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Globe critique: Black and whites by Dennis Sheehan

Posted by Eric Bauer, Staff  September 19, 2008 09:40 AM

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Dennis P. Sheehan has been taking pictures for five years, and though his friends tell him he's good at it, he'd like to know "the opinion of a true professional." Happy to oblige, Dennis. We've selected your photos to undergo the first in our series of monthly critiques by a Boston Globe staff photographer.

This month's evaluation was done by John Tlumacki, who has covered events from the Olympics to the fall of the Berlin Wall, for which he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. You can see a portfolio of John's work in the new section of devoted to Globe photography.

Dennis began shooting with an Olympus C-700 Ultra Zoom before graduating to a Canon EOS 20D DSLR. He edits his shots in Photoshop CS2.

Here's John's critique:

By John Tlumacki
Globe Staff

There’s a lot to like in your photos, Dennis. These are not typical “say cheese” family photos. All of them capture emotion, and none looks posed. That’s not easy to do.

Your photographic technique – your composition, choice of format, and use of depth of field to blur backgrounds – is quite good. My main advice: double check the details when you frame and focus.

Let’s look at your pictures individually.

Dennis P. Sheehan photo 1

This is a really pleasing image. I think it’s the best you submitted. Viewers are drawn in by the strong composition, and their eyes naturally flow from child to child. That kind of engagement is exactly what you want from a picture.

I also like that you’ve captured a candid moment. The picture doesn’t look set up. The children’s movements are natural and they don’t seem to be playing to the camera.

All of your photos do a good job of reducing distractions in the background so the focus is kept on your subjects. That’s not something many amateur photographers do well. You’re successful in part because of good technique, like your use here of a telephoto lens (265mm) and a relatively wide aperture (f/5.6) to narrow the depth of field. Your good sense of composition and effective use of black and white also helps.

What could you improve? Two things: First, the girl on the right has her feet cut off, which I find a little distracting. Second, the focus is a touch too soft. Your shutter speed (1/125 of a second) was just a little too slow to freeze the fastest movement, resulting in some motion blur.

All in all, though, this is a picture that could easily have run in the Globe. Good job.

Dennis P. Sheehan photo 2

This is a really nice portrait. The boy appears to have been crying, but it’s not a particularly sad photo. Instead, it makes me curious. What was going on?

Like your other pictures, this is well composed. The square dimensions work well with this tight crop, and again you did a nice job of blurring the background to avoid distractions. The boy’s eyes are sharply in focus, which is important in portraits.

Judging from the highlights, I’d say you used fill flash to good effect in what looks like an outdoor setting. That’s an important tip for amateurs. Using your flash for outdoor portraits can help even out harsh sunlight or make subjects stand out from the shade around them.

Dennis P. Sheehan image 3

Unfortunately, this photo is the runt of the litter. It’s obviously back-focused, meaning things in the foreground are blurred. In portraits, the focus should be on a person’s eyes. This picture is focused on the boy’s shirt collar.

Back-focusing often occurs when photographers get too close to their subjects for auto focus (or even manual focus) to work properly. You can avoid the problem by paying more attention to the focus information in your camera’s viewfinder. Again, in portraits like this, make sure the subject’s eyes are in focus.

The composition of the picture is fine. It’s framed so the background is not disturbing or distracting. If you’re going to take a close-up portrait, this is a good way to compose it.

Dennis P. Sheehan image 4

This photo has the same problem as the one of the three kids: his foot is cut off. Was it part of the original photo? Also, I’d like to see more of his face.

I do like the basic composition. The subject fills the entire frame, which gives the image impact. Parents everywhere will recognize that arm-outstretched-for-balance pose. It’s clear the child is involved with what he’s doing, and not with the camera. And once again, you’ve done a nice job of blurring what could have been a distracting background.

You have an eye for capturing the essence of your subject. It’s a talent. For me, capturing a moment that’s ordinary but not posed is the hardest part of being a newspaper photographer.

Dennis P. Sheehan image 5

Here’s another winning pose – look at her body language! You did the right thing by focusing on her face and not worrying about the focus anywhere else. Pay attention, though, to the viewfinder. You’ve clipped her toes off. That’s easy to do when you’re concentrating on getting the focus right. Try using the focus lock feature of your camera. It will allow you to get the focus you want, lock it in, and then recompose to make sure the shot is framed properly.

The chairs at the top are a bit of a distraction, but the tree adds some needed texture. Again, it’s good she’s not looking directly at the camera.

Only 2 or 3 percent of all photos are verticals, and sometimes verticals are the hardest to take. This one is nice.

All in all, these photos accomplish a lot, and they’re pretty close to where they should be. With just a little tweaking and re-framing, they’d be real standouts.

Thanks for sending them in, Dennis; you're doing a great job with your photography.


Interested in having your photographs critiqued by one of The Boston Globe's award-winning photographers? Just e-mail us up to 5 photos and a paragraph about why you'd like a critique. Here's more information.

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