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!

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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Some Practical Tips for your Consideration

From a practical point of view, agencies and clients like an offset image as it leaves space for copy.

When talking about composition in photography the discussion can become quite obtuse at times – quite complicated and even esoteric. We often throw around words and concepts like the Rule of Thirds or the Fibonacci Triangle, Visual Weight or Visual Mass. There’s a place for all this, but there’s also a place for something much more pragmatic. So today, I want to give you a couple of practical compositional advice. Continue reading

The Human Form Divine

Returning Home

 

“For Mercy has a human heart, Pity, a human face, And Love, the human form divine, And Peace, the human dress” William Blake

There is a principle of composition that is so strong it could be called a law. A law, not in the form of man made limitations, but in the sense of the undeniable , like the law of gravity.  The kind of law that may very well be unbreakable. It is what I call, “the law of the the human figure.” It states that in composition the human form trumps all else for visual weight. Continue reading

Depth of Field: Michael Freeman

Michael Freeman

Michael Freeman is one of the photographers I had wanted to interview for a long time. His book on composition, “The Photographer’s Eye” had become the first book I hand to new photographers. It is destined to become the classic treatise on composition – a must read for every photographer.

Michael is one of the most widely published photographers in the world. He has worked for most major international magazine and book publishers in a long career. A leading photographer for the Smithsonian Magazine for three decades (more than 40 assignment stories), He has also published more than 120 books on subjects as varied as Angkor, Sudan, ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia, the Shakers, and contemporary Japanese design and architecture. His 50 books on the practice of photography are standard works, and have sold almost two million copies in more than 20 languages. His contribution to teaching is the photography courses at the UK’s Open College of the Arts, now to degree level in the national curriculum. London-based, Michael Freeman travels for half of each year on shooting assignments, principally in Asia. His latest large-format reportage book is The Tea Horse Road, the result of a two-year exploration of one of the longest trade routes in the ancient world, between China and Tibet.

Visit his blog HERE.
His Open College of the Arts educational support website we talk about in the interview HERE.

You can listen to more Depth of Field podcasts HERE.

Four elements that can make your images stronger

Laughter

I’ve been taking some online training with Media Storm this past week. The first lesson dealt mostly with audio production. Brian Storm made a point in passing that each audio clip must have texture, sense of place, context and mood. This is true not only for audio but for images as well. For any image to communicate a story effectively at least a few of these elements will probably be present.

First I’ll offer a definition of each of these elements. Then I will identify these elements in three images. Continue reading

A Black Box

Fast as lightning.

All photos in this post taken by Jessie Brandon. Click on an image to view full size.

© Jessie Brandon, 2011

The debate over what is the best camera, best format of camera or even what is the best lens has been going on long before digital media ever was even conceived. I really had no plan to address this issue, but then something happened last night.

 

Mom on the beach

Last night my daughter got excited, again, about taking and making creative images. Here is the back story; we decided to go for a family walk on the beach. My wife loves to pick up driftwood and bring it back to the garden. But, last night there was no driftwood in sight. So we sat on some rocks on the edge of the ocean and watched a storm moved through. I pulled out my iPhone and opened up my Hipstamatic app and started snapping shots of my wife and the storm. Jessie, my daughter, soon grabbed my iPhone from my hands and started playing with it. In fact she got obsessed with it. I joked with her and suggested she should try to take a picture of the lightening lighting up the horizon, knowing there was no chance she would catch it with an iPhone. I showed her that if you hold the shutter button down how you can have it “triggered” and ready to go off as soon as you lift up your finger. It wasn’t a minute later that a lightning bolt struck, then one struck immediately afterward. Jessie lifted her finger off the shutter and shot her picture. She tried to catch the first, obviously not knowing there would be a second. But she captured the second bolt. I was amazed!

She got so excited that she started taking pictures of everything, our feet, us walking down the beach – everything. I’m always amazed at how good of a compositional eye my daughter has. What she doesn’t have is patients, at this point in life, to fiddle with f-stops and shutter speeds. I wish she did, but she doesn’t. And so, I’ve wrestled with how to keep her interested in something she’s obviously very talented at. Sometimes, I think to be a photographer you have to have a fancy camera with buttons and dials. But I’m seeing that the true photographer is the person who has the joy and excitement of creating moving artwork even if it is with an inexpensive app and an iPhone. The phone might be the way to keep Jessie’s interest in the medium. I bought her a Canon Rebel but it stays most of the time in my dry box. I guess it is a lot of effort for a 14 year old to get the camera out, shoot, then download the images to Lightroom or even iPhoto. But the iPhone seems to have that immediate gratification that she needs. Hipstamatic helps with that, giving her creative options with different lenses and film effects.

So what’s my point? The point is, fancy gear and tons of money is not necessary to make beautiful, artistic images. For fulfilling art, it doesn’t matter the camera or the lens. A camera is nothing more than a black box with glass. What matters is your vision. Can you express it in a creative and communicative way? For me, my expensive gear gives me a creative control. For Jess, for now, maybe the iPhone and this app is all she needs. Certainly, these pictures talk. They tell a story. They are the voice of a 14-year-old. And I think they speak loudly.

 

Dad and Mom

Mom

 

Dad

 

Make it Yours



Click on an image to view full size.

This is a short post today. Just long enough to encourage you to explore and stretch. I just wrote that the geek needs to play by the rules to develop an instinct, where as the artist can break the rules anytime. Note: I didn’t say anything about the geek bending the rules, or pushing the boundaries. Still, maybe this post is more for the artist. I hope we don’t get so bound by an idea that we can not rework it and have fun with it. I’m not talking about someone else’s photograph. I’m talking about concepts in both design and technique.

 

Take for instance the design concept of a frame within a frame. Most people when they hear this and often when it’s taught, they take the idea of a frame and literally put it just inside the frame of the photo. A typical example would be the photo above of the boys fishing. Here you have a frame created by a tree and the ground for three fourths of the image. Quite literally a frame within a frame. Better still, look at the image at the top of the three young Muslim boys standing in the archway a.k.a. the frame. It works, it’s a nice picture. But look below what happens when you pull out keeping the boys within the frame of the arch but including more arches and more of the story. Now you can see that the boys are actually in a madrasa. It is still a frame within a frame but much looser. Don’t be so literally bound by a concept or a teaching that you don’t have the freedom to push the edge and explore.

By the way, all the photo edges used in this post are from onOne Software‘s PhotoFrame 4.6

A Developed Instinct

 

New Delhi, India

Henri Cartier-Bresson said “In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.”  I think what he meant here by visual organization is basic design principles and composition. These are things that can definitely be developed over time and yet he still uses that word “instinct”. Continue reading