6 Ways to Improve your Photography Portfolio: The Goldilocks Principle


 

I call it the Goldilocks Principle in editing. Of course, you remember the story of Goldilocks. The little girl who stumbled into a cabin with three bowls of porridge and three beds. One bowl of porridge was too hot, one too cold and one was just right. In the same way, one bed was too hard, one too soft, but one was just right. Apparently, Goldilocks was a ruthless editor. She didn’t settle for anything but what she wanted. She didn’t settle for anything – she knew what she wanted. If Goldilocks were a photographer, she would have a killer portfolio.

Over this past week or so I have been working with a photographic mentee/student. The biggest issue out of the gate has been she has way too many photos in her portfolio. Many of which are not up to the standard of what she is capable of. I get it. Being ruthless to one of your children is hard. As photographers, we have to be disciplined and practice tough love on our portfolio. We want to allow viewers to leave wanting more. Here are six principles (questions) to help you do just that.

1. Is the image technically correct?

 

By “technically correct” I mean is it exposed correctly; is the subject, whatever that might be, in focus or is it soft? Did you push the ISO too far is it grainy?

I love intentionally blurry images. But if an image is blurry because of carelessness then, most of the time it needs to be tossed (there is that happy accident). Soft images are not artistic, they are…well, soft. If a photo is not your best work then it doesn’t need to be in your portfolio. As far as a soft image in your portfolio is concerned, there is one exception, and this brings us to the second point.

2. Does the image show emotion?

 

Emotion is a powerful force and can cover a multitude of technical sins.

There is a passage in the Bible that says, “…love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8). In this case, we can broaden the emotion of love to almost any type of visible emotion; anger, sadness, laughter, really any emotion that can appear on a subject’s face can cover or shall we say, override many technical errors. We see this in photojournalism all the time. An image with powerful emotion trumps a technically flawless one without emotion. Some people might argue that John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller during the Kent State shootings was technically flawed. In the original photo, we see a pole that appears to be sticking up through Vecchio’s head. But the image is so profound and so full of emotion that this isn’t important. Emotion in a picture trumps almost any other compositional or technical aspect.

So all this to say, does your photo have emotion? If it does, then there is a good chance it’s a keeper.

3. Is the subject the subject?

 

Don’t be afraid to move in close to your subject.

Do your photos have clear subjects? Ok, so you have a photo of a village. Why? What’s in it? Is there a person that important? Maybe a building that is unique? Is there an unusual pattern or shadow at play? The viewer’s eyes need to be drawn to something. If we can’t see it pretty quick, then it’s pointless. It just isn’t interesting.

I often see images by students that are shot wide. I love shooting with a wide angle lens, but you have to make sure that in a wide image there is a clear subject for the viewer to focus on. When shooting a wide or ultra wide lens, think about putting the subject off-center, nearer the edge of the frame, this might add a slight amount of distortion, but this could help the subject be more dominant within the frame.

Always remember the famous quote by war photographer, Robert Capa “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

4. Is the image uniquely mine?

 

Look at your image and ask yourself, “Is this my image or am I trying to channel Steve McCurry?” It is ok to be influenced by other photographers or artist, but don’t try to be them. We already have a Steve McCurry or an Amy Vitale. What we need is a [insert your name here] image. If there is one thing I see the most on my workshops is participants trying to be Steve McCurry. Find your style. I have had many people tell me that they can always tell a Matt Brandon image. I am not sure that is entirely true, but it does tell me that I have created a unique style of my own and this is just what you want to achieve. How do you do this?

Honestly, it happens over time. You take influences from those significant photographers and you borrow a little of this and a bit of that. Everyone is influenced by a mentor. That’s kind of the point on a mentor. I doubt anyone’s style is 100% their own, certainly not from the start. But over time you mold it to what you like and who you are and it becomes your photography, your style.

 

5. Does the images have context?

 

This photo is rich with context. A Hindu priest leaves a temple that is adorned with the Indian imagery.

I like my images to tell a story and a good story needs context. Imagine I am telling you a story, but all I did was describe how the main character looked. I don’t say what country the story takes place. I don’t say anything about the weather or if the location is crowded or not (not to mention develop a plot). All I do is describe the person. That is no story. If all you ever make is tight portraits, then your portfolio is going show you are a portrait photographer. Maybe that’s all you want. But if you want to keep people’s interest, mix things up. Shoot wide, medium and close-up and include context. Mix up your lenses. I shoot primarily with a wide-angle, 10-24mm (16-35mm full frame). Why? It includes context.

