograph to life.
I was very impressed by this picture and the
detailed analysis that Mel Raab sent to me. It shows just how difficult
it can be to take a perfect shot even when it’s right in front of you.
took this on holiday in Italy on Murano, an island off of Venice where
they long ago placed the glassworks so as to not burn Venice itself down
in case of work accident. "Everything manufactured on Murano is
fragile. So imagine my surprise when I saw the DHL barge being loaded
with one toss of a box after another. I felt I had to capture the
unexpected," he explains.
Mel shows one of the first
characteristics of a good photographer: He spotted a great story-telling
opportunity – fragile glass and DHL thrown boxes. Juxtaposition is a
powerful method of creating impressive photojournalistic pictures.
trouble was, as soon as my camera came out, the workers stopped and
scowled. It was clear they didn't like being caught taking shortcuts,"
he explains. "From the way they were looking around, it also wasn't
clear if they had friends on shore who were going to enforce their
desire for us to be gone. I felt it best to not antagonize them.”
We all face this situation at one time or another but Mel showed the
second characteristic of a good photographer – resourcefulness: “I asked
my wife to stand an equivalent distance away and focused on her.” By
half-pressing the shutter button he locked the focus, then turned around
and quickly took a shot.
“As I fiddled with the camera, the number of boxes on shore quickly
diminished. I took this shot when the last box was tossed aboard. I felt
so elated at my timing; I felt I had caught a fun photo that juxtaposed
the fragility of glass with the tender care of a teamster,” Mel says.
“Only it didn't work out that way when I got home. I showed this photo
to people and found they didn't know what they were looking at; they
didn't know what was going on." Mel disappointingly explains. "The action was in the distance. The
markings indicating fragility were on the other side of a pier, on
crates rather than a similar box, and with low contrast. The flying box
wasn't differentiated well from the background.”
Mel is not alone in finding it difficult to stand back and see his
picture as other see it. I’m impressed, however, with this analysis. If
you don’t take the trouble to discover why a picture doesn't work,
you’ll never understand how to take pictures that do work.
He has since tried enhancing the picture and cropping it “to pull out
more cues” but finds that any changes just make it less informative,
less interesting, and less compelling. This tenacity is a quality that
photographers need if they are ever to succeed in creating interesting
shots. Constructive criticism
My method of constructive criticism consists of answering the three
simple questions. We’ll practice it on this picture but our aim is not
hindsight. We need to be able to use it on the spot, before we take a
picture, as we take the picture and as we check the result on the
preview screen:What works?
This is a pleasant enough picture of an exotic location.What does not work?
The focal point is a large central pole but this clearly can’t be why
the picture was taken. A gondola would draw my attention but this
mundane barge doesn’t. The buildings are interesting but can’t be the
subject. I feel the workmen could be the focal point but the large pole
that obscures one of them draws my attention away.Could it be improved, and how?
The photographer could have moved a few steps to the left to separate
the workmen from the pole, and moved closer to emphasize the throwing
This critique shows just how far removed the picture is from the
photographer’s intention. There is no mention of fragile glass, DHL, or
throwing, hence no effective juxtaposition.Capturing the moment
Is there anything that could have been done to tell the story that is
missing? One solution would have been feign interest in something else,
then turn away and drop the camera to your side but still pointing at
the workmen. Gentle pressure on the shutter button would lock the focus
on them. You could then quickly move to a position with some boxes
between yourself and the workmen, especially if they had the “Glass
Fragile” words in view.
As you lift the camera to eye level you fully press the shutter button
while it briefly points at the workmen, then turn it to take a few shots
away from them. If the camera was in kept burst mode, say three frames
per second, you would have a few shots of the men with close-ups of the
“Glass Fragile” boxes.
Here’s the shot retouched to show an idealized version.
Methods of candid photography are too difficult to think up and carry
out on the spot so need to be well practiced beforehand. The odds are
that you would still not have a successful picture, but this is par for
the course. Occasionally you will catch a gem that makes it all
Frustration is a photographer’s friend. It makes us more determined to
get the shot next time and do whatever it takes. I sense in Mel’s
detailed description and analysis that next time he will be more
prepared: “I can tell you I have a new appreciation for photos from
Weegee and from photojournalists who catch action in the moment in an
unambiguous way,” he explains. If you are aspiring to develop your
photography skills, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end
of my next article with some constructive feedback.
Send one picture only, at a reduced size to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at: www.langford.co.il/courses/