If you were listening in last week when I was doing one critique after another at the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference, you would have heard a theme to my comments.
First, I like also to review all the photos before I comment. This way I can categorize some of the comments that apply to some if not all the photographs.
Second, I usually find a positive attribute of his or her work. Sometimes I might be pointing out how I can see why you might be interested in that subject. My point is I think there is usually a small redeeming factor to make you stop and make a photo.
Third, probably the number one thing that I say to people starting don’t center their subject. Use some rules of composition to help guide the audience and make the composition more interesting. We might talk about rule-of-thirds, leading lines, framing and of course using light as a way to help improve the photograph.
Fourth, most everyone I find struggles with the edges of the photograph. They see the subject and haven’t quite made all the stuff around the subject and within the frame to work together to create a strong photograph. We might have things growing out of their heads or parts of the body cropped funny.
Fifth, one of the things I struggle to this day with myself is my camera drifting up. I end up with more space at the top of the frame and not really doing a good job anchoring the photo at the bottom of the frame.
Everything I have mentioned up to now is the fine-tuning thing one does to improve the photograph. You might compare what a photographer does to a sniper. The sniper takes aim with a rifle at a target a long way off. They will do everything to keep the barrel as still as possible. They will even control their breathing and fire the rifle in between heartbeats. If they do not control these minute details they will miss their mark.
When photographers do not pay attention to the minute details like the sniper they too will miss their mark and the message will not come across to the audience.
Sixth, up to a couple of years ago I would have stopped here. But this is when I am now ready to talk to those who do photojournalism about the most important thing they can concentrate on the most to improve their photos—the subject.
I believe until you know the subject well and not just on a mental level, but with your heart you will not connect the audience with the subject at a level to move an audience to action.
As I go through the photos with the photographer, I ask them questions like: What did you want me to know about your subject? How did you feel about the subject?
You don’t have to ask this question with photographers at the top of their game—you feel like you know their subjects from their photographs. The reason I ask this question is to reveal what I think is the core value missing with many photographers today.
Most of the photographer’s answers to those questions were—I don’t know. To which my reply was then how do you expect the audience to know anything or care?
I you look at any photograph and it brings up feelings of warmth or sadness, I can assure you the photographer felt this. Most likely the photographer is crying behind the camera when you cry from one of their photos. The photographer is smiling when he made the photo of the joy in a child’s eye. The photographer is pissed when you see something that angers you in their photos.
Do you want your photos to look better? My advice is to get to know your subject and know what you want to say about them. Get to know them so well that your heart is moved to emotions and not just a mental understanding of the story. When you know what you want to say and how you want to portray the subject, then you will place the subject in the frame at the best place and wait for the moment and the light to all convey what you want to say until you feel it in your viewfinder.
If you don’t know what to say and you are not feeling it behind the viewfinder—put down the camera ask some questions and get to know them better. My faith teaches me that all mankind is made in the image of God. I pray that I see the world with my heavenly father’s eyes.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”