Many, many years ago, (1985?) I had a National Geographic photographer do a short portfolio review for me. I had two images of two different little Nepali girls. Each image was a tight head and shoulders crop of a shirtless child in black and white. I thought they were stunning. His comment was, “I have no clue as to where this photo was taken; New York? In a studio? India? You need to pull out and give me context!” He was right. If you are taking “travel” imagery, then allow the viewer to travel through the image. Travel images need to transport people to the location of the photo. We do this through context.

Context can be communicated through anything from clothing like a turban or a ratty t-shirt to writing on a wall, or a statue. These give contextual clues to the location, timing, and environment of the photo.

6. Was the image premeditated?

 

 

What do I mean by that? So many photos I see in carelessly or quickly edited portfolios are images that were taken on the fly. Photo walks can be fun but in my opinion, rarely provide the photographer with images that are well thought through and executed. I can almost always pick out a photo that was “snapped” on the fly. These images feel like a stolen moment and often convey a sense of voyeurism. Your images need to be premeditated, thought through and executed. What angle will communicate the best context? Do I want the subject camera aware or not? What you leave out of the frame is just as important as what you put in, and if you are grabbing an image on the fly, then you are, in the words of Ansel Adams, not making a photograph, you are taking it.

In the image above I saw the yak butter lamps and the light and I knew I wanted to photograph them. But the lamps by themselves were not very interesting, at least not to me. I knew it needed more to make a story. So I waited for the human element; people lighting the lamps. I shot the photo with one hand lighting the candles. It was, OK. But, then another person entered the frame and added symmetry. This was the shot.

There are more points I can add to this list, but if you will just concentrate on these six points and not be satisfied with cold porridge and hard beds, you will have upped the quality of your portfolio several times over. Go be Goldilocks!

Matt Brandon Vlog 13: Photographing Iconic Scenes

In this video I look at my struggle to photograph the iconic Tak Bat, alms giving ceremony that takes place every morning in Luang Prabang, Laos. The inherent problem with photographing something that has been photographed millions of times is there is very little chance of making a unique photo.

In this video, I explore my struggles at photographing an event that has been happening every day for who knows how long? This was not an easy task, and frankly, one that I think I failed at. But we learn from our failure, and this is why I am sharing the experience. The big difficulty is the culturally sensitive limitations that are put on the visitor during the Tak Bat, and rightly so. Here are just a few are:

  • Keep your head below that of the monks.
  • Don’t touch a monk.
  • Don’t use flash
  • Keep a distance from the monks.
  • Be respectful of the devotees.
  • And a few more.

 

This was my first time to watch this event. We choose to go out where there were not tourists. It was an area that my host knew and had relationships with the devotees. We check with the devotees if we could sit where we sat. They granted us permission. Honestly, I was extremely tempted to use flash, but I resisted and did not use it. Granted, I did push the boundaries on proximity to the monks and in looking back, I probably wouldn’t do that again. But in my defense, we asked, and we got the locals devotees approved. I sat on the ground, so I was never above even the smallest monk. I say all to help you understand the extent we went to be both culturally sensitive and still get the photo.

In this video, I also give photographers a quick tip on how to better view your vertical (portrait) images on the back of your camera’s LCD.

Below are the images that appear in this week’s video.

 

Here I was literally sitting in a drainage culvert to get this angle.

 

This was close to what I imagined. But without using a flash, the morning clouds proved why too bright and overpowered the scene. My attempt to burn in some sky was useless and did more harm than good.

 

By switching locations and shooting across from the procession I focused on the devotees rather than the monks. This was better but I don’t like her hand in front of her eyes.

 

This is perhaps the best image as I manage to arrange all the element close to what I want.

 

Later that same day we stumbled on a gathering of monks. It was like a school assembly.

 

Children get bored with assemblies no matter what the culture.

 

This photo is my favorite image of the trip. So much emotion and life in this photo.

 

Here is one of those images that you see a setting and you wait for someone or something to enter the frame. That is just what I did here.

 

Early the next day we went back out to my host’s neighborhood and saw a group of local monks leaving the local Wat (temple). Knowing they would return in 30 minutes or so I set up across the street and got this.

 

 

Interestingly enough, this image was taken at the precise moment the florescent light in the archway was going off. Thus the yellow glow and the lack of light. It also gave it the best look and feel. The only real issue I have with either of these photos is that I have lost the story. These pictures don’t tell the story of the Tak Bat. These are just images of monks walking through a gate in the early morning.

