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Shooting People – What Makes A Photo Great?

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Related course: Photography for Beginners

I recently went back to a festival I worked at last year and I saw a friend of mine that I took a photo of last year, and I mentioned to him that I’d used that photo many time on my website, but he didn’t seem to understand why. I started listing off all the different elements that the photo has and how I can use it for different tutorials, and then it dawned on me that it’s easy to spot a good photo of people, but it’s not so easy to understand what makes them great.

Example 1

I often go through phases of which photos I like, sometimes I look at my portfolio and hate it all, and other times I love the lot of them. At the moment, I’m particularly pleased with this photo. It was shot on 800 speed film in my EOS 10 with my 35mm f/1.4. I’ve mentioned my love of shooting on film many times and this is a pretty good example as to why, the quality of grain and light is just not something you can get with a digital camera. Have a good look at the photo below and then we’ll have a good look at what I think is so good about it.A younger man in a public bathroom
The first thing you can’t really ignore about the photo is the colour. The brown walls appear to be almost green in the photo, and the same is also true for the blue toilet stall doors. The colours merge together to create an almost bizarre, but realistic scene which contrasts with the fairly accurate colour of the subject. The light reflecting off the surfaces in the toilet add some interesting colour shading on the subjects face, but nothing looks unnatural about it. Colour often has this sort of effect in low lighting situations when you’re shooting on film, and had this photo been taken using a digital camera, it would have looked photoshopped if it came out like this.
Because the film I used has a speed of 800, the grain in the photo is fairly visable, and unlike nasty off coloured grain that we’re used to with digital, the grain in this photo actually looks good. It adds an element of warmth to the photo as it softens the lines in the background. So from just the colour and the grain we have a warm and interesting photo, but that’s not enough to make this photo good, you need an interesting subject and background.
As I’m shooing on film and I’ve not included any particularly bright light sources such as the sun, the dynamic range of the photo is very good. It allows me to include a part of the light on the ceiling while still being able to capture the detail of the subject’s face, preventing it from becoming a silhouette. The grain helps to stop their jumper from appearing as a complete black, as a small amount of light is reflecting back off it. There are bright parts and dark parts to the photo, but only a very small amount of the photo is overexposed. This helps greatly to produce an interesting subject and background as we’re able to see both parts very well.
For me, the background is my favourite part of this photo, which is interesting as that is often the most overlooked part of a photo. Because of the good dynamic range, strong, but natural lighting, and grain, you can make out a lot of interesting details. I used this photo in my tutorial on using triangles as a composition technique and it’s easy to see why. The many lines in the background go off in seeminly random directions which eventually produce multiple triangles, and these contrast in shape and size with the air-freshener on the wall. There’s added visual weight with the sign on the door, but that is reduced somewhat by the writing being in a mirror and out of focus.  The lighting, lines, contrast, shapes, colour and dynamic range is what makes the background so interesting.
When you get down into the details of what makes this photo great, you start to ignore the reason for taking the photo in the first place, the subject. Without the subject, it’s unlikely this photo would have ever existed, I just saw him in the mirror and brought up the camera as he was looking up, and I took the photo. The focus is on him and the lighting creates some very natural shadows across his face and neck, which adds depth and texture and makes him stand out from the rest of the photo.
I’ve said it time and time again, but it’s important so I’ll repeat myself one more time: no part of your photo is more important than any other part, so make sure your background is interesting.

Example 2

This is the photo that I mentioned in my introduction, of my friend in Croatia. Again, this is shot on film, but other than the obvious grain, that’s not what makes this a great photo. This was shot on an old film camera, a Minolta SRT101, from 1964, probably at f/1.7 on 200 speed film. Have a good look at the photo below and see what you think makes it a good photo and then I’ll show you what I think. A slightly overweight man sitting behind a printer holding up two papers saying: The first thing that I notice about the photo is the balance and symmetry in the subject. Of course, it’s never going to be perfect, but as a shape, it works very well with the head acting as the fulcrum and the two signs acting as the weights. When we look at this photo in terms of visual weight, the left side of the photo carries more weight as the whole of that sign is in English and we can read it properly, whereas the right draws our attention for a shorter amount of time. The photo is well balanced because the visual weight of the table, printer and the sign on the left balances out the subject leaning their weight towards the right part of the frame.
The selective focus and shallow depth of field draws our attention to the signs before we look at anything, and again, to the left as that’s the way that our eyes look at a photo – from left to right. The quality of the film makes the signs appear as if they were almost photoshopped into the photo, rather then printed and held up to the camera. This crystal clear clarity helps to focus your eyes on that part of the photo first and for longer.
We’re then drawn to the eyes of the subject, which are out of focus, and interestingly, not looking towards the camera. Eye lines isn’t something I’ve covered in too much detail yet, but they carry a large amount of visual weight and can direct interest if they’re used properly. Had the eyes been looking straight down the camera lens, then then they wouldn’t have been that interesting but as they’re looking out of frame, it makes the photo more interesting as the viewer wonders where they’re looking, and increases the amount of time spent looking at the photo.
This photo is an excellent example of window light, not just on the subject, but throughout the office that they’re sitting in. The light came from the left of the frame and because the subject is quite far away, they’re illuminated very well, with very few shadows. The same can’t be said about the rest of the office though as the room gets darker closer to the ground as it’s shadowed from the window, by the table. This has produced a very natural graduation in the light and the top of the frame contrasts the bottom very nicely.
As far as composition goes, in my first photo, it was an obvious choice to adhere to the rule of thirds, but for this second example, it’s not quite the same. I typically don’t take photos of subjects with them in the center of the frame as it’s boring and predictable, but because the subject was essentially acting as a fulcrum for two different weights, it made sense in this situation. Whenever you take a photo, you should always pay careful consideration to the composition as it can make a huge difference to the way the viewer looks at a photo.
That’s all for this post, I hope you’ve enjoyed it and learnt something, it’s a new idea that I’m trying out, and I’ll eventually get around to covering many more types of photos. If you enjoy reading my writing, then I would encourage you to come and visit my Facebook fan page where I share more photos and advice with other photographers. Thanks for reading.A blonde boy in a garden holding a long stick

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5 comments
  1. I love this article on your blog. There’s lots of digital photography websites that are terrible out there, although this is simply not one of those. This style you chose genuinely increases the feel and also compliments this article wonderfully. I will revisit and view some more of your efforts. Cheers!

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