 

Kuang Si Falls, another location that is practically impossible to get a unique photo of.

 

Downriver of the falls is this water wheel. I used off camera flash to light the wheel. Alou acted as my VALS (Voice Activated Light Stand).

 

 

Learning to be a good photographer

Everyone has a camera. Learning what to do with it is the challenge.

Everyone has a camera. Learning what to do with it is the challenge. Photo by Matt Gillooley

Learning to be good at photography is a lot harder than most people let on. We’ve all heard it countless times how nowadays everyone’s a photographer. That may be true, however when I was first learning I never had the guts to call myself a photographer. I never felt my images were good enough to claim this skill. I may have owned a camera, but did that make me a photographer? So how does one improve?

I went to a brick and mortar school. But if I would be honest, I don’t think it help me that much. I didn’t really start growing in my photography till after the digital era began. I could browse the net looking for classes or website that might help.

Enter e-books.

Over the past several years photographers have started coming out with how-to photography e-books.  Just as the digital world made cameras accessible to everyone, e-publishing has done the same with knowledge. But let’s not stop there: video. YouTube and Vimeo have changed the way we learn.

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Facing Your Flash Phobia

off-camera flash, Jinbie HB600, Expose for the background

Here is Nayoung being a temporary model so I can adjust the background exposure and the power of the flash.

If you have spent any amount of time on my blog, you know that I have a phobia about off-camera lighting. I love to use on-camera flash and play with dragging the shutter. But off-camera – that’s the kind of stuff that makes my palms sweat and my body break out in hives. I am not sure why it is so befuddling for me. Maybe it has to do with my many learning disabilities or the fact that I waited way too long to learn this trick and now I am an old dog. Whatever the reason, it has been a journey of two steps forward, one step back.

background exposure, test shot, Jinbie HD 600

This is photo is pretty much right out of the camera. This was pretty close to what I wanted for my background exposure.

My off-camera flash mentor is Piet Van den Eynde, my Miyagi of light. You may recall, Piet sold me his Jinbei HD600 strobe. It is a 600-watt monster that competes with the big boys like ProFoto’s B1, only at about a third or less of the cost. It is the Jinbei that I have been using to confront my fears. Why the Jinbei and not a speed light? Well, for one thing, it is entirely manual and believe it or not, shooting manually with a flash is proving easier for me and is giving me a great foundation. Once you learn the fundamentals, only then can one move on. Wax on, wax off. Another reason I chose the Jinbei is because it is so powerful; it can overpower the sun and allow me to use this flash anytime and anywhere.

Whenshooting in manual it really is just a mater of taking a shot and making the adjustments. Here the flash needed more power.

When shooting in manual it is just a matter of making an exposure then adjusting it. In this exposure, the flash needed a lot more power.

For the past few weeks, I have been getting to know a couple of new photographers in my town, Simon Bond, and Pete DeMarco (another Pete). Simon and Pete are both relatively new to the area; they arrived here while I was away in the U.S. over the past year. These guys shoot a very different style than I shoot.. They are more into creative techniques and photo magic such as  light painting.

Simon and Pete invited me to try out light painting.  Simon has a new toy he is still learning to use. They wanted to introduce me to light stick called a Pixelstick.  They suggested we go to the very southern tip of the island to a place called Vanilla Bay and shoot against the sunset. The only real issue is there has not been a significant sunset for many days. It has rained every day here since arriving back to Malaysia in September. But the weather changes here by the minute, so who know? We risked it and drove to Vanilla Bay.

We were a rather large group: Pete and his partner Nayoung, Simon and his wife Jayoung, Vijiakumar Shunmugam from a local Facebook photo group,and Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend Yaan Sin Lee. Qmin acted as our model.

Pete, Simon and their respective partners and I arrived early to scout the right location and set up the gear. Sometimes the best moments are serendipitous. As we arrived I noticed two boys flying red balloons from fishing poles. The boys were silhouetted against a late afternoon sky.his was too good to pass up.

I quickly asked Nayoung to stand in as my model while I frantically tried to get the exposure of the sky correct. What I have learned, (wax on) is to first expose your scene for the background. Get it as dark or as light as you want it. Of course, all this is done in manual mode. On my X-Pro2 I needed a flash sync of 1/250 sec. so I simply adjusted the aperture to get the desired exposure.

A side note here: the biggest enemy in my photography and I would wager in yours is panic. I was quickly trying to get the exposure before these boys left or their balloons popped. I kept telling myself, “Slow down!”

 

Jinbei HD 600, Vanilla Bay Balancing ambient light and flash.

Eventually, it all comes together!

 

Jinbei HD 600, Vanilla Bay Balancing ambient light and flash.

Serendipity!

 

It's a good feeling to get it right in the camera.

It’s a good feeling to get it right in the camera.

Once I got the background exposed the way I wanted it I had to set up the flash unit and softbox. “It is still pretty bright out, do I use the grid or not?” Trial and error. I left it off for the time being.  I told myself, “Just set it up and take a few frames to balance the exposure on Nayong (wax off).” It was way too light. I needed to lower the power of this monster. Bam! I got it!

Above are the results of my effort. But it was only after a few frames, and the boys left. Of course not without a portrait of their own.

 

Chrysmic Qmin

Chrysmic Qmin

 

Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend. An impromptu couple shot between setups.

Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend. They asked for an impromptu couple shot between setups.

 

Later that night I became the VALS or Voice Activated Light Stand ;-).  In other words, I held the light all night. But it gave me a chance to observe Simon and his Pixelstick in action. I began watching how he maneuvered it. I had to try. I had an idea. Could I make angel wings? If I turned on the stick while standing behind her and moving the stick to form a wing then turning it off and repeating the same move on the other side it should make wings. In theory. The problem is, I can’t stand behind her when the flash is popped. So I have to run out and after the flash goes off start drawing my wings. Easier said than done on coral rock at night with a 5 foot Pixelstick  in your hand.

 

My first attempt at angel wings looked more like a peacock tail!

My first attempt at angel wings looked more like a peacock tail!

 

After thinking it through , this was a much better attempt. Not bad for two tries.

After thinking it through , this was a much better attempt. Not bad for two tries.

 

On my first try I just about broke my ankle (actually cut it on the coral) Oh well, the show must go on. The second try was better. Maybe the blood loss slowed me down. By this time of night, everyone was exhausted and frankly, it was time to go home.

 

 

A good night of inspiration and hard work using new tech. It was also a night of relearning old lessons: don’t panic, slow down, be purposeful.

Tomorrow I am off to some pretty fun places with my piece of tech, my Fujifilm X-T2. Be looking for new photos and some thoughts on this amazing little camera in the days to come.

Announcing the 2nd Location Portraiture & Lighting Masterclass in Varanasi, India

banner Masterclass

 

I am pleased to announce the second Location Portraiture and Lighting Masterclass in Varanasi, India. Well, ok it’s really the second time we’ve run the class, but the first time we’ve used this name. I am teaming up again with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Guru and Wizard of Light Piet Van den Eynde. We will be releasing full details in the days to come. But let me assure you this will be an amazing class! Piet and I have been working all winter hammering out the details to make this class one that will be both highly educational, exciting, challenging and memorable and I think we have succeeded. We will be covering techniques and skills that are often skipped over on other workshops of this price or length. We will be covering the broad topics of: Continue reading

Layer Your Image for Narrative Depth

Most of the time when photographers talk about layers in a photo, they speaking about postprocessing in Photoshop. In this post, I am talking about visual and narrative depth in an image. To make a photo visually appealing, you need to create a sense of depth both physically as well as narratively.

Given that most cameras do not have stereo vision and so by default shoot a two-dimensional image, creating a sense of depth has always been an issue for photographers. We are always struggling how to translate depth into only two dimensions. So we have to suggest at depth. We do this in a very simple way.

  • Example of lack of depth
    This valley is certainly dramatic and the side of the valley leading up to the edge of the frame does give it some depth. But look at the next image...

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A Photographic Growth Spurt

Someone once told me, a photographer, not to take a photo of them but a video instead. This statement was not to be taken literally; it was more of a metaphor for how we look at people and form opinions. The idea is we all change. What she was trying to say was she is not the same person she was ten years back as she is today, don’t view her by her past. Take a video, because we all change. If someone was to form an opinion of who she is, view her for who she is today, not a static image of her from 10 years ago. Continue reading

What camera should a beginner buy?

Stident on old collage chum George Neal had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he ugraded his camera to a X-T1. Here is George on the left with both camera next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.

Student and old college chum, George Neill, had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he added an X-T1 to his kit. Here is George on the left with both cameras next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.

One of the more frequent questions I get asked, is “What is the best camera I should buy if I am a beginner?” Honestly, these days there are so many choices, which can make it confusing and overwhelming. But the reality is it doesn’t have to be. I tell newbies to step back, take a breath and answer a quick question or two. Then I give them usually one, possibly two answers. They are almost always happy if they follow my advice. Continue